Bishop David M. O'Connell, C.M., celebrated Mass at DYC 2023, Feb. 4. Mike Ehrmann photo.
Bishop David M. O'Connell, C.M., celebrated Mass at DYC 2023, Feb. 4. Mike Ehrmann photo.

“Connected” was a theme that resonated well with some 750 teens who gathered from across central New Jersey for the annual Diocesan Youth Conference Feb. 4 in Donovan Catholic High School, Toms River. The topic highlighted for teens how both digital tools and their spiritual lives connect them to others and to God.


“The fact that we are all different is something that we share – it connects us to each other,” said Bishop David M. O’Connell, C.M., in his homily for the DYC Mass. “When the Bible tells us we are ‘made in God’s image and likeness,’ it does not mean we are all the same. And yet, we belong to one another in God’s family. Hold on to that idea and don’t let it go.”

The theme of “connected” was also displayed in the beginning of the Mass.

Prior to the Mass, in one of the day’s breakout sessions, the teens and small group leaders wrote prayer intentions on blue and white ribbons that were later tied or “connected” together. Those ribbons created a long chain and were brought forth by participants during the Procession. Those prayer intentions were placed at the base of the altar where they remained during the Mass and were then offered at the Prayers of the Faithful.

The annual conference for students in eighth through 12th grades had been offered in digital format the past few years due to COVID-19 but returned in-person for 2023. It is partially funded by the people of the Diocese through their gifts to the Annual Catholic Appeal.

Gez Ford, a musician and youth minister from St. Raphael Parish, Hamilton, offered rousing praise music to kick off the day. Keynote speaker Steve Angrisano – international Catholic presenter, musician and composer – broke the ice with games and led the teens in an enthusiastic boys vs. girls singing competition.

Throughout the day, participants were able to rotate between workshops and a service project, as well as spend time in Eucharistic Adoration and Confession – all of which pointed back to the main theme and the importance of maintaining a link with their faith.

“You know, God loved us so much that he sent his only Son Jesus to be like us – without giving up his nature as God – to take on human flesh and blood and to share what it means to be a child of God,” Bishop O’Connell said, “connected to us, and connecting us to one another.”

Connecting to God

Emcee Dan Waddington, director of the Department of Youth and Young Adult Ministries, which hosted DYC, reminded the young participants that “today the Church is what connects us. You are the young Church – not the Church of could be or someday, but you are the Church of today!”

Angrisano shared the reflection of a sixth-grade girl who gave the best description of God he could recall. “I asked the kids to go outside and find something that reminds them of God,” he recalled. The young girl stood with her back to a large nearby pond and said, “To me, God is like that lake – I could live my whole life and only look this direction… and I could pretend … that there is no lake here at all – but there is a lake. It’s right next to me, it’s always here and it always will be.”

“That’s the bottom line of our life,” Angrisano told those gathered. “I can’t say it any better – we have a God who loves us, who is connected to us, and who has always been a part of our life, and always will be … if you open your heart to God today, and look for him in this Body of Christ, you will recognize that like the lake, he is right there – he’s never left you.”

Angrisano had been a pastoral musician in Littleton, Colorado, in 1999 when the tragic shootings took place in Columbine High School. Of the students killed, four were members of his parish youth group. Following the incident, he helped plan and sing the music for three of the funerals. He recalled the bravery and faith of the youth, one of whom made a last effort to protect his friends, and another who refused to denounce her faith.

“At her graduation three years late, she told her story – how the shooters asked her if she believed in God,” Angrisano recalled. “She said ‘yes, I do,’ and they laughed at her and asked ‘Why?’ She said, ‘Because that’s what my parents taught me – and now I believe it for myself.’”

Connecting to Others

The service project included the creation of nearly 900 Happy Hope Bags – packages of activities and personal notes for children in local hospitals experiencing long stays. Founded by Emi Burke in 2011 following her son’s hospital experience, the effort has grown to help more than 100,000 children nationwide.

The young Catholics listened to the story of Danielle Froslear and her daughter Ella, parishioners of St. Pius X, Forked River, who both spoke about Ella’s congenital diagnosis with spina bifida, a condition that affects the spine and requires countless hours in the hospital.

“For any kid, whatever age you are, it can be daunting to spend all that time in a waiting room and hospital bed,” Danielle said – and Ella agreed. “To receive a bag of coloring pages, games and something even to snuggle with is so uplifting to a child who is lonely, bored and overwhelmed,” Ella said. “If I had received one of these bags, that would have made doctor’s visits so much more fun and exciting.”

Workshop leader Jeff Siedlecki, youth minister in Holy Eucharist Parish, Tabernacle, guided teens through a discussion of how digital devices like smartphones and computers can be tools for connectedness – but also can take away from that connection if used for ill.

“Pope Francis said that they are good and useful tools, but must be used in the right way … Some contacts I have made have been great, even beautiful,” Siedlecki said, using the examples of communication with his mother before she passed away or with his sister as she was going for medical treatment.

Other connections can be endless distractions, he stressed, asking youth to reflect on what they may be missing when engaging with a device. “We can use our eyes to see the need in the world around us, or we can fill ourselves with trivia,” he said.

As many of the youth participants shared, the ability to connect with one another and practice their faith together was one of the highlights of the day.

John Klarmann, youth minister, Our Lady of Perpetual Help Parish, Maple Shade, shared that sentiment when asked how he felt his charges responded to the day.

“I think they were excited and if I had to guess, I bet we’ll have double the number of kids with us next year.  They really enjoyed Steve and his games and stories. And really, they just enjoyed being here having fun and praying with such a large groups of young Catholics.”

But don’t take our word for it.  Here is what the Young Church in the Diocese of Trenton had to say about their experiences at DYC2023.

  • “It’s been great. We get to experience our faith and meet new people.  They day is about connection and we’re connecting with our faith and new people.”  Samantha Langan, 13, St. Aloysius Parish, Jackson
  • “My favorite part of the day was the service project. Knowing that I was doing something nice for someone else makes me happy.” Mia Alvarez, 13, St. Anthony of Padua Parish, Hightstown
  • “This is my first time coming to the DYC. It’s just so great to be meeting new people that share my faith.” William Cruz, 12, Mother of Mercy Parish, Asbury Park
  • “I liked the service project best. When I was coloring the card, I was thinking about who might receive it.” Ingrid Gonzalez, 13, Mother of Mercy Parish, Asbury Park
  • “I feel like Adoration and Confession was the best. Because who doesn’t need to spend time with Jesus and go to Confession? The small groups and talking about being connected to our phones was so relevant.  A lot of what he was saying was true for me.” Andrew Cagliostro, 17, St. Joseph Parish, Toms River
  • “I feel like the keynote speaker did a really great job.  He had 700 teenagers listening to his every word.  That’s pretty amazing.” Gavin Palamara, 16, Holy Eucharist Parish, Tabernacle