November 10, 2017

Gathering helps middle schoolers dive deeper into their faith

Young members of St. Luke the Evangelist Parish in Indianapolis join hands to pray the Our Father prayer during Holy Fire in Chicago’s UIC Pavilion on Oct. 21. Pictured are Dannielle Le, left, Josie Esposito and Mira Solito. (Submitted photo by Katie Rutter)

Young members of St. Luke the Evangelist Parish in Indianapolis join hands to pray the Our Father prayer during Holy Fire in Chicago’s UIC Pavilion on Oct. 21. Pictured are Dannielle Le, left, Josie Esposito and Mira Solito. (Submitted photo by Katie Rutter)

By Katie Rutter (Special to The Criterion)

CHICAGO—Hundreds of teenagers rushed toward the stage as colorful spotlights swirled upward in fog-filled air. Excited cries mixed with the booming of speakers at Chicago’s massive arena known as the UIC Pavilion. The onstage artist prompted the mass of young people to jump up and down with him.

“You were made for more, no, you were made to soar,” rapped Joe Melendrez. “No, you were made to relate and to praise the Lord.”

“It was really cool,” said Sydney Schausten, a young member of Our Lady of the Greenwood Parish in Greenwood, her energy still high from the excitement of the crowd. “I like how it’s Catholic rapping, which I never knew existed until tonight.”

Known as a Catholic performer, Melendrez’s lyrics are filled with references to faith, Jesus and salvation. He, along with half a dozen others, were the featured artists and speakers of a new event geared toward middle school students. Called “Holy Fire,” the conference was organized by the National Federation for Catholic Youth Ministry, or NFCYM.

“Our attempt with Holy Fire is to reach their hearts with the good news of Jesus Christ, and to let them know that they are needed and valuable in the Church,” explained Michael Theisen, the director of ministry formation for NFCYM, “and to let them know most especially that God loves them.”

Nearly 100 middle school students from the Archdiocese of Indianapolis were some of the nearly 7,000 teens that attended Holy Fire. During the six‑hour event held twice over the span of two days, the young people jammed to Catholic rap, heard uplifting messages and had the opportunity to dive deeper into their faith.

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“It’s the way that we are responding to a culture. It’s not necessarily that we need this every Sunday, that every Sunday liturgy should look like Holy Fire or have that type of music,” explained Scott Williams, director of the archdiocesan Office of Youth Ministry. “It is to say, ‘We love you, young people,’ from the Church.”

The attempt to reach middle schoolers through their own culture began with the first Holy Fire last year. While similar high-energy assemblies existed for high school students, organizers saw that there were no events aimed to excite younger teenagers and invite them to make their faith their own.

“Research has identified the age of 13 as a critical age for having young people make a choice about whether they will remain in the Catholic faith,” said Theisen. “Many, as we’re hearing from the research, are unfortunately choosing to opt out.”

Mustering members of nine parishes for the three-hour drive to Chicago, the Archdiocese of Indianapolis made a pilgrimage to Holy Fire on Oct. 21. To pass the time on one bus, chaperones quizzed the students on Catholic trivia and rewarded correct answers with chips and cookies.

“These kids really have this unique questioning that’s kind of running through their minds, and they’re still at the age where they’re comfortable sharing that,” said Julia Puscas, program coordinator for Youth Ministry in the archdiocese.

“They’re at a point when they’re just drinking in so much that’s happening in their lives, so this really is the perfect fit for exactly what they’re looking for,” she said.

Recognizing that most of their listeners had been baptized as infants, the speakers at Holy Fire urged the young people to make the faith their own. Sister Josephine Garrett, a member of the Sisters of the Holy Family of Nazareth in Texas, told the teens to allow the love of God to take root in their lives and to “give God a shot.”

Musician and speaker Noelle Garcia shared her own story, relating that she struggled with depression and self-harm as a teenager. She ended by asserting that God “calls you out of darkness and into the light. He pursues you relentlessly.”

“I feel like I’m closer to God personally,” said Brayden Reed of St. Christopher Parish in Indianapolis. “I made mistakes. This made me reflect on my mistakes and made me feel like those mistakes don’t control me anymore.”

The day revolved around the sacraments. Dozens of students waited in a long line as about 20 priests heard confessions for nearly an hour. Praise and worship songs led into a period of adoration of the Blessed Sacrament. The monstrance was processed around the arena then placed in the center of the assembly, elevated on a small stage and illuminated by powerful spotlights.

“The adoration impacted me the most,” said Steve Hinko, an eighth-grader and member of Christ the King Parish in Indianapolis. “It’s just a time when you get to pray and talk to God and admire what he did for you.”

Finally, as the culmination of the conference, Mass was celebrated by Cardinal Blase Cupich of Chicago. Standing on a stage flooded by light, Cardinal Cupich addressed the thousands of young people standing in the darkness before him.

“Talking to all of you out there is a bit like talking to God,” he said. “I know you’re out there, but I can’t see you.”

The middle schoolers broke out in laughter, which certainly reassured the cardinal of their presence. Turning to more serious matters in his homily, Cardinal Cupich spoke of the importance of wholesome friendships.

“You can be a force for good, influencing one another. You have the power to do that,” Cardinal Cupich said. “You have great power to influence each other for good, to encourage each other.”

As thousands of teens streamed from the arena, the organizers of Holy Fire asserted that the event would take place in the Windy City again in 2018. The long-term goal is to hold the conference in cities across the country in order to reach teens no matter where they are located.

“A lot of people will talk about the young Church and say, ‘They’re the future of the Church.’ That’s not the case,” explained Williams. “They’re the Church of right now. A junior high student needs to be ministered to just like the elderly, just like those that are tithing.

“We need to do everything to reach out to them even at younger ages to make sure that they’re being spiritually fed the way that we would feed anybody else,” he added.

Even after the music stopped and the stage went dark, the young people of Indianapolis seemed ready to be lights in the world and take their place in the Church.

“I think my role is to be able to understand how and why God does what he does,” explained Garin Colasessano, a member of Christ the King Parish.

“I think my role is to spread the word about Christ,” said Marisa Morwick of St. Jude Parish in Indianapolis, “and tell everybody about what Jesus did for us and how he’s our Savior.”

(Katie Rutter is a freelance writer and member of St. Charles Borromeo Parish in Bloomington.)

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