Story by Ken Downey | Correspondent
The theme of this year’s National Catholic Youth Conference was “Called,” so it was appropriate that 35 teens and youth ministry leaders from the Diocese of Trenton would travel roughly 700 miles to join thousands of Catholic youth from across the country with one goal in mind: to worship and grow with God.
“Meeting so many people who have the same beliefs as me was [great],” said Bridget Farrow of St. Mary Parish, Colts Neck. “I could share my thoughts with them and not feel like I was being judged.”
Farrow was one of the more than 20,000 Catholic youth to take part in the biennial NCYC from Nov. 16 to 18 in Indianapolis’ Colts’ Lucas Oil Stadium. In addition to opportunities to participate in Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament and the Sacrament of Reconciliation, each day included worship and Mass in the stadium and workshops in the adjoining convention center that ranged from the types of music teens listen to and how Jesus factors into romantic relationships to migration issues, stress and how to embrace both joy and sorrow in one’s life.
Dan Waddington, diocesan director of Youth and Young Adult Ministries, who accompanied the Diocese’s teens and youth ministry leaders from five parishes – St. Joseph, Toms River; St. Martha, Point Pleasant; St. Joan of Arc, Marlton; St. Mary of the Lakes, Medford, and St. Mary, Colts Neck – said joy was a particular theme he feels young people needed to hear.
“I think our world is heavy,” Waddington said. “Young people are inundated with a lot of negative in their worlds, and it can be very easy to miss God’s love and joy. Events like this, and surrounding yourself with a community that feels God’s love, helps you to feel God’s love. It helps you to know it’s there.”
Among that community were hundreds of priests, deacons and religious men and women as well as the conference’s speakers and artists, including Chris Stefanick, who has brought his popular program “Reboot! Live!” to the Diocese; Society of Our Lady of the Most Holy Trinity Sister Miriam James Heidland; motivational speaker Brian Greenfield; Christian hip hop artist TobyMac, and songwriter Matt Maher. Archbishop José Gomez of Los Angeles celebrated the closing Mass.
Each evening, after a day of workshops and faith-sharing, Waddington said he and Jerry Wutkowski, the diocesan department’s ministry assistant, brought the Diocese’s group together for prayer and to talk about the highlights of the day.
During one session, Waddington said he asked the teens what lessons they would be bringing home from the event and how the youth and leaders may be different now than when they first arrived.
“On a spiritual level, I feel that this was a time I saw God calling to me,” said Barbara Arellano of St. Joseph Parish. “This was the actual moment I saw him in the present surrounded by all these people in the stadium.”
Worshipping as a group of thousands had a profound effect on others, too.
“Adoration was probably my favorite part,” Farrow said. “It was just such a powerful experience to see [20,000] people just all kneeling in the stadium and it being completely silent.”
She added that Confession was also moving “because you were in the stadium, and you got to look at everyone who was sharing the same experience with you.”
Paul Xerri of St. Mary of the Lakes Parish said he was also taken with the enormity of the Liturgy. “I never imagined doing Adoration in a football stadium, and it was just such a cool experience.”
Linda Dickinson-Pancila, youth minister leader in St. Mary Parish, called her first experience at NCYC eye-opening, especially by the scope of the closing Mass.
“On a spiritual level … seeing the over 20,000 people where normally a concert or game would be played was incredible,” she said.
Xerri agreed. “It was a breathtaking experience just watching everyone. From receiving Communion to singing along, it was a great way to spend our last night.”
Waddington said that the youth conference challenged the teens to really have an encounter with Jesus through faith.
“[NCYC] invited kids through Adoration, through the Sacrament of Reconciliation and through celebrating Mass and praying the Rosary together to meet Jesus in a profound way.”
Those on the trip said they took these challenges to heart and hope to return for NCYC 2019.
“This is definitely something I would do again,” Farrow said. “It was really fun, and I got to meet a lot of different people from around the country. It was a good experience.”
Added Xerri, who is a high school senior, and whose mother is youth ministry coordinator in St. Mary of the Lakes, “If I can get out of college to go back in two years, I’ll definitely be there. I could chaperone with my mom; that would be great.”