Singing, cheering and clapping, more than 300 teens from the Diocese of Syracuse joined 2,000 other teens in the Finnegan Fieldhouse at Franciscan University of Steubenville on July 9, impatient for the worship band to take the stage and open the 34th annual High School Youth Conference. Several teens ran back and forth in front of the stage, leading the rest of the audience in the wave.
“I’m looking forward to learning more about the sacraments, so that I can teach a friend back home what they’re all about,” said Patrick Pennise, of St. Helena’s in Sherrill.
Worship leader Bob Rice and his band bounded on stage as the lights came up and the fieldhouse erupted in cheers. For the rest of the evening, Rice led the youth in songs of praise, while popular Catholic musician and youth minister Bob Lesnefsky and other speakers began to unpack the weekend’s theme, “The Word Became Flesh.”
Lesnefsky shared the story of his past year with the teens, in which he suffered three strokes. “The third time, I was completely alone,” he told them. “You are never alone. The Word of God became flesh to die our death, so that we would never have to be alone.”
After Eucharistic adoration, the teens gathered to discuss the evening.
“It’s amazing to find others the same age, who believe the same things and are experiencing Christ and who He is together with you,” said Catherine Gibbons, from the Church of the Nativity in LaFayette.
Chaperone Tricia Pennise, from St. Helena’s, agreed. “Coming here they can see so many other young Catholics together, and learn that they can be Catholic and still be cool.”
Saturday morning dawned gray and chilly, but the Syracuse teens woke up quickly during an energetic talk by Catholic musician Kelly Pease.
“Our culture says that sexuality is something that you take and use for yourself, but when you do that, you’re saying that the human person is disposable,” Pease told the teens. “Sexuality is something that you give, and that gift really only works in the context of marriage when you commit to each other freely, fully, faithfully and fruitfully.”
For the rest of the day, teens and chaperones had the opportunity to participate in workshops on personal prayer, the Mass, evangelization, and purity in dating. The sacrament of Reconciliation was also available, and youth eagerly embraced the opportunity, standing in long lines for more than an hour for the chance to talk to a priest. Over the weekend, 1,300 teens received the sacrament.
“It’s incredible how it touches them,” said Jason Hage, a seminarian for the diocese currently serving at Ss. John & Andrew in Binghamton. “Some girls from our group were talking about how confession opened their hearts to Christ.”
For many teens from Syracuse, Saturday night’s Eucharistic adoration was the high point of the weekend.
“The presence of God is so powerful!” said Chrissa Guy of St. Joseph’s in Endicott, who will be attending Franciscan University in the fall.
Father Chris Celetano, from Ss. John & Andrew, explained to teens from his parish that the monstrance is made of gold “because we give God the best we can. We’re called to do the same in our bodies.”
Sunday morning, the boys gathered in the Glory Tent with John Beaulieu, director of Youth and Young Adult Outreach at Franciscan University, and the girls gathered in the fieldhouse with Kelly Pease to talk about chastity and how to become the person God intended them to be. Chastity pledge cards were handed out to all of the youth, and they were encouraged to take them home and pray about the decision to sign them.
The weekend concluded with Mass, which was alive with the energy of 2,200 youth in love with their faith and the Lord, fully participating in the liturgy.
“I’m amazed and impressed by their focus, commitment, and passion about Christ,” said chaperone Mike Swan of St. Leo’s in Tully.
“You can feel your faith physically here,” said Stephen Gibbons of the Church of the Nativity. “Leaving here you’re not afraid, because it gives you strength to go out into the world.”