By Rose O'Connor | Correspondent
“It’s all how you look at the words. You can be fearless or you can fear less.”
Those were the words of Father Martin O’Reilly, diocesan youth chaplain, to the almost 700 teens in grades eight through 12, youth ministry leaders, men and women religious and others who converged Feb. 10 on Christian Brothers Academy, Lincroft, for the 2018 Diocesan Youth Conference.
Read Bishop O'Connell's homily from the DYC Mass
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“We can’t always be fearless, but we can definitely fear less when we know God is on our side. With God all things are possible,” said Father O’Reilly, parochial vicar in St. Catharine-St. Margaret Parish, Spring Lake.
Under the theme “Fearless 365” – a nod to the hundreds of times the Bible references the phrase “be not afraid” – the young Church gathered to celebrate being fearless in their faith and learn how to fear less growing up in today’s world.
More Video: DYC 2018 Highlights
“I feel like I was maybe moving away from my faith a little bit,” Charlene Turrubiarte, 14, of Mother of Mercy Parish, Asbury Park, shared at the beginning of the day. “Society sometimes makes it difficult to have a relationship with God. I wanted to come to encounter God more closely.”
Turrubiarte and fellow youth would soon realize they were about to encounter Christ in many different ways throughout the daylong conference that featured keynote speakers and Catholic evangelists Oscar Rivera and Franciscan Friar of the Renewal Brother Pierre Toussaint, as well as breakout sessions, faith sharing, Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, Reconciliation and Mass with Bishop David M. O’Connell, C.M., as principal celebrant.
Knowing God is Knowing Truth
Aside from sports banners hanging from the rafters, CBA’s Varsity Gym was almost unrecognizable as teens filtered into what looked – and felt – like a live music concert.
Emblazoned with a red and black “#BEFEARLESS365” logo, which included Christ on the Crucifix, the stage was set with a full band led by Gez Ford, youth ministry coordinator in St. Raphael-Holy Angels Parish, Hamilton.
The band covered popular Christian rock songs, bringing teens and adults alike out of their seats to dance along.
Energized for the day ahead, attendees cheered as Dan Waddington, diocesan director of youth and young adult ministries, took the stage, formerly welcomed the crowd and discussed the day’s theme.
“Be fearless in God’s love,” he said. “If we know that truth, there is nothing we can’t face. We want you to know that God’s love is bigger and stronger than anything we face. If our God is with us, no one can be against us, and we can be fearless.”
“Be fearless in battle,” he continued. “We know God has our back. Be fearless in Jesus. Jesus is God’s love in us. If we have Jesus, we can be fearless.”
He concluded his opening greeting with his signature, “Amen?”
“Amen!” the crowd roared in unison.
Answering God’s Call Takes, Gives Courage
Bringing his upbeat urban style to the first keynote talk, Oscar Rivera spoke of his own fears as a father, raising two young children.
“Love is something we are born with; we are born to love. We are not created to fear,” he stressed and added, “If fear can do a lot of things, then love can do a lot more.”
Rivera, aka Two Ten, was raised in Waterbury, Conn., and learned at an early age how to be a survivor by avoiding the inner-city streets where he lived through his faith in God and hip hop.
In his discussion, Rivera – an alumnus of Franciscan University of Steubenville, Ohio, who earned a master of arts degree in theology from St. Leo University in Florida – referred to 1 John 3:1. “See what love the Father has bestowed on us that we may be called the children of God. Yet so we are. The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know him.”
Brother Pierre Toussaint picked up on that theme during his keynote address later in the day, explaining how he, too, heard God speaking to him at a young age.
After growing up in Freeport, Long Island, N.Y., Brother Pierre went on to attend Ave Maria University near Naples, Fla. As a student, he experienced a conversion. Tired of living what he called a selfish life, Brother Pierre stopped into a chapel where Jesus was exposed in the Blessed Sacrament. He knelt and prayed, “I’m tired, help me,” and in his heart, he said, he heard God respond, “I want you for myself.”
Upon graduating with a bachelor’s degree in economics, he entered the Friars of the Franciscan Renewal as a postulant 10 years ago. He is currently a deacon attending St. Joseph’s Seminary, Dunwoodie, N.Y., and is scheduled to be ordained a priest in May.
Brother Pierre spoke to the story in the Gospel of Matthew where Jesus approached the apostles walking on water. He recalled the words of Jesus when the apostles became frightened and thought they were seeing a ghost. “Take courage, it is I – do not be afraid.” (Matthew 14:27)
“My brothers and sisters, this is a beautiful moment, not just in the Bible and for the disciples, but it’s true for us, too,” Brother Pierre said. “He’s inviting us today. That’s what this whole day is – for us to stop and take a moment and invite the Lord into your boat, into the boat of your life.”
During the day, the teens also broke into groups separated by gender and age and discussed the theme of being “Fearless in Battle.” Rivera and Brother Pierre spoke with the boys, while the girls met with Felicia Navarro, director of Lifelong Faith Formation in the Diocese of Camden, and Vincenza Cerami of the Archdiocese of Newark, who works with chastity ministry.
Youth ministers from throughout the Diocese gathered with Waddington to discuss the challenges they face in youth ministry as they strive to support teens in their battles and be a witness to their faith.
Service Project, Camaraderie Inspires Ahead of Adoration
CBA’s intramural gym was a place for teens to relax and connect with one another throughout the day. Here students danced, took selfies and jumped in a photo booth, visited various exhibits including those on diocesan organizations, respect life campaigns, vocations and Catholic religious communities and even wrote prayer requests to be remembered at Mass.
They also had the chance to participate in a service project organized by Holy Eucharist Parish, Tabernacle.
Ahead of DYC, Jeff Siedlecki, youth minister in the Burlington County parish, had contacted Cathedral Kitchen, Camden, to inquire about the nonprofit’s needs. The organization’s response had the teens spending part of the day assembling more than 1,600 packets with utensils, napkins, and salt and pepper.
“This was the kids’ idea,” Siedlecki said. “We’ve volunteered at Cathedral Kitchen before and wanted to expand on that.”
This is Siedlecki’s fifth year at the DYC with the parish’s youth ministry, and he explained that the teens themselves are the real “cheerleaders” for the annual event, promoting DYC with each other.
“It’s great for the kids to see the faith they have invested so much in amplified here,” he said as he gestured to all the exhibits, faith and camaraderie happening at the DYC.
All of the noise and excitement from the gym quickly subsided as the room was transformed in a quiet, serene and holy area for the monstrance containing the Blessed Sacrament during Adoration.
“The Eucharist is the source and summit of our faith,” Ford said as music played and the youth quieted by singing, “Trust, Surrender, Believe, Receive” in the dimly lit room full of candles.
While at Adoration, the youth had the opportunity to participate in the Sacrament of Reconciliation in another part of the school, as priests from parishes throughout the Diocese heard individual confessions.
“This was my favorite part of the day,” said Nicole Flores, an eighth-grade parishioner of St. Anthony Claret Parish, Lakewood. “I felt something at Adoration I never felt before.”
Bishop Relays Personal Story of Fear During Health Scare
The day came to a close with Bishop O’Connell celebrating the Mass with his brother priests from around the Diocese.
“You know I love you, right? I love you so much I can’t stand it!” Bishop O’Connell said to cheers from the youth.
In his homily, the Bishop addressed his own fears, sharing the story of how on Christmas Eve three years ago, he received news while in the hospital that if his leg was not amputated, he would be in danger of dying.
“I thought about all the times as a priest I talked to people and advised them as they faced the most difficult things in life you can imagine: kids who felt unloved or were abused; teenagers on drugs or thinking about suicide because of bullying; students who were failing in school; unwed mothers considering abortion; married couples wanting to divorce; old people who were all alone; people like myself who were sick or dying. I had the same message for them all: have faith in God, you are not alone, do not be afraid. Now, that message was for me.
“As I lay in that hospital bed in that empty room all alone on Christmas Eve, a feeling of peace came over me, peace – not denial, not fear – but the peace that only comes when you have faith and trust in God and in his love and presence always, at every moment and in every experience in our lives,” he continued. “I reached for my Rosary and started to pray and drifted off to sleep, knowing I might not wake up. But I did wake up with my Rosary still in my hand. My faith calmed my fears.”
‘I’m Going to be Fearless’
The energy among those who attended DYC 2018 was apparent as the day came to a close.
“It was a beautiful day. We came and learned about God’s love and also deepened our experiences and relationships with our friends. But my favorite part of the day was the Mass,” said eighth-grade student Hugo Palacios of Our Lady of the Angels Parish, Trenton.
DYC 2018, which drew nearly 200 more attendees than last year, was memorable not only for the camaraderie, speakers, service and prayer opportunities, it was the first time in two years that eighth-graders attended, which was appreciated by parish catechetical leaders across the Diocese.
In addition, leaders from the four county youth ministry teams – groups that meet regularly to support each other in ministry and coordinate events – took active roles in the event by taking on DYC projects and preparing their teens by having youth ministry meetings around the DYC themes. For example, Burlington County organized the exhibit hall; Mercer leaders took charge of welcoming the attendees; Monmouth coordinated liturgical participants and scriptural banners, and Ocean was responsible for banners and the main stage and the large cross that adorned it.
Youth ministry leaders said they were pleased with the day and the graces it brought their young parishioners.
“The kids enjoyed it, and I’m glad that the kids wanted to come and learn more about their faith. It was just simply amazing,” said Leonardo Aceituno, youth ministry coordinator in Our Lady of the Angels Parish.
The youth agreed.
Chris Landry, a high school senior from St. James Parish, Red Bank, said he enjoyed the interactive style of this year’s DYC and found the entire day relatable.
“I’ve been coming to the DYC for a few years, and each year it keeps getting better,” he said. “I learned that you are not alone in love. You have God, and he’s on your side. That message became even more clear today.”
Turrubiarte, who had shared at the start of the day that she wanted to feel closer to God, said, “I’m going to be fearless while expressing my love for God and not be worried or fearful of what others think of me.”
Added first-time attendee Jeffrey Frankenburg of St. Dominic Parish, Brick. “It brought me deeper into my faith. It was very informative and fun. I’ll definitely be back.”
Past Coverage: 2017 DYC