By KATHY SCHMUGGE
LAKE WYLIE — For many youth, the 12th Annual High School Conference sponsored by the Charleston Diocese Youth Ministry Office was the top of the spiritual mountain that they have been climbing through the years with their participation in youth ministry. Prepared and willing, the teens were able to fully embrace “Hope” the theme of the conference on March 8-10 at White Oak Conference Center.
“We try to present the Gospel in a way that is inviting and challenging. To help the youth get off the fence and live the Gospel not just once a year, not just Sunday, but every day,” said Jerry White, diocesan director of youth ministry. “If you offer a good product, the young people will come.” With 750 youth attending, some giving up the opportunity to play in sports tournaments, others coming on their birthday, illustrates just how appealing the event has become for the young.
A good product is probably an understatement for describing this year’s all-star line up of speakers with nationally recognized Father Dave Pivonka from Franciscan University in Steubenville, Tom Booth, contemporary Catholic songwriter known throughout the entire Christian community, and Apex, a unique duo who shares stories, jokes and juggle while integrating Christian messages.
Bonnie Butler from St. Mary Magdalene, a senior who has attended many of the conferences said they were fun because they are always different, a common sentiment from those who go year after year.
“Every year we attend the event, and the participants become more spiritual, and it’s not just the kids but the leaders, too,” said Susan Starr, youth minister from St. Michael Church in Garden City.
She said that although she got a total of six hours of sleep in two days, she felt energized and renewed from the weekend, receiving a fresh sense of direction with the ministry. Starr made mention of the eucharistic adoration with Father Pivonka’s talk having a powerful impact on her and the youth.
“We were told to take our baggage and lay it at the feet of Jesus. I was so happy to be at a place in my life where I did not have any significant baggage to unload so I could simply love and offer myself to Jesus,” she said, re-emphasizing how everyone received spiritual gifts from the conference.
Starr also shared a story about a youth’s reaction to Father Dave’s talk before the Blessed Sacrament.
“Father Dave told the story of the leper and described how lepers were ostracized and isolated by those around them. He went on to describe the lepers of today who do not have physical illness but emotional and spiritual ones that cause them to lose hope and feel shut out,” recalled Starr, “One young girl shared that during adoration, a light bulb went off in her head and she suddenly thought, ‘I am a leper because I am in a bad relationship that is causing me to feel isolated and emotionally numb.’ I saw so many seeds of hope planted in my youth this weekend,” said Starr.
When John Waters, youth minister at St. Joseph in Columbia asked the youth what was the highlight of the weekend, he also got the overwhelming response: eucharistic adoration and Mass.
Waters said, “As great as all the speakers and activities were and they were awesome, they still said Jesus was the highlight.”
For the teens to be able to come to that conclusion was probably the result of many things. For example, early in the conference singer/songwriter, Tom Booth told the youth to think of what obstacles keep them from God and turn them over. By doing that many youth were freed to experience a greater closeness to God.
Gene from Apex, another speaker, seemed to have a positive affect on Michael Haga from Corpus Christi Church in Lexington.
“We talked after their presentation, and I realized he (Gene) had gone through similar experiences that I am going through now,” said Haga. “I feel changed because I have been able to express myself.”
White attributes the success of the weekend to the youth, especially the E-team (diocesan youth evangelization team) that runs the conference, and to the growing enthusiasm for youth ministry on the diocesan and parish level.
“We allow the young people to be a part of evangelization by giving them first the tools and then opportunities like working the conference, to actually live out their faith,” he said. “They can change lives, if you let them.”