By Jennifer Mauro | Managing Editor
“I love this song,” a young man, one of nearly 3,000 faithful gathered for the May 19 NJ Catholic Youth Rally, said as he jumped to his feet in the Six Flags Great Adventure arena.
Turning around 360 degrees, he raised his arms to encourage those around him to stand up and join the praise band in singing “Our God.”
But his encouragement wasn’t needed, as youth from parishes in the five (arch)dioceses in the state, their families and youth ministry leaders were already standing, hands in the air, and singing, “And if our God is for us, then who could ever stop us? And if our God is with us, then what could stand against?”
Such was the message the musicians, led by Gez Ford – youth ministry coordinator and leader of the praise and worship band in St. Raphael-Holy Angels Parish, Hamilton – impressed upon the thousands gathered.
It was a lesson that, only moments before, had been preached by Bishop David M. O’Connell, C.M., principal celebrant of the Mass that rounded out the annual event – a day of roller coasters, faith and camaraderie.
“Are you willing to be known as a Catholic? As a Christian?” Bishop O'Connell asked in his homily. “Does your faith make a difference in the way you show yourself to others, in the way you live as a young person?
“Here’s the fact: We are all created by God just as we are, and God loves us just as we are, regardless of what others may think about us. Don’t let anyone tell you differently,” Bishop O’Connell continued. “At every moment of our lives, God is present, offering us his love. Our strengths, our talents are God’s gifts. Our weaknesses are God’s gifts, too, opportunities to grow. No one is perfect. Everyone is different. We grow. We change. We mature. But right now we are who we are.
“Gifts can come in all kinds of packages,” he said. “You are God’s gifts, every one of you. What’s on the outside of the package is only the means to cause you to open up and find the gift, to use the gift, to share the gift – your true self. … Love is our true self. Show your true self to everyone you meet, with all your strengths and even with all your weaknesses. That is the message of our faith.”
David Beauchamp of St. Joseph Parish, Toms River, said the Bishop’s homily resonated with him as a young person.
“That message that ‘God loves us just the way we are is something that is always good to hear,” he said. “A lot of people my age forget who they are and think they have to be someone else.”
The annual NJ Catholic Youth Rally, organized by the Dioceses of Trenton, Camden, Metuchen and Paterson as well as the Archdiocese of Newark, brought together parish youth ministries and leaders, families and faith communities for a day of fun, lunch and Mass and a concert by Christian artist Matt Maher.
This year’s event was hosted by the Diocese of Trenton as part of the Diocese’s Year of Youth, decreed last June by Bishop O’Connell. The Diocese partnered with Six Flags Great Adventure in bringing Maher to the event. In addition, 20 tickets were given away on the Diocese’s social media platforms for a meet-and-greet with Maher after the concert.
Faithful of all ages roamed the park in the hours before Mass, many wearing T-shirts that represented the parish and town from which they hailed.
“It’s special to have a bunch of people here with the same beliefs,” John Ruona of St. Mary of the Lakes Parish, Medford, said as he and his fellow youth ministry pal walked through the park.
“It makes me feel proud that we can come together as a group of Catholics,” said Brandon Wiese of St. Agnes Parish, Clark, as his friends approached, dripping wet from riding the Saw Mill log flume.
Hannah Dalton, of St. Barnabas Parish, Bayville, was all smiles as she posed for a photo with her youth ministry friends. “It shows that you are committed to a group and committed to Jesus,” she said of the event.
Indeed, that feeling of connection was felt during Mass, as after Bishop O’Connell’s homily, nearly a dozen concelebrating priests from the Diocese of Trenton and beyond went out into Great Adventure’s Northern Star Arena to distribute the Holy Eucharist. They were joined by more than 40 youth, young adults and volunteers who served as readers, extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion, musicians or in other ministries in support of Mass.
“Having Mass it in a big open concert area was way different than being in your own church,” said Beauchamp. “It’s bigger and there’s more enthusiasm being with all the dioceses.”
That enthusiasm is something Father Martin O'Reilly, diocesan youth chaplain and pastor of Mary, Mother of the Church Parish, Bordentown, believes is important to priests as well.
“The faithful look to us for enthusiasm,” he said. “They have their own faith and they know we [priests] have our faith, but they need our enthusiasm. If they can sense our enthusiasm that we believe in this, then they take on that belief – and then that transmits down to our young people.
“It’s important for priests to be enthused,” he continued. “Bishop O’Connell does a very good job of it because anytime we are gathered, he makes it his business to go around and speak to every priest and call us by name.”
Enthusiastic Catholics can, in turn, do great things. Speaking of all the dozens of lay people who made the day a success, Father O'Reilly said, “That’s a good news story. And that’s a good news story that unfortunately will not be on the news this evening. That two-and-a-half thousand people gathered here today to celebrate life, fun and entertainment, but also to celebrate faith. That good news story needs to be told.”