INDIANAPOLIS — Like many other teenagers, A.J. Terry made sure the time she spent in the thematic park during the National Catholic Youth Conference in Indianapolis also was about helping others.
Terry, a high school freshman who lives in the Diocese of Springfield, Mass., spent several minutes helping put together meals for Pack Away Hunger, an Indianapolis-based organization that provides nutritious dehydrated meals to local food pantries throughout Indiana. The organization also works with international populations.
The meals consist of rice and soy, dehydrated vegetables and a powerful vitamin nutrient pack that goes into it, said Allison Avin, Pack Away Hunger’s director of communications. The meals are sealed and have a long shelf life.
“It’s so great to see everybody serving. It’s a really hands-on way for them to impact someone’s life,” noted Avin, adding that the teenagers were to pack close to 44,000 meals over the three days of the conference.
Terry was happy to do her part.
“I really like to help people. I’m really blessed to not have to worry about things like that,” she told The Criterion, newspaper of the Archdiocese of Indianapolis. “The ability to help people who do have to worry about things like that is really nice.”
Avin was impressed by the teens’ commitment to helping others.
“They all are just really eager to serve,” she said, “and it’s so nice to see young people getting engaged with service to others and having a heart for God and being able to really put that into action.”
The outreach, known as Hands Across Haiti, is a ministry of St. John Paul II Parish in Sellersburg, in the Archdiocese of Indianapolis. It provides decorated T-shirts, school supplies, tote bags and backpacks to its sister parish in Haiti.
Father Thomas Clegg, pastor of St. John II Parish, said his parish started the outreach six years ago, and they were happy to see NCYC participants step up and help with their initiative.
‘Blessed, Broken, Given’
For 15-year-old Tabitha Njoroge, being together with 20,000 Catholic youths from across the country is a revelation, especially considering how much her life has changed in three years.
Back then, Tabitha, her parents and her three sisters had left their homeland in Kenya to come to the United States.“Back there, we were struggling to have a meal,” Njoroge recalled.
It’s partly why the theme of the National Catholic Youth Conference in Indianapolis Nov. 21-23 — “Blessed, Broken, Given” — resonates so much with her.
“I’m blessed with my family. I really couldn’t be myself without them. They help me a lot in my life,” said Njoroge, a member of Holy Angels Parish in her new home, Indianapolis. “And ‘given’ — I was given a chance to come here to the United States to have a new life. It’s a huge opportunity.”
She paused before adding, “It’s not like I’m broken, but leaving my family members at home — like my cousins — it’s kind of lonely sometimes.”
Njoroge’s insights about her life show the dual nature of the mindset of the youths participating in NCYC, a biennial event organized by the National Federation for Catholic Youth Ministry with help from the Archdiocese of Indianapolis as conference host.
For three days, the teenagers formed a joyful, energetic and unifying representation of how much their Catholic faith means to them, of how much they have to offer the Church.
Rowdy to reverent
Inside the convention center, the 20,000 attendees went from rowdy to reverent in a short time. They knelt in silence as a eucharistic procession twined through the Indiana Convention Center, the Blessed Sacrament held aloft in a monstrance carried by Indianapolis Archbishop Charles C. Thompson.
At the opening general session on a chilly night, the youths first warmed up with the musical praise of the band For King and Country.
The sound level and energy were high. But when the 20,000 participants tilted their heads up to watch a videotaped welcome, the sound turned from dull roar to deafening.
“Dear young people of NCYC,” said Pope Francis in his first recorded address to conference participants.
But as with the eucharistic procession, the youths’ shouts turned to silence as Pope Francis read his message.
“I send you an affectionate greeting and my prayers at this moment of encounter that you are living,” he said, occasionally lifting his eyes from a transcript to the camera. “May it be an opportunity to deepen your faith and communion. May it light your missionary hearts with the courage and strength to live in and with the Lord, always as a church sent forth.
Moments later, the darkness of the stadium was broken as one ambassador from each delegation present streamed into the arena, each carrying a candle.
With the area encircled in candlelight, several singers dressed in choir robes ascended the stage and chanted the Emmaus story from the Gospel of Luke.
From the stage, Cleveland Bishop Nelson J. Perez reflected on the reading.
And as with the two disciples, said Bishop Perez, “He’s asking you, ‘What are you talking about? What’s going on in your lives? What’s going on in your hearts? I want to know. I want to listen.’”
He encouraged the youths to consider how they would respond if Christ asked them these questions.
“You might say, ‘Well, Lord, don’t you know everything? You know what’s going on,’” said the bishop. “But He wants to hear it from you. So talk to Him these days, before His presence in the Blessed Sacrament, in moments of prayer.”