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 | By Emily Hockemeyer

Experiencing the Universal Church

Catholic youth events gift joy and spiritual growth

In a park outside of Lisbon, Portugal and in an arena in Indianapolis, young people from the Diocese of Saginaw experienced something beautiful. Together with the faithful from all walks of life, they knelt before Jesus in the Holy Eucharist, worshiping; sometimes in many different languages in the Mass, sometimes in silent adoration.

These young pilgrims had the opportunity to encounter Jesus in profound ways and to embrace their Catholic identity anew through World Youth Day and the National Catholic Youth Conference in 2023 and SEEK in January. At each, they were able to witness the universality of the Church with thousands of young, passionate Catholics— just like them.

“Catholic means universal. You hear about being the universal church. You don’t always see it. You don’t always feel it. But surrounding yourself with cultures and languages sharing the same faith is indescribable,” said Julia Esch, who attended World Youth Day. “This is a resounding truth. Anywhere in the world, you know what you profess and celebrate and what you believe. I saw it in action. I experienced it. I did it. And I want to do it again.”


Local pilgrims join more than 1.5 million young Catholics in Lisbon


In August of 2023, Lisbon, Portugal hosted the 37th  World Youth Day. Over 1.5 million Catholics aged between 18 and 35 poured into the country to unite as one Church. This weeklong global gathering where young people come together to "deepen their faith, experience the universality of the Catholic Church, and commit their lives to Christ alongside hundreds of thousands of like-minded peers,” ignites a sense of belonging, according to the WYD website.  The spiritual immersion invites participants to explore Catholic traditions through prayer, Masses, speeches and church tours. People of all cultures and backgrounds are welcome to worship God together and celebrate the Catholic faith.

When Julia Esch and Mary Sacha, both members of St. Mary's University Parish, had the opportunity to attend WYD, it was never a question of if they were attending; it was only a matter of how.

Though traveling abroad comes with a hefty price tag, both young women were inspired by their families to figure it out. Mary's parents attended the event in Colorado decades earlier as newlyweds, and Julia's older sister attended in Poland. As Julia recalls, they all held the same sentiment: "WYD is a big deal; it's a life-changing, incredibly transformative experience that single-handedly shaped their faith journey."

When WYD announced Lisbon as the 2023 destination, Julia and Mary registered without hesitation.

"If money is the only thing stopping me, God will work miracles, and I'll figure it out," Mary said.

Their two years of fundraising efforts, supported by the parishioners at St. Mary’s and Sacred Heart Parish in Mount Pleasant, also played a pivotal role in their success. Julia expressed that "their Catholic communities and parents were the biggest cheerleaders and advocates of this faith journey.”

“It was soul-stirring.”

In July, Julia and Mary, along with 14 young adults from St. Mary's and Sacred Heart, embarked on their journey across the Atlantic Ocean to join more than 1.5 million young Catholics in Portugal.

"The event was so significant, it took over a two-hour radius around Lisbon,” Mary said, describing parks, churches, schools and streets crowded with joyous Catholics celebrating the spirit of Jesus. Most towns in the surrounding areas shut down to accommodate the event.

"The sheer number of people present was a testament to the power of Jesus. It was comforting. It was genuine. It was soul-stirring,” she remarked.

When challenged to share an emotion Julia and Mary felt most, there was no hesitation: joy.

“It was not just an earthly joy but a heavenly joy,” Mary said.

Joy flooded the colorful yet worn streets as strangers stopped with genuine curiosity to hear the faith stories of passersby. Joy filled the eyes of strangers as they sang the same song and prayed the same prayer in different languages. Joy fanned from the hearts of strangers from over two hundred countries as they celebrated their Catholic faith.

During the opening ceremony, Julia described her joy in witnessing hundreds of thousands of faithful waving their nations’ flags in a big field. Goosebumps covered her arms as she recalled intentionally pausing to listen to various languages being spoken, sung and prayed in simultaneously. The spirit of Jesus was alive in both the confidence of the collective voices during the Lord's Prayer and in the stillness and solidarity of strangers gathering for the same purpose: to worship Jesus.

“I just remember the priest holding the Eucharist,” Mary said. “Hundreds of priests have their hands out … consecrating the Host. A sea of people kneeled proudly and humbly holding their country’s flag. Yet everyone was silent and looking at the Eucharist.”

Mary said her soul radiated joy listening to diverse voices as she finally understood how God and the Catholic faith are our universal link. In the moments leading up to Communion, Mary recalls each priest opening a white umbrella, symbolizing truth, unity and protection, to mark the spot to receive Communion.

But what touched Mary most was witnessing 1.5 million young Catholics receiving Communion almost concurrently, reminding her of the immense power of our universal faith. The feeling of belonging was palpable and unforgettable.

Joy, belonging and peace

Julia and Mary experienced immense spiritual growth during their pilgrimage to Lisbon.

“It was joyous work that deepened [our] faith, hope and love for Jesus,” Julia said. Though the group faced challenges such as heat waves, transportation difficulties and sleeping on a gym floor, they were “not on the trip for fun; they were on the trip for their faith.”

They also experienced many moments of God’s grace as they witnessed the universal apostolic Church.

"When you truly understand what our Catholic faith stands for, you understand that there is a level of acceptance, vulnerability and common love that you simply won't find anywhere else,” Mary said.

The lesson Julia has carried home is one of great hope.

“There is peace in chaos. There is hope in darkness,” Julia said. “I believe in the power of relationships and belonging. I have hope that all Catholics can create the peace needed to understand one another.”


Strengthening Catholic identity and community at NCYC


For three days in November, high school students gathered in Indianapolis for a spiritual boost. The National Catholic Youth Conference (NCYC), offers opportunities to receive the sacraments, learn about the Faith through breakout sessions and keynote speakers, participate in service projects and enjoy the fellowship of other young Catholics.

NCYC welcomes all participants to feel, see and hear the depth of the Catholic community. Youth are able to choose which daily sessions fit their needs as they grow in their Catholic identity.

“The seed is planted just by being present at the conference. From there, how those seeds are watered and where they grow is completely in God's hands, fostered by their home parishes on the return home,” said Nikki Bakos, director of faith formation at St. Dominic Parish in Saginaw.

The power of community

Elizabeth Garner, a junior at Nouvel Catholic High School, and Lailah Medina, a sophomore at Heritage High School, had never heard of the conference when they were first invited. They weren't sure if NCYC would truly speak to them as teenagers, or just be "cheesy." Though they each had some reservations,  both young women made the five-hour drive south after being personally invited by their parents or religious mentors.

Shawna Medina, Lailah's mother and a youth ministry leader at Ss. Francis and Clare Parish in Birch Run, attended the event with both of her daughters. She commented that while the small group she chaperoned was initially hesitant, they were hooked the first night. The turning point was flooding the stadium with 15,000 high school students to watch a performance featuring the Christian pop duo, For King & Country.

Lailah agrees that she was amazed the first night by the thousands of youth coming together to worship the same God.

"I realized we are all alike; we might like different things, but we were all there because of our faith," she said.

Some of the most powerful moments came when all attendees were together in the stadium. Nikki was moved by the immense power that ignited the crowd during the larger sessions.

"The most amazing part of this event," she said, "is being surrounded by 15,000 high school youth who are all present to celebrate their faith."

“His power was the silence.”

Elizabeth also felt the same power during Mass and Eucharistic adoration.

"In the stadium, where thousands of youth were gathered, it became silent because everyone was kneeling in adoration towards Jesus. It was a peaceful moment that offered reflection and forced us to experience silence. Even though it was silent, you could still feel the power of Jesus. His power was the silence."

During the conference, attendees could participate in smaller sessions on a wide variety of topics. Lailah chose to attend a session about how to pray. The session leader taught attendees a layout to follow and different steps to consider when praying. Lailah found it comforting to know that "God wants her to talk to him as a friend" rather than relying solely on scripted prayers like the Our Father  and Hail Mary.

Lailah learned that she could foster a more genuine relationship with God by praying through various methods such as writing, journaling, listening to music or creating a designated prayer space with items like pictures, Bibles and rosaries.

Prayer is a skill that requires reflection. It's not just about how you pray but why you do it. Nikki suggests that providing our young people with different methods to connect with God allows them to explore what works best for them, boosting their confidence and comfort.

Reflect, listen, grow

Elizabeth enjoyed ending each day by gathering with her group and discussing what they had learned that day. She was fascinated to hear how her peers interpreted what they heard, saw and noticed.

"Learning from them at the end of the day was just as powerful as learning from the experts in the small groups," she said.

NCYC’s impact stretches far beyond the conference as attendees continue to reflect on their experiences. Elizabeth and Lailah both came back with increased confidence, and one of Lailah’s friends who attended has decided to seek baptism, along with her sibling. Elizabeth also noticed a significant difference in her growth from attending the conference during her first year to her junior year. She now talks about God more comfortably and confidently shares her God-given talents and gifts. Lailah created a prayer corner in her bedroom, which serves as a visual reminder to keep up her prayer routine.

“It is my safe place where I can go and give it all to God and just worship,” she said. “I truly feel that he’s done so much good for me since that trip. He had a plan, and he knew that this trip was just what I needed.”

As students return from the three faith-filled days, Nikki said, “the conference empowers them. They are energized. They are confident. They are transformed. They are cleansed. And the best part? They want to go again and again.”

Shawna said her daughters are already looking forward to NCYC 2024 in California.

“They want to take a bigger group of friends, and I fully support them because I am certain that this event is life-changing,” she said. “I pray that everyone that has the opportunity to attend will go, and really open up to receive God's blessings that He has for each of them.”


Youth and Young Adult Ministry in the Diocese of Saginaw


Our parishes and the Diocese offer many opportunities for youth to connect with their peers to explore the Catholic faith, serve others and have fun.

Look in future issues of Great Lakes Bay Catholic for an upcoming regular column about youth and young adult ministry, faith and opportunities!


Deepening faith at SEEK24


Abigail Monahan had been to major Catholic conferences before. She’d attended Steubenville Conferences offered by Franciscan University in high school and Encounter Conferences with her family. But SEEK, she said, was unlike anything she’d experienced before.

“It completely exceeded all of my expectations,” said Abigail, a first-year graduate student at Hillsdale College studying classical education. “It was so encouraging and beautiful to see so many people gathered together to worship the Lord and grow deeper in their faith.”

Abigail and nine other college students from St. Mary’s University Parish at Central Michigan University in Mount Pleasant, Saginaw Valley State University and Alma College journeyed to St. Louis for SEEK24. Sponsored by the Fellowship of Catholic University Students (FOCUS), SEEK featured liturgies, praise and worship, impactful speakers and the opportunity to receive the Sacrament of Reconciliation. More than 20,000 people from across the country attended the conference, themed “Be the Light.”

“SEEK provides a very tangible reminder of the vibrancy of the Church from the distances that people traveled, to the different talks that you could choose depending on where you wanted to go deeper in your faith, to the variety of ministries and religious orders present,” said Abigail. She is a Mount Pleasant native and attends Mass at St. Joseph the Worker Parish in Beal City.

The vibrancy and diversity of those gathered also impacted Father Matt Gembrowski, who led the pilgrimage and serves as parochial vicar and chaplain of St. Mary University Parish and parochial vicar at St. Brigid of Kildare Parish in Midland.

“I really wanted to give the students the experience and sense of the universal Church, at least in the United States,” he said, noting that he met people from all walks of life during the conference. “It was really encouraging; you see so many people who are taking their faith seriously.”

In fact, when Father Matt wanted to pray in the Eucharistic Adoration Chapel at SEEK24, he was amazed to find the large conference room packed with hundreds of young adults adoring Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament.

“It's really refreshing to see so many people taking their faith with real seriousness and trying to live a joyful Catholic life,” he said.

Father Matt also had the opportunity to concelebrate daily Masses with the 500 other priests attending, as well as hear confessions and minister to others.

The highlight for Father Matt was the night of Eucharistic adoration. As thousands adored Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament, hundreds of priests heard confessions in a separate ballroom.

“That was just amazing. Everybody is focused on the Lord Jesus, at least for just a solid two hours, praying to him and reconciling with him,” he said. “It doesn't get any better than that.”

Abigail said the SEEK conference is continuing to have an impact.

“Different talks, confession and prayer teams really helped bring to light some areas where I needed to grow in my spiritual life, as well as bringing encouragement and peace in areas that I had been struggling with,” she said. “It has helped me dive deeper into daily periods of silent prayer with the Lord and renewed my joy and conviction of the mission that each person has to be a witness to the beauty of the Faith by our lives.”

Abigail added that SEEK can have a positive effect for anyone, no matter where they are in their faith journey.

“SEEK is truly a beautiful experience that does not end when you leave, but truly changes your life!”