|| By Gabriela Romeri
Pope Francis, speaking to 500 youth on a pilgrimage to Rome last August, told them: “Make the future with beauty, with goodness and truth. … Have courage. Go forward. Make noise.”
This past May, when 1,500 youth from the Archdiocese of New York came together for New York Catholic Youth Day (NYCYD), they certainly made noise. Beneath the huge tent on the lawn of St. Joseph’s Seminary in Yonkers, N.Y., they gathered to worship, dance, sing and learn, bringing their unique challenges and gifts.
There to welcome them, among other exhibitors, inspirational speakers, entertainers and Cardinal Timothy Dolan, were Maryknoll Sisters Mary Ellen Kempken and Norma Pocasangre. At their booth, the Sisters asked and answered questions regarding mission, challenging youths who stopped by to think beyond their borders.
“You could tell from what they said that some of them have a profound spirituality. They were very curious to learn about mission and the different realities around the world,” says Sister Pocasangre. “We always have the opportunity to help in this world; it’s just that often it requires us to get creative.”
Creativity is not a problem for youth like Brandon Morel, a 23-year-old catechist, artist and entrepreneur who uses hip-hop music as a medium for evangelization. “We are able to speak the language of the kids, with the goal of opening up ways for ecumenical dialogue,” he says.
Growing up in Harlem as Puerto Rican-Dominican, Morel had a hard time fitting in. “I spent a lot of time creating as my escape,” he says. Searching for something deeper, he found faith. Since then, he has brought more than 30 artists together under the label All Is Love, with “the goal of inspiring others to the universal call to holiness, no matter what their background.” His label launched an online radio station for Catholic hip-hop called Radionomy. “I have my hands in a lot of things,” he says, “but the Lord has placed a lot in my heart that I am consistently working to share.”
For Jessica Abejar, 25, dancing isn’t just a pastime. “I want to dance for the Lord,” she says. Abejar, whose parents are Filipino, is using her talents in sacred and liturgical dance to teach workshops, perform at events and worship at Mass. At NYCYD, she helped coordinate and choreograph dancers from five parishes who volunteered to perform.
“Sacred dance is a form of prayer, with the intention of communicating with God, primarily with the movement and rhythm of the body,” Abejar explains. “Liturgical dance is a branch of sacred dancing that is presented during liturgies and services.” Abejar was afraid to pursue sacred dance as a calling until last year when she performed at World Youth Day in Brazil and heard Pope Francis challenge youth to serve without fear. “Every bit of doubt left me. I felt empowered by his words,” she says. “I am meant to dance for the Lord as a part of the new evangelization.”
At NYCYD, Francis Lino, 20, volunteered his time, a precious commodity since he works in a pharmacy and is finishing his degree as a pharmacist technician. Still, he feels called to serve. His early exposure to mission occurred when the Franciscans of the Renewal began a homeless center at St. Adalbert’s Church in the South Bronx, where Lino grew up. The center hosted after-school activities for youth, including volunteer opportunities to assist at-risk adults.
Lino was 7 when he first entered the center, a haven, he says, for youth in his often-dangerous neighborhood. His involvement continues with Youth 2000, a three-day retreat with 24-hour adoration of the Blessed Sacrament. “We have Jesus sitting with us,” Lino says.
To other youth, he says: “Get involved in every God-filled activity; bring God along in your life. Thank God, no matter what you’re going through. ” He believes today’s teenagers face more challenges than he faced. “That’s why they need God in their life,” he says, adding events such as NYCYD are a huge support for youth: “It makes them feel they’re not alone—there’s someone they can turn to, not just Fathers and Brothers, but people their age.”
On this hot, sunny Saturday in May, just as Cardinal Dolan was to begin Mass in the gymnasium, a brief but torrential rain brought all 1,500 youths inside. Cardinal Dolan encouraged them to become shepherds, helping other youth stay safe and leading by example.
At the end of the day, Sister Kempken said talking with youths gave her great hope for the future.
Obviously, these youths have accepted Pope Francis’ challenge to use their talents as missionary disciples, going forward in service to each other and the Kingdom of God, and making noise.
Featured Image: Young participants at New York Catholic Youth Day enthusiastically join in supporting each other in their common call: to be missionary disciples in service to others. (S. Richer/U.S.)