Pope John Paul II’s historic trip to Denver was still a year off back
in 1992, when Michael Theisen began as Rochester’s diocesan
youth-ministry coordinator. As a result, the pope’s upcoming visit to
World Youth Day wasn’t an urgent subject when Theisen was reviewing his
new job responsibilities with his supervisor, Maribeth Mancini,
diocesan director of evangelization and catechesis.
“She said, ‘Oh, by the way, we’re making you the World Youth Day
contact.’ I said ‘OK, whatever that means,'” Theisen recalled.
He quickly found out what it meant. Starting out in the hope of
attracting 200 pilgrims, Theisen instead wound up overseeing a
contingent of more than 500 teens and adult chaperons who traveled west
to see the pope preside at World Youth Day, an international gathering
the pontiff established in the mid-1980s.
World Youth Day took place in Denver from Aug. 9-15, 1993. In the
decade since, WYD ’93 has frequently been cited as a catalyst for a
sharp growth in youth ministry in the Rochester Diocese. Large numbers
at diocesan youth events lend solid support to that assertion:
* The Diocesan Youth Convention, begun in 1994 with 350 people, has
averaged more than 500 high-schoolers annually. It drew nearly 700 for
the 10th annual convention this Aug. 9-10 at the Rochester Crowne Plaza
Hotel. The Junior High Youth Rally, a similarly structured one-day
event begun in 1993, annually draws hundreds of participants as
* Diocesan participation in the National Catholic Youth Conference,
held every two years, jumped from 292 participants in 1997 to 615
people two years later, and to 950 participants in 2001. Rochester’s
representation at the 2001 NCYC in Indianapolis, Ind., was the highest
from any diocese in the country except for the Archdiocese of
Indianapolis itself. This coming Nov. 15-18, an estimated 900 delegates
will attend the NCYC in Houston, Texas.
* An overnight excursion to World Youth Day 2002 in Toronto, which
took place last August with the pope, drew more than 1,000 people from
the Rochester Diocese. Even though WYD ’02 was geared more toward young
adults than was WYD ’93 in Denver, most of the Rochester delegation’s
2002 throng consisted of teens.
Bishop Matthew H. Clark, a fixture at virtually all of these
gatherings, said the sheer numbers are a great instrument for young
people’s faith development.
“The biggest, single most powerful element of this is they see with
their eyes and hear with their ears, ‘Yes, I’m not alone in this,'” he
Cool to be Catholic
Much of this success in youth ministry sprang from a firm foundation
laid by Theisen’s predecessor, Patrick Fox, now the director of faith
formation at St. Joseph’s Parish in Penfield. Until 1993, a
long-standing staple in diocesan programming for teens was Bishop’s Day
with Youth, a one-day convention for both junior-high and high-school
students that Fox established.
As WYD ’93 was approaching, Theisen said he sensed that parishes
were ready to deepen their commitment to youth ministry. Bishop Clark
recalls a strong movement in this direction as well, largely due to
World Youth Day and another major event from 1993 — the diocesan Synod
— during which “a great number of our parishes identified youth and
youth ministry as a very high priority.”
Following the success of the pilgrimage to Denver, Theisen sought to
maintain the focus Bishop’s Day with Youth had placed on prayer,
celebration, guest speakers, faith-sharing and workshops while
expanding the program into an all-weekend event for high-schoolers
Since the first convention in 1994, numbers have increased almost
yearly. At the same time, diocesan participation at NCYC has shot up
dramatically. Theisen, who in 2001 was promoted from coordinator to
director of diocesan youth ministry, said these chances for youths to
bond with hundreds of their Catholic peers is “an incredible
experience. They are on fire.”
That fire was lit in 1997 for a small group of youths from St.
Patrick’s, Owego, St. John the Evangelist, Newark Valley, and St.
Francis, Catatonk. Dan and Anita Martin, youth ministers, brought nine
people to the Diocesan Youth Convention that year at SUNY College at
“It was extremely intimidating at first. Here we were from this
rural part of the diocese,” Anita Martin recalled of her Tioga County
parishes’ first trip to the convention.
But by the convention’s end, she said, “The kids caught the bug.
They brought their enthusiasm back.” She noted that participation
nearly tripled for the 1998 convention, and her region has posted
strong numbers ever since for both the diocesan convention and NCYC.
One of the Martins’ youth-group members, Tara Maslin, has now
attended three Diocesan Youth Conventions as well as the NCYC in 2001.
“I felt like I got closer to my faith. Every time I went, it got
stronger,” said Tara, 16, who plans to return to the NCYC this fall in
Meanwhile, Spencerport’s St. John the Evangelist Parish saw a rise
in NCYC participation from 18 in 1997 to 48 in 1999. “They see other
kids who are Catholic and recognize that it’s cool to be Catholic,”
said Sue Versluys, who served as St. John’s youth minister from
1992-2001 and is now program specialist for the diocesan Office of
Sean Judge, 14, of Immaculate Conception in Ithaca, said he enjoyed
attending his first Diocesan Youth Convention Aug. 9-10. “It’s pretty
fun, nothing like basketball camp. There, your respect is based on your
skills. Here, the respect is all around,” said Sean, who also plans to
attend his first NCYC in Houston.
High participation levels also can be attributed to parish adults
who get involved through chaperoning and fundraising. Bishop Clark
praised the parishes’ support, saying these events have “given the
entire community a chance to realize what it means to be church.”
Theisen noted Bishop Clark’s deep connection with youth ministry has
been another major reason for the Rochester Diocese’s shining
successes. The bishop is serving his second-consecutive three-year term
as the U.S. bishops’ episcopal liaison to the National Federation for
Catholic Youth Ministry.
“It not only makes a difference locally, it makes a difference
nationally that a bishop takes a big chunk of time out of his extremely
busy schedule,” Theisen commented.
Bishop Clark said his commitment comes not from an obligatory role
as bishop, but as someone who genuinely cares about young people. “They
really do energize me in my own faith,” Bishop Clark said. “I don’t
think we appreciate enough how powerful an influence young people of
faith have on the rest of us.”
On the other hand, big events can be draining. In Toronto, shortly
after the pope’s closing Mass for WYD ’02, Theisen quipped that it was
great he came so close to Rochester — and he hoped the pontiff would
never again venture that near for World Youth Day.
Theisen was perhaps only half-joking: WYD ’02 ended a 12-month
stretch that also saw two Diocesan Youth Conventions and an NCYC.
Currently, Theisen said, his office is asking parishes about the
possibility of cutting back slightly — for instance, not having a
diocesan convention the same year as NCYC.
“What the last couple of years have taught us is that balance is
very important. How much national vs. diocesan vs. local can one fully
support?” Theisen asked rhetorically.
With all the time and money spent on diocesan and national events,
Theisen explained, parish youth ministry runs the risk of getting
pushed aside: “You want the youth minister to go up to a youth and say,
‘How are you doing’ rather than, ‘Where are your (registration)
Although conventions and the like are key in connecting teens to the
larger church, Versluys said youth ministry also means responding to
adolescents who cannot or choose not to take part in large events. This
is especially true of troubled teens, she said.
“Telephone calls, greeting them in church, birthday cards — if we
really are into comprehensive youth ministry, we reach all the kids in
our parishes,” Versluys said.
And yet, Theisen said his office wouldn’t continue offering big
gatherings “if I wasn’t seeing the positive results.” Tara, for one,
said the NCYC in Indianapolis has yielded many positive memories.
“Once you get there, you realize how awesome it is — being in that
arena, and knowing all those people are there for the same thing,” she