by KATHY SCHMUGGE
More than 100 teens from the Diocese of Charleston attended the National Catholic Youth Conference in Indianapolis.
Zach Nicks, a young parishioner of St. Andrew Church in Clemson, said the title of this year’s conference, “Hope at the Threshold,” had a personal significance for him. He said that his life has been filled with many crossroads, and at this point on his faith journey, he is at a stopping point or threshold “having to make a decision to make the light turn green.”
According to Nicks, he, like many others who start out doing so much in a ministry, got accustomed to the work. It becomes routine or automatic. He said that the conference gave him a fresh outlook as he reflected on the “why” behind all the action.
Before coming to the conference, Nicks, who was selected as a youth representative for the Youth Congress (that took place simultaneously with the conference), was given a pre-conference assignment. He was asked to interview four adults with different vocations or jobs in the church discussing their joys and their sorrows. The idea behind the assignment was to find ways to explore or attract others to that particular vocation or ministry. He found it interesting that his four people even though they had different vocations, all shared a common joy — seeing people from other religions join the Catholic faith.
During the congress, the youth shared two of their interviews with the whole group. In addition to the interviews, they were also asked relevant questions to get their unique perspective on issues affecting youth today. Nicks particularly enjoyed the question-and-answer segment that had a priest, sister, and brother answering questions about their vocation. “The whole experience left me more opened to my options of serving God,” said Nicks, ” and since all my previous experiences have been confined to South Carolina, it was very enlightening to see so many other young Catholics from across the country on fire about their faith.”
For those who may be skeptical about the Catholic youth of today, Nicks simply asked them to “go into the dome (RCA Dome in Indianapolis) and see what the youth put on, and you will have your answer.”
Another youth representative from South Carolina was Karla Hoppmann, a student at Cardinal Newman High School in Columbia and member of St. Joseph Church. She, like Nicks, had to interview four church leaders. One thing that she was struck by was how they all said they had tried different jobs, but it wasn’t until they became involved in their present work that they found happiness.
“It showed me that God is calling you to a certain vocation, and you won’t be truly happy until you follow that path,” said Hoppmann.
She also was impressed with the round-table discussion on vocations to religious life. “It was interesting that they all had different vocations but seemed to be doing the same things.”
Most of all, Hoppmann enjoyed the informal setting of the round table with the religious answering questions. She said normally the only interaction she has with religious is sacramental and enjoyed the opportunity to ask questions. She feels that it would be helpful for Catholic teens that are exploring different occupations to be given a similar opportunity to speak with religious.
As a representative Hoppmann was part of a table that consisted of 10 youth that she did not know, a priest and bishop. Since the congress, she has received and sent several e-mails to people she met there.
“It really opened my eyes. One guy at the table who was from another region of the country was doing the same things we did in South Carolina,” Hoppmann added, and she sees the youth are making a difference. “We are not the church of tomorrow. We are the church of today. Allow us to get involved because we can bring a new perspective.”
Another participant in the vocations round-table talks was Bishop Robert J. Baker. “I loved attending the conference, and was especially proud of the representatives from our diocese,” he said. The bishop was also impressed with the quality of questions he said was asked by his discussion group, which contained youths from around the country.
Toni Britz, youth minister for St. Philip Neri Church in Fort Mill, was happy to take her group for the second year to the conference. “Ironically, the theme of the conference was set before Sept. 11 but ended up being what everyone needed to hear,” she said. “We are all at a threshold as a nation, and the message of the conference through the music and the speakers was through heartache and suffering there is hope. Open your heart to accept Jesus, and you will find joy.”
Britz believes her youth came back hope filled not only by the positive message but also by being with such a large number of other Catholic youth, something rare in South Carolina. “Sitting with over 24,000 other young Catholics is pretty powerful and makes the teens feel like they can stand strong,” she said.
She has witnessed how Catholic teens in South Carolina deal with daily testing by those who are not Catholic and believes that it was affirming for her youth to see other Catholics on fire with their faith, partaking of the sacraments. “They can come back with answers and stand tall,” said Britz, who has been St. Philip’s youth minister for four years.
One speaker in particular at the conference really moved her youth. She was a paraplegic woman who broke her neck by falling out of bed two months before she was to marry. The music teacher found she was almost completely paralyzed and had lost her beautiful singing voice after the accident. She said that she remembered waking up at the hospital unable to sing, but the song “Be not Afraid” was in her mind. While recovering months later, she was visited by a Jewish friend who was a musician for Broadway. He urged her to try to sing again and with his large repertoire played, of all songs, “Be not Afraid.” As she began to sing she said she knew that it was just one example of how God was showing her that he was with her through it all.
The week after the conference, St Philip’s pastor Father John Guiliani, allowed the young participants to share their experience with the rest of the church. Britz said that many people who were skeptical about the fund-raisers for the students to attend the conference said that they were glad they supported the youth because of what they heard from the teens.