From Christian hip-hop artist TobyMac to Archbishop Jose Gomez, Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis — home of the Indianapolis Colts —was the home to more Hail Mary’s than quarterback Peyton Manning ever threw.
Eighty-four youth and ministry leaders from the Diocese of Camden joined thousands from around the nation in celebrating their Catholic faith from Thursday, Nov. 16 to Saturday, Nov. 18 at the National Catholic Youth Conference (NCYC).
“I hope you have an encounter with God that lasts a lifetime,” TobyMac said as he energized the dancing and screaming youth with his hits such as “Speak Life” and “Steal My Show.”
Through workshops, dynamic speaker presentations, music, liturgy and adoration, all realized that they are “Called,” as the theme of the conference stressed during its three days.
“We are called by name, claimed by Christ,” said Chris Stefanick, noted speaker and host of EWTN’s “Real Life Catholic” in his Thursday night keynote.
The knowledge that God gave his only Son to be sacrificed for a broken world is “the best love story you’ll ever find,” he stressed.
In understanding that love that God has for us, and recognizing our identity, “your life story is his story, and the rest is history,” he concluded.
With their luggage, pillows and snacks, the diocesan delegation gathered at Our Lady of Peace Parish, Williamstown, on Wednesday night. After a blessing by pastor Father Cadmus Mazzarella, the two busses that had been parked outside the parish hall departed for the all-night trip to Indianapolis.
Stopped at a Cracker Barrel on Thursday morning for breakfast after a long night on the Pennsylvania Turnpike, now somewhere in Ohio at 10:30 a.m., Kyle Delessio, a 10th grader from Hammonton’s Saint Mary of Mount Carmel Parish, shared his excitement, “I know it will be a good time. I’m hoping to grow closer to God, and meet other peers who share my faith.”
Delessio was not disappointed, as during their time spent in Lucas Oil Stadium and the Indianapolis Convention Center, youth were able to not only share their faith and stories, but engage in a hallowed tradition of NCYC: trading items.
Tennessee youth exchanged cowboy hats. Wisconsin’s young church exchanged furry cow heads. South Jersey ambushed unsuspecting youth with “Jersey Fresh” stickers on their backpacks and hoodies.
During the workshops, youth from around the country, including 16 from the Diocese of Camden, served as “Ambassadors,” introducing the conference’s various speakers and leading the gathered in prayer.
Our Lady of Peace’s Chris Abraham was one of the Ambassadors who had the privilege to introduce acclaimed musician Matt Maher on Friday afternoon.
“His music gives beauty to the Catholic faith,” Abraham said.
Speaking in front of 500 youth, before his concert later that night, Maher spoke about how finding God’s love, and “developing an ear and heart for the voice of God,” was key to finding himself.
“I didn’t find my voice, until I recognized my identity in Christ, and I began to use my music to glorify God,” he said.
On Friday night, the joyful, passionate voices of the youthful masses turned silent as the Blessed Sacrament made its way to the main stage, and, one by one, aisle by aisle, knees fell in adoration. A powerful moment, that was agreed upon by many from South Jersey to be the highlight of the entire experience.
“I don’t know how to explain it, that moment was amazing,” emphasized Our Lady of Peace’s Brett Gaidis.
24 hours later, Archbishop Jose Gomez from Los Angeles, the main celebrant and homilist of the closing liturgy, took out his phone and captured snapshots of the young church, the now and future of his faith.
“You inspire all of us. The future of the Church is in good hands with you,” he said.
“Remember that you were born for greater things- God has a beautiful plan for your life. He is calling each one of you to be a saint.”
He held up the recently beatified Solanus Casey, a 20th century Capuchin friar from Detroit, as a model for them.
“He’s a saint because he tried to serve God in every moment, to use his talents, to help others find God’s love.”
The delegation departed late Saturday night, for the trip back to New Jersey. For five days, sleep and comfort was sacrificed for an immersive, joyful, and awe-inspiring experience of the Catholic Church and youth’s powerful impact on each other.
Father Edward Friel made the trip to Indianapolis with six youth and a fellow ministry leader from Pennsauken’s Mary, Queen of All Saints, where he serves as Pastor.
For forty years, he has been sacrificing sleep and comfort to be present with the youth during the bi-annual conference. In addition to accompanying South Jersey’s youth, he has celebrated mass and heard confessions for the larger community.
“I wanted to be a part of a bigger church, to share my experience with them,” he said.
He recalled speaking with a parent, about her desire for her child to make the pilgrimage to NCYC, and find others of their own age, and same passion for their faith. To realize God’s love, and know that they are not alone on this journey.
“She wanted her child to go to NCYC, and be transformed,” Father Friel noted.
A perfect touchdown, indeed.