In his letter to youth for the Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy, Pope Francis encouraged "a year-long celebration, in which every moment becomes a chance for us to grow in holiness...To be merciful means to grow in a love which is courageous, generous and real."
For roughly 700 teenagers from across central New Jersey, the annual Diocesan Youth Conference was a chance to rekindle their courage, generosity and authentic love while learning what it means to "rise up" as a child of a merciful God.
Bishop David M. O'Connell, C.M., punctuated the day's theme in his homily at the closing Mass.
"We are the new Apostles in the Church and we have a mission to live the Gospel and to spread it," he said.
"And so, my friends: rise up! Love has triumphed and always will. Mercy has been victorious and always will be!"
The emphasis on being "Merciful like the Father," which has been emphasized throughout the Holy Year of Mercy, was interwoven throughout the day. Words from Pope Francis' Easter blessing - "Love has triumphed. Mercy has been victorious." - were the conference motto, inspiring discussion and serving as a reference point for the speakers and presenters.
Other activities throughout the day included breakout sessions led by local and regional youth ministry professionals, musical entertainment, games, adoration and the opportunity to go to confession.
With over 650 teenagers registered in advance, organizers estimated roughly seven hundred teens from the Diocese were in attendance, including last-minute additions and walk-in registrants.
Rising Up to Overcome Fear
The day began with a keynote speech delivered by Bob Perron, the director of the Office of Youth and Young Adult Ministry for the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston, West Virginia.
In his opening keynote, Perron encouraged the attendees to follow the Bible's exhortation to have the faith of a child, using stories from his own family life as an example.
"Three year olds have a different kind of faith," he said. "They have no doubts. None."
Perron has been involved in youth and young adult ministry since 1984, serving as a parish youth minister, parish director of religious education, camp director and diocesan youth director. He has spoken at hundreds of diocesan youth conference and parish missions across the U.S. and was a keynote presenter at the National Catholic Youth Conference in 2014.
"We have a God who loves us so much that he would die on that cross. That is mercy," he said. "His mercy is greater than any of the things you could have done. If you learn nothing else this weekend, I hope you know that you've got a God that loves you so much, that no matter what you've done, his mercy is there waiting for you."
Abigail Vernon, a 14-year-old in St. Raphael-Holy Angels Parish, Hamilton, said Perron's talk was "so powerful."
"He was speaking about his children and he brought in a sense of laughter to it, which I think really connected with all of the students here," said Vernon, who attended the day's event with her LifeTeen group. She said the day helped build a sense of solidarity between youth from different parishes across the Diocese.
"I think some students have trouble because they want to fit in, they don't think Catholic kids are cool, so I think DYC is great to meet so many other Catholic kids and show it doesn't matter if you don't feel like you fit in."
To Jacqueline Brooks, a high school freshman in St. Veronica's Parish, Howell, the year's theme was inspiration to be brave about being a witness for Christ. "'Rise up' kind of means to overcome our fears," she said.
Brooks, who entered the Church less than a month ago at the Easter Vigil, said that her first DYC experience was helping her come to a deeper appreciation for her faith, "a better love for God and Jesus and a better understanding of what he's done for us."
Filled with the Spirit
Josue Arriola, director of the Diocese's Department of Youth, Marriage and Family Life Ministries, welcomed the attendees at the start of the day.
"Today we're going to be talking about mercy, because God is merciful," Arriola said.
Arriola asked the group to pray an Our Father, Hail Mary and Glory Be for the repose of the soul of the father of Rudy Gomez, diocesan youth ministry coordinator, who was with his family and unable to attend the yearly gathering. Attendees also wrote short messages of consolation and prayer that were placed in a jar to be given to Gomez.
At a workshop for adults involved in ministry to youth, Arriola described what he termed the seven phases of family life, as youth move from young adults to marriage and having children of their own, with the attendant stressors and opportunities that accompany each stage.
At a separate breakout session, Caroline Gambale-Dirkes, co-founder of 2Tim4 Ministries, told her story of becoming weaker in her faith through high school and college before returning to the Church and entering into a life of youth ministry and evangelization.
"There is no sin you could commit that he would not forgive you and extend you mercy," Gambale-Dirkes said.
For the third year in a row, the conference featured an appearance by the Bosco Boys, two seminarians who use rap music to share the message of God's love. Salesian Brothers Steve Eguino and Steve DeMaio led the teens in attendance in prayer as well as light-hearted sessions, including a spirited lip-sync battle set to "Let It Go" from Disney's "Frozen."
Mark McIlvian, a tenth-grade student in St. Catherine Parish, Holmdel, was returning to DYC after participating for the first time last year. He described the annual event as something of "a cross between a party atmosphere and also growing in faith with so many other people that you wouldn't be able to connect with and deepen faith with if you weren't here."
While living out faith school can often be challenging, McIlvian said, DYC is a place "where you can really connect" with others and find strength in that solidarity.
"The workshops, the adoration period, the team-building, faith-growing activities that they have here...the whole day really makes you experience God in a way that you wouldn't get to normally."
It's a reminder, he said, that "if you just open yourself up, God's light will shine through you."[[In-content Ad]]