Adult chaperons for teen events are designated observers, not participants — normally. But at the National Catholic Youth Conference last month, Cathy Wunder saw that rule of thumb go right out the window.
“With 20,000 people on their feet, you’re just naturally on your feet, too,” said Wunder, who serves as director of sacramental preparation at Blessed Trinity/St. Patrick parishes in the Tioga County area.
“Even the adults were so wrapped up in it all. There’s different parts of the country, different states, different ages. … I’m still on a high,” she added, nearly a month after the conference had ended.
Wunder was one of eight Blessed Trinity/St. Patrick adults who accompanied 25 youths to the NCYC, held Nov. 8-10 in Columbus, Ohio. They were among several Southern Tier parish groups that helped form a huge contingent from the Diocese of Rochester of 552 high-schoolers and 187 adults.
Wunder wasn’t the only grown-up who came home enthused. Deacon Raymond Defendorf, pastoral administrator of St. Mary in Bath, likened the Nationwide Arena’s atmosphere to a rock concert — except that the messages were about the Catholic faith.
“Imagine if you can, the sound of 20,000 young voices singing in unison inspiring hymns of praise, dancing to the ‘Catholic Dance,’ purchasing colorful tee shirts proclaiming ‘I’m Proud to be Catholic,’ clapping enthusiastically when challenged to put their faith into action at school, home and parish and joyfully, respectfully and very attentively celebrating the closing Eucharist,” Deacon Defendorf wrote in a Nov. 18 bulletin article.
The conference also drew one of the best-known “kids at heart” from these parts — Father Gennaro Ventura, a longtime fixture at diocesan youth retreats. The retired diocesan priest, who recently turned 89 years old, journeyed to Columbus with Holy Family Parish in northern Steuben/southern Livingston counties.
On the other hand, this event was still first and foremost about teens. Wunder noted that her 15-year-old daughter, Abby, has formed close bonds with youths at other Blessed Trinity/St. Patrick churches due to their recent NCYC experience.
“They don’t want to give this up. They became like, solid friends, because of this thing they have in common,” Wunder said. She added that openly sharing their beliefs in Columbus will empower them to stand up for their faith in everyday life: “I think they can see how they’ve build up confidence, that these are good beliefs.”
The NCYC is held every two years. Its 2007 theme was “Discover the Way/Descubre el Camino” and included general sessions and keynote presentations; 450 exhibitors and 250 speakers and performers; and daily liturgy and prayer services, discussions and workshops.
Other featured keynoters were Tony Melendez, who plays the guitar with his feet because he was born with no arms; Renee Bondi, who is paralyzed from her chest down as the result of an accident and sang for the crowd even though she had been told by doctors she would never sing again; and Father Tony Ricard of New Orleans, who combined humor with heartfelt messages about his city’s struggles to recover from Hurricane Katrina.
Rochester had the highest attendance of any diocese outside of the host city. People from the Rochester Diocese also stood out from the rest of the gathering thanks to their distinct moose hats, which even garnered public mention by Steve Angrisano, a popular Catholic musician who served as NCYC’s master of ceremonies.
Much of the local adult and teen interest in NCYC can be attributed to Bishop Matthew H. Clark, who has a lengthy history of involvement in national youth-ministry initiatives. Deacon Defendorf remarked that his greatest joy was seeing his bishop serve as celebrant of the NCYC’s closing Mass, leading a procession of more than 100 priests, deacons and bishops.
Bishop Clark had not originally been scheduled to celebrate the Nov. 10 Mass, but ended up stepping in for Columbus Bishop Frederick F. Campbell who was recovering from foot surgery. Bishop Campbell has a Southern Tier connection as well — he grew up in Elmira.
“With Bishop Clark there, that was just the highlight,” Wunder said. “He’s good with kids, and I was so proud to be a Catholic, so proud to be from the Diocese of Rochester.”