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Prayer and pizza: Teens celebrate their faith at RALLY 2021

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More than 750 high school students and adult youth ministers from 44 parishes gathered Oct. 24 at Bishop O’Connell High School in Arlington for RALLY 2021, a day of prayer, fellowship, inspiration, heartfelt sharing and listening — and of course pizza.

“We are very excited to be able to gather again with hundreds of Catholic teens from across the diocese,” said Kevin Bohli, executive director of diocesan Youth, Campus and Young Adult Ministries, which coordinated the event, meant to be a “high-energy day to provide teens with a great experience of their Catholic faith.” This was the largest fully in-person diocesan youth gathering since January 2020, after many youth events were downsized to the parish or regional levels during the height of the pandemic.

“While the best faith formation is always what happens in the home by the parents, large diocesan activities like this help to affirm the faith in the life of a young person,” Bohli said. “When they see hundreds of other teens striving to live their faith, it gives them the strength and encouragement to grow in their own relationship with Jesus.”

In between presentations, confessions and an afternoon Mass with Bishop Michael F. Burbidge, there were plenty of opportunities to get outside on a perfect fall afternoon with old and new friends. Teens roamed the campus to explore activities such as scaling a rock-climbing tower,  spinning upside down on “The Human Whirl” and competing gladiator-style in giant inflatable games.

One special addition to the day’s activities was a listening session at which Bishop Burbidge asked the teens, many of whom attend public schools, to share their comments about what it’s like to be a teen today among Catholics “journeying together as a church.” He said their comments would be included in his report to Pope Francis at the upcoming 2023 Synod of Bishops. This was the first of many such listening sessions planned across the diocese, and the pope wants “to listen especially to young people,” Bishop Burbidge said.

The day began with a keynote address by Jackie Francois Angel, a singer, speaker and home-schooling mom of four, who started with a game of “guess that tune” as she played snippets of popular love songs and spoke about the love of God.

“When somebody sings you a love song, do you want them to sing, ‘I will love you for two weeks?’ ” Of course not —  we want to be loved forever, she said.

“There are people who live their whole lives thinking more money, or more ‘likes’ (on social media) will make them happy. Please don’t wait until you’re 80 years old to figure out that those things will not make you happy — the only thing that will make you happy is God’s eternal love,” she said. “God wants the best for us. God made us, you guys,” she told the teens.

She acknowledged that many people, including herself, come from families dealing with “a whole lot of stuff,” but “if you don’t let God heal you, you’re going to keep hurting other people. 

“When you go to Mass and receive the Eucharist,” she added, “this is really God, and he’s actually healing you. But you have to open your heart.”

At the beginning of the Mass, standing beside an altar on the auditorium stage, Bishop Burbidge greeted the teens and youth ministers warmly. “I’ve missed this kind of time very much, as we have persevered through this very difficult time” of the pandemic, he said. He counseled teens to turn to God during quiet moments of the day, including adoration after dinner, and respond to the question Jesus asked the blind man, Bartimaeus, in the Gospel: “What do you want me to do for you?”

“Tell him the graces or strengths you’re seeking,” he said. “Pray for the grace to say, ‘Yes Lord, I do believe.’ And then be prepared and ready to receive his grace, healing and miracles he will work in your life.”

At the listening session after the Mass, Bishop Burbidge asked teens to prayerfully respond to six questions, including “What brings you the most joy about being Catholic?”, “Is there anything you think the Church doesn’t understand about high schoolers today?” and “What makes being Catholic the most difficult?”

Teens were forthright, articulate and eager to share their views.

One teen appreciated the global nature of the Catholic Church. “You’re at home everywhere in the world,” she said. “The people are my family, and the church is my home.” Another teen, an exchange student from Spain who attends the youth group at St. Matthew Church in Spotsylvania, said he appreciates that teachers and priests, and written reference materials, are always available to answer questions. “There are all these people and things that are here to help you,” he said.

Several teens said many of their friends misunderstand the Catholic church as “a mean religion” or a church “full of haters,” instead of what they know is a church trying to share God’s love.

“I don’t think the church listens enough to high schoolers,” one student said. “They are hurting and need help and acceptance before you try to change them. Try to help them and accept them first.”

“What high schoolers really need today is more love in general,” said a student from St. John the Apostle Church in Leesburg. “Church is supposed to be a sanctuary, no matter how you identify or your race or class. Everyone is just as deserving of that love.”

Bishop Burbidge told the young people he empathized with their struggles. “You’re out on the front lines. I wish I could tell you it's not going to be hard to be Catholic, but (as Jesus said) you will be persecuted and labeled. You say something in truth and love, and you’re called homophobic and a hater.

“But that’s also a strategy that others are using to silence you,” he added. “You can speak and live the truth lovingly.” 

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© Arlington Catholic Herald 2021