ROCHESTER — Hundreds of teens gathered at the Rochester Plaza Hotel Nov. 21-23 to sing, dance, pray and play together and to learn how to incorporate Catholic social teaching into their daily lives.
The theme of the weekend was “Christ reigns — He’s real, He rules, He reigns.” Many of the weekend’s workshops and activities focused on the principal of solidarity and encouraged young people to realize they’re called to proclaim peace and salvation and provide good tidings to all of God’s children.
Organizers chose this theme for several reasons, said Sue Versluys, diocesan coordinator of youth ministry. One reason is the boycott of the hotel — formerly known as the Crowne Plaza Hotel — by the group Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice, whose membership includes some Catholic clergy and laity. The boycott began in March in response to an ongoing labor dispute at the hotel.
Before the boycott began diocesan officials had already contracted with the hotel to hold the convention there, Versluys said. Even though they didn’t want to defy the boycott, the convention organizers were legally obligated to honor the contract, she noted. Instead, Versluys said, organizers decided to use the situation as an opportunity to educate the teens about economic injustice and the dignity, rights and responsibilities of every human being.
Versluys also said her interest in this theme of Catholic social teaching and solidarity was sparked in part by a two-week trip she took to Nigeria last April through a joint effort of Catholic Relief Services and the National Federation for Catholic Youth Ministry.
“I thought I knew everything about Africa until I got there,” she told the Catholic Courier. “It was so different from what I could have imagined, and the relationships that I formed with people were so different from what I could have imagined. We thought, ‘How can we give the kids the same kind of experience where they form relationships?”
To do that, Versluys and her fellow organizers planned a series of excursions to allow the teens to get to know people of various backgrounds and faiths different from their own. This option was offered to parish groups that registered for the convention early and is a new and exciting component of the annual convention, Versluys said.
These teens took their excursions the afternoon of Nov. 22, visiting such places as the Islamic Center in Rochester and a Brockport farm that employs migrant workers. They also met with people from Darfur, Sudan and Haiti. Meanwhile, the rest of the convention participants took a trip of their own to Aquinas Institute, where they participated in games and simulation activities designed to help them learn more about other cultures and realize how easy stereotypes can breed misconceptions.
The games also encouraged the teens to work collaboratively, said Alisa Johnson, 16. Alisa and her fellow teens from St. Patrick Parish in Victor also attended a workshop presented by Sister Donna Del Santo, vocations director for the Sisters of St. Joseph, about the reasons Catholics are called to love and care for others. Fellow St. Patrick parishioners Erin Hart, 15, and Erica Randall, 15, said they already knew a little about Catholic social teaching but the workshop really helped it come alive for them.
The convention participants regrouped at the evening of Nov. 22 for Mass with Father Joseph Marcoux, sacramental minister at St. John the Evangelist Parish in Clyde, St. Patrick Parish in Savannah and St. Michael Parish in Lyons. Father Marcoux also led a reconciliation service the night of Nov. 21 at the hotel, where more than a dozen diocesan priests heard individual confessions from hundreds of convention participants.
The topic of reconciliation fit in nicely with the convention’s theme because it is crucial for Catholics to reconcile themselves with God before they can hope to help others, Father Marcoux told participants at the start of the Nov. 21 reconciliation service.
“There’s no way they’re going to see the kingdom in us if we don’t see it ourselves first,” he said.
Once participants had made their peace with God and themselves, they shouldn’t let anything prevent them from making a positive change in others’ lives, keynote speaker Jerry Goebel told them. Goebel, a singer and songwriter, told the teens this can mean doing something as simple as being intentionally courteous to others in school.
“Two percent with a common vision can change the entire culture. Let’s start here. We’re 2 percent of something. Let’s take a stand here,” said Goebel, who travels the country seeking to connect kids and communities through his ONEFamily Outreach.
The teens apparently took his words to heart and put their newfound knowledge of Catholic social teaching into practice during the Nov. 21 liturgy, when they took up a collection to help people without running water in Namu, Nigeria. The $1,117 they raised will be used to run a water line to the town, Versluys said.