Teens hug after a moving witness talk during DYC2017 March 4 in Ferrante Hall, St. Gregory the Great Parish, Hamilton Square. Craig Pittelli photo

Teens hug after a moving witness talk during DYC2017 March 4 in Ferrante Hall, St. Gregory the Great Parish, Hamilton Square. Craig Pittelli photo

By Jennifer Mauro and Haley Cafarella

“Ain’t no party like a Catholic party,” DJ Bernal sang into the microphone as he addressed the hundreds gathered March 4 for the Diocesan Youth Conference 2017 in St. Gregory the Great Parish, Hamilton Square.

“Ain’t no party like a Catholic party,” the teens responded, jumping to their feet and clapping their hands. Then, in unison, Bernal and the teens sang for the third time, “Ain’t no party like a Cath-o-lic party ‘cuz a Catholic party don’t stop!”

With laughter and applause, Bernal, of Texas-based Modern Teen Ministries, kicked off DYC2017 with the help of Gez Ford, youth minister in St. Raphael-Holy Angels Parish, Hamilton, as Ford and some of the Diocese’s teens energized the crowd by rocking out to faith-filled tunes.

The day that began with music, moving and personal witness by Franciscan Friar of the Renewal Father Agustino Torres and Bernal, faith sharing, Confession and candle-lit Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, and ending with Mass celebrated by Bishop David M. O’Connell, C.M., brought nearly 450 teens, volunteers and family members together from across the Diocese of Trenton. 

With the theme of ABLAZE – taken from the words of St. Catherine of Siena, “Be who God meant you to be, and you will set the world on fire” – the conference encouraged high school-aged participants to spend time with the Lord and discover the power that their faith in Jesus Christ offers in their daily lives. 

And from the laugher, smiles, hugs and even tears, it was apparent throughout the day that the teens discovered just that.

“The spirit is alive!” said Father Martin O’Reilly, diocesan youth chaplain, as he took the stage at the beginning of the day, along with Dan Waddington, the new associate director for youth ministry. DYC2017 was sponsored by the Department of Evangelization and Family Life.

“Give me an Amen!” Father O’Reilly said to the sea of teens gathered before him.

As the cries of “Amen” died down, Father O’Reilly said a prayer for the day ahead before the lights dimmed and a video was shown that talked about everyday issues facing teens. Words such as “insecurity,” “heartbreak” and “depression” flashed across the screen, ending with the hopeful words that knowing God can help with such issues.

“The main thing I got out of that video,” DJ Bernal said, “was that Jesus is the answer to everything.”

Love, Confidence Found in Faith

DYC is all about inclusion, a point Franciscan Friar of the Renewal Father Agustino Torres, the day’s first speaker, emphasized from the very start.

“I want to teach you a word right now – Órale,” he said of the Mexican-American slang word.

“Órale can mean a lot of things,” he said. For example, it can be a greeting or something people say when they’ve come to a realization. “It can be a Eureka moment – like when algebra finally makes sense,” he said to a room full of laughter.

“But Órale comes from the Latin root ōrāle, which means to pray. So when we say Órale, we’re also saying to pray.”

Father Agustino shared many instances in his life when he was asked to pray with friends, acquaintances and even strangers. He then explained that he had been on the grounds of St. Gregory the Great Parish before, when he was part of a prayer community in college and the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal  were visiting the parish.

“This one brother came up to me and asked, ‘What is the Lord doing in your life? Pray that you know that you know God’s will in your life,’” Father Agustino said. “So I say that to you today: Pray that you know that you know,” he said, asking everyone to turn to the person next to them and say those words to their neighbor.

“When you allow him to glorify himself in your life, your life becomes an adventure,” he added, relating a story of being in an airport wearing his Franciscan habit, carrying a guitar and being asked by fellow travelers to sing a song. Picking up his guitar, he sang the song to the teens, asking them to join in singing, Reggae-style, “Jesus is the winner man.”

Jesus, he said, won a victory against sin when he died on the Cross. Father Agustino asked the teens to think about Adam and Eve, their sin in the garden, the power of choice and love.

“All Adam had to do when he heard Eve talking to the snake was say, “Hey! You’re talkin’ to my woman, man!” Father Agustino said to more laughs before somberly adding, “He gave them everything, but the one thing he couldn’t do was make Adam and Eve love him back.

“When God says he loves you, he backs it up,” Father Agustino said, referencing the Cross. “When we say, ‘I love you,’ it’s always a choice.”

Self-Worth a Common Theme

Father Agustino left off talking about God not wanting the teens to look at themselves and see anxiety, rejection or ugliness, saying, “You will have the chance today to let God become part of you so that when you look in the mirror, you will say, ‘loved, forgiven, child of God.’ You will say, ‘I have a purpose.’”

To that end, DJ Bernal picked up the gauntlet. “You are priceless. There’s no monetary value that is equivalent to your life,” he said. “You’re literally an endangered species. There will only ever be one you.”

He went on to tell the teens that by knowing they are the children of God, a king, they have power and are princes and princesses on earth. It is when they don’t know their worth and power that leads to bad situations, he said.

Bernal then shared his life story, explaining that his father was an alcoholic when he was growing up, leading Bernal not to think very highly of himself. 

“I would ask God why this was happening,” he said, adding that he didn’t understand why his father didn’t treat him or his mother well, even though they went to church every Sunday. His father passed away the summer before his senior year of high school, which led Bernal on his own path of drinking, smoking and doubting his self-worth.

It is only when one experiences an encounter with God that one becomes evangelized and surrenders to Jesus, Bernal said. He used the parable of Jesus’ encounter with the woman at the well as an example of this surrender. Everyone has a purpose, he said, and everyone has to open themselves up to God to find that purpose.

Continuing his witness, he apologized on behalf of those who may have ever wronged the teens in attendance and handed out “Prayer of Surrender” cards. He then prayed with the crowd, and several of the teens became visibly emotional.

Adoration

“Open your heart like never before.”

Those were the words Franciscan Friar of the Renewal Father Sebastian Kajko softly murmured into the dimly lit chapel as the DYC2017 teens, volunteers and family members knelt in rows around a monstrance and wooden plinth adorned in candles.

Recalling the parable of the hemorrhaging woman who reached out to Jesus for healing, Father Sebastian said, “No matter how much or how little your faith right now, I’m going to encourage you to reach out in faith and touch Jesus.”

The crowd sniffled with emotion. Some cried, others were seen walking across the room to hug a family member or friend after the monstrance had passed them in the Eucharistic procession.

Simultaneously, Confessions were being heard across the hall by priests who had traveled from all four counties of the Diocese.

Giovanny Alberto, 13, of St. Paul Parish, Princeton, walked between the two rooms, visibly affected by the faith events. With a tremble in his voice, he said it was his first time to experience Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament and found that it had helped him de-stress.

 “I was a little worried and shy, but now I feel calm,” he said.

Bishop: ‘We Are God’s Creation’

The daylong DYC2017 came to an end not too differently than it began, for just as Father Agustino talked of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, so did Bishop O’Connell during the evening Mass he celebrated in the church.

“God created the world and everything within it, including human beings. We are God’s creation, and sometimes I think we need to remind ourselves of that,” the Bishop said.

“From the time we were very young, we learned the story of Adam and Eve, our first parents. … Somehow for some reason, our first parents turned against God, preferring to change what he created for a purpose that was not part of God’s original plan. Adam and Eve chose to put themselves above God, to be God. It was a terrible act of pride. With their bad choice, sin entered the world, and humanity has suffered from that choice to this very day.

“We call their choice ‘the original sin’ and it left a stain, a mark on every human being born after them,” Bishop O’Connell continued. “It doesn’t seem fair, but that’s what sin does: sin never affects just the sinner. It affects everybody. And it continues to affect us.”

“That’s true,” murmured a parishioner, one of more than 500 filling the pews and standing around the perimeter of the nave.

Before the start of Mass, there was an energized hum as teens gathered in the pews alongside their youth ministers. DJ Bernal and Gez Ford once again rallied the crowd with song and words of faith, and Bishop O’Connell visited with some of the young people.

During the Mass, concelebrated by Father Michael McClane, St. Gregory the Great pastor, and a number of priests, Bishop O’Connell addressed the young Catholics specifically.

“The world throws everything at you to challenge your faith, to turn you away from God much like Satan did to Jesus in the desert,” Bishop O’Connell said. “At first, those temptations might have some attraction, but Satan is called the Father of Lies for a reason, make no mistake about it. The attraction doesn’t last, because all those temptations only lead to selfishness, to isolation, to separation … and we are left alone. Is that what we want?

“That’s not the way God made us to be,” he continued. “Deep down inside we know that, even when temptation is strong, even when we give in. The Lord Jesus and his Church offer us something to believe in, something bigger than ourselves, something that creates a connection, and that something is faith, which gives us hope, which turns into love. Only God can lead us down that path, and the Church is here to guide us every step of the way.”