Kristen L. Byrd, Special to The Catholic Virginian

Wearing T-shirts professing “Christ Our Hope,” more than 1,900 youth and young adults from across the Diocese of Richmond gathered in downtown Richmond the weekend of Feb. 8-10 for faith and fellowship.

High school and college students from all 145 parishes participated in the annual Diocesan Youth Conference and College Summit. A unique social and spiritual opportunity to come together as one, participants attended Mass celebrated by Bishop Barry C. Knestout; had the opportunity to receive the sacrament of reconciliation; and participated in eucharistic adoration.

Dozens of panels and sessions exploring what it means to be Catholic were also offered, focusing on immigration, sexuality, social anxiety, the role of social media and the relationship between science and God. Others centered on traditional aspects of Catholicism such as ritual, saints and sinners, heaven and hell, and the Virgin Mary.

DYC partnered with Rise Against Hunger by having participants prepare meals for those in impoverished countries. There were also games, concerts, selfies with the bishop and an inflatable play area.

It was a packed weekend and a packed house, as some students had to sit on the floor or stand against the wall to listen to sessions.

One of the most crowded panels was “Welcoming the Stranger.” It was a moderated discussion on immigration which included a priest, immigration lawyer and youth ministers. It didn’t advocate building a wall or tearing one down; it worked to humanize immigrants of all ages from throughout the world.

Youth from throughout the diocese served as the choir for the Saturday, Feb. 9 Mass concelebrated by Bishop Barry C. Knestout and priests of the diocese. (Photo/Vy Barto)

It looked at the reasons for immigration, such as to escape war or crime, reunite with family, or seek education and employment; clearly defined ‘refugee’ and ‘asylum’; it looked at biblical references to immigration.

One passage cited was Matthew 25:35: “For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you made me welcome.” Within a room full of strangers, there was a realization that everyone can be considered a stranger — or immigrant — at some point.

Father Joseph Goldsmith, who is of Panamanian heritage and is administrator of Church of the Sacred Heart, Prince George, said, “Our faith reminds us that we are all pilgrims. We can’t truly call any place on Earth home because ultimately our home is with God.”

Social media shouldn’t determine your worth

Another breakout session, “This is Me: Realizing Your True Worth,” encouraged teens to be proud of their faith, comfortable in their Christianity and true to their authentic self, regardless of how many “likes” they get on social media.

Speaking about the role of social media in young adults’ lives, presenter Maggie Curtis said that even though she is an adult with a husband and child, she, too, still gets caught up comparing her life to the perfect frozen smiles that fill up her Instagram feed. But those pictures, she said, only capture a choreographed moment; they are not real life.

Several sessions touched on the issue of social media and encouraged participants to stop measuring their self-worth by how many followers they have on Twitter and instead focus on being a follower of Christ.

Curtis, a member of the Church of the Epiphany, Richmond, also talked about her experience being bullied, a rising problem in middle and high schools. She noted that even Jesus was bullied throughout his preaching years and was ultimately killed.

Curtis said she finally felt accepted when she joined her church’s youth group, saying, “Youth group was a place where I could be myself. It was a community of Catholics where we could walk together on our faith journey. People authentically loved me.”

Michael School, director of the diocese’s Office for Evangelization which sponsors DYC, said the event “helps inspire those who participate to go back home and spread the Gospel message to all they encounter. For many participants, it’s a weekend filled with ‘firsts’ — the first time they participated in a Mass celebrated by the bishop, first time they participated adoration, first time they served the poor and needy, first time they were around a lot of other Catholics. These are all ‘firsts’ that involve an encounter with Christ that has the power to transform their lives and draw them closer to Jesus and the Church.”

While the Diocese of Richmond covers more area than the states of New Jersey, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Delaware, Rhode Island and Hawaii combined, the population is spread out, thus finding a dense young Catholic population can be difficult. DYC provided students an opportunity to feel less isolated by showing them that there are hundreds of young people like them.

Connecting with God, others

A big draw for many of the students was having a chance to connect with God and each other and to share their faith.

Fifteen-year-old Kenadi Knight, a parishioner at St. Thomas More, Lynchburg, said, “It’s kind of hard with different people back at home because there aren’t many Catholics, but when we come here, they are all teenagers who believe the same thing and you can share your faith.”

For Knight, one of six children, DYC was a family affair. Her 14-year-old sister Tori was with her, as was their mother, who served as chaperone.

Bishop Barry C. Knestout processes with the Blessed Sacrament as he prepares to lead Diocesan Youth Conference participants in eucharistic adoration, Saturday night, Feb. 9, at the Richmond Convention Center. (Photo/Vy Barto)

Mimi Mai, a 16-year-old who attends the Church of Vietnamese Martyrs, Richmond, came back to DYC because “it’s a fun and cool way to interact with other people. More events like this would help get more young people to care about church.”

Missy Bishop has volunteered at DYC for 13 years. Though she didn’t attend an event like this when she was a teenager, she’s glad to be a part of it now. She said the event is pivotal as it is “important to make sure students have an opportunity to find Jesus in a way they’re not used to seeing him.”

For some, DYC offers a spiritual refuge. Fifteenyear- old Dylan Hartman, a member of St. Jude, Louisa, said he came to the conference because it “makes me feel good inside when I do stuff like this. It makes me feel closer to God.”

One of the hopes of organizers is that the teens will return home with a renewed sense of faith, a greater appreciation for the Church and a stronger relationship with themselves and with God.

Arbey Contreras, another 15-year-old from St. Jude, sees that happening.

DYC, he said, offered attendees an “opportunity to make new friends but also have time to yourself to think about your relationship with yourself, with people you know, with God, with everything you love. I’ll come back as many times as I can.”