Young Catholics wave for the camera July 26 after creating homemade bread loaves for Mission: Jersey in St. Gabriel Parish, Manalapan. Mike Ehrmann photos
Young Catholics wave for the camera July 26 after creating homemade bread loaves for Mission: Jersey in St. Gabriel Parish, Manalapan. Mike Ehrmann photos

 Service to those in need does not take a summer break, as demonstrated by teens setting aside a day to participate in Mission: Jersey – an annual community service retreat experience bringing together youth from around the Diocese to live their Catholic faith through works of charity.

Click here for PHOTO GALLERY of the Monmouth County Mission: Jersey

Click here for PHOTO GALLERY of the Mercer County Mission: Jersey

Taking place on four separate dates in the four counties of the Diocese, Mission: Jersey consists of several community service projects, including baking 50 loaves of bread, preparing thousands of rice and beans meals, and hundreds of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for local food pantries. The retreat days also feature guest speakers covering talks about the Eucharist and young saints.

More than 50 young Catholics kicked off Mission: Jersey July 26 in Monmouth County, with the day-long event hosted by St. Gabriel Parish, Marlboro.

D.J. Massa, 16, from St. Robert Bellarmine Co-Cathedral, Freehold, felt grateful and had no regrets attending. “This event is bigger than yourself; there are people less fortunate, and we should always try to help when we can.”

Hayley Wissel, 17, also from St. Robert Bellarmine, added, “I love volunteering and helping as many people as I can. I’m not in it for the community service hours, I’m happy to help others, and that should be a priority.”

For some younger attendees, joy was found in living their passion and giving back. St. Gabriel parishioner Harrison Faulkner, 13, was motivated through his love of cooking. “I have a passion for cooking. I get to give back to my community and do something I love; it’s a win-win for me.” He added, “Even though I’m only 13, I can still help an entire family by making simple meals for them.”

Emily O’Connor, 17, from St. Thomas More Parish, Manalapan, shared her key takeaway: “Prayers are always answered, big or small. The Lord is always listening, even if it’s not an immediate response.”

The teens also reflected on their own upbringing. “My parents taught me to do good things, it makes me feel good to give back and make the world a better place,” said John Pecoraro, 15, of St. Rose of Lima Parish, Freehold. Nick Enge, 16, from St. Thomas Moore, a 3-year participant, added, “My mom and my grandmother are very religious; I want to make them proud.”

The Eucharistic Revival theme was evident throughout the day. “In making bread, we are teaching that bread helps sustain life and give life. Like bread, we rise up and respond to God’s call,” said Daniel Waddington, director of the diocesan Department of Youth and Young Adult Ministries. He shared with the youth, “You were called today by name, you answered the call to come together to rise and be the body of Christ to help the world.”

Judy Warenkiewicz, spiritual director in St. Gabriel Parish, spoke to both the Monmouth teens and the youth gathered July 28 in St. Gregory the Great Parish, Hamilton Square, for the Mercer County event. Building on the use of saints as examples of how to live holy and charitable lives, she focused on Blessed Carlo Acutis – the Italian teenager who was recently named patron of the National Eucharistic Revival.

“Before he passed away, he did so much good,” Warenkiewicz pointed out. “He built websites about the Eucharistic miracles, putting things out there about the Eucharist and the saints so that others could benefit from what he learned. His life was centered around Jesus.”

And Blessed Carlo took his love for Jesus into service as well, she noted. “He spent his free time, when he wasn’t designing websites or playing sports, to working in soup kitchens, feeding the poor.”

Warenkiewicz also shared a personal story with the teens, about the healing her young adult daughter experienced after a serious illness. “I yelled at Jesus on the Crucifix, ‘How can you do this to her? How can you allow this to happen?’ And I heard this voice in my head, ‘What makes you think I don’t care about her? I care about her much more than you do. Trust me.’” Not long afterwards, Warenkiewicz found a doctor who could finally help her daughter, after a woman she had not seen in years gave her a recommendation.

Warenkiewicz also had the opportunity to meet a would-be saint, Mother Teresa of Kolkata, in person. “I asked her, ‘Could you pray for me and my family?’” Mother Teresa agreed to pray, but told Warenkiewicz, “I want you to go home and make your home another Nazareth … be the presence of Jesus to your family.”

“Jesus never promised it would be easy” to do what he asks of us, Warenkiewicz told the young volunteers, “but he promised that he would be with us always.”

Of the nearly 20 teens who volunteered at the St. Gregory the Great location, several were in a Boy Scout troop together and came as a shared activity – including rising eighth grader Zachary Adamski, member of St. Isidore the Farmer Parish, New Egypt.

“We’re doing a religious emblem program, and decided we all wanted to come to this and bond and grow closer to Jesus,” Adamski explained.

“There are a lot of people with good insight,” he continued, speaking of his takeaway from the day, “and we can use that to grow in our faith and use them as good examples.” He also said of helping the needy, “it’s important for them to be cared about … to help them feel that way makes you feel good too.”

Mary Kate O’Connor, also a rising eighth grader, and member of Mary, Mother of the Church Parish, Bordentown, regarded her service at Mission: Jersey to be a way “to help people out, and to be closer to God.

“The story of Judy’s daughter was really inspiring, and I think I can take that into my own life – that God is always with us all the time,” she reflected. “We are so fortunate, and we should use our energy and time to give to those who don’t have it.”

Rising sophomore Bernie Wojtkowiak, member of Sacred Heart Parish, Mount Holly, came to Mission: Jersey after a recommendation from his parents, and enjoyed “learning how to make bread – I’ve never done that before – and it feels good” to make something homemade for those who don’t regularly receive it, he added.

“Because not everyone does it, it’s good to help those people who need it,” he said.