INDIANAPOLIS — You wouldn’t know it by speaking with the joyful, ever-smiling 16-year-old, but Jhocelin Morquecho remembers a time when she lost confidence in herself.
“I was always confident growing up, but then two and a half years ago, I got braces on my teeth,” she explains. Fearful of the comments from classmates, she kept a closed mouth and stayed quiet.
After she, along with three of her fellow youth group members from Pennsauken’s Mary, Queen of All Saints Parish, were picked to be youth ambassadors for last week’s National Catholic Youth Conference (NCYC) here, though, Jhocelin found a reason to open her mouth, proudly show her braces and raise her voice in front of her peers. “God called me” to do his work, she said.
Jhocelin realized her mission and voice in introducing Father Tony Ricard, a priest of the Archdiocese of New Orleans.
The largest gathering of Catholic youth in the country, the biennial National Catholic Youth Conference drew thousands of passionate high schoolers to Lucas Oil Stadium and the Indiana Convention Center.
Held the week before Thanksgiving, the event gathered pilgrims under the stadium dome and into the conference halls. After a three-day feast of speakers, silence in Adoration, workshops, new friendships, testimony, Scripture, and Eucharistic celebration, it would be hard to find a heart not satisfied at the table.
The Diocese of Camden sent its largest-ever delegation to NCYC, with 120 youth and their adult chaperones from 10 parishes making the bus trip late Wednesday night, Nov. 20, from Our Lady of Peace Parish, Williamstown, and returning Sunday afternoon, Nov. 24.
The three days focused on the Road to Emmaus, the account of the disciples encountering the Risen Christ told in the Gospel of Luke, 24:13-35. Guest speakers and emcees author Katie Prejean McGrady and Father Agustino Torres, CFR encouraged youth to read the Bible daily to find themselves transformed on the journey, as the Emmaus pilgrims did.
During the opening night on Thursday, Christian performers For King and Country had all on their feet as they performed songs with titles like “God Only Knows” and “Priceless.”
Earlier, someone with even bigger rock star status drew the loudest cheers from the youthful thousands — it was Pope Francis, appearing to them via a recorded message on the stadium’s giant video screens.
“I send you an affectionate greeting and my prayers at this moment of encounter you are living,” he said. He also expressed the hope that their time in Indiana would “light your missionary hearts with the courage and strength to live in and with the Lord always as a church sent forth.”
The crowd was sometimes loud and energetic and sometimes silent, as it was for Eucharistic Adoration the next evening, with reverent music from Ike Ndolo, Ricky Vasquez and Sarah Kroger.
“This is way bigger and more amazing than I thought it would be,” said 17-year-old Adrian Saywahn, part of the delegation from Egg Harbor Towship’s Saint Katharine Drexel Parish.
He was captivated most by the talk from author Immaculee Illibagiza, who shared her story of survival in the Rwandan genocide that claimed the lives of her family and friends. Persisting in her faith during a harrowing three months hiding in a small bathroom, she told the youth that “I wouldn’t be here today if I didn’t pray, stay close to Jesus and lean on the Blessed Mother.”
“My mother and father survived the Liberian genocide” and its civil war, Adrian said.
He went home after Immaculee’s talk realizing that “God can do a lot of things if you look to him for help.”
With its emphasis on unpacking the Scriptures, NCYC was “a unique opportunity” for Serena Colon, 16, of Saint Mary of Mount Carmel Parish, Hammonton.,
“I’ve deepened my faith,” she says, adding that she’s “ready to read the Bible, understand Scripture and defend my faith, and I’m excited to pursue that, now and long after the conference is over.”
Her fellow youth group member, 17-year-old Addie Mantoan, also traveled to Indianapolis, along with her brother Byron, 16. Along with Jhocelin Morquecho and others from South Jersey, Addie served as a youth ambassador, introducing workshop speakers speakers and, at one point, even participating in the larger evening sessions. “I hope to go again and bring my other siblings with me next time,” she said.
Aidan Brandt, 16, of the delegation from Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton Parish, Absecon, said his “relationship with God was strengthened” not only through the keynotes and workshops, but also through encountering a church his own age, with the same questions, concerns and desires for the faith that he has.
Meeting peers from California, Montana, Georgia and other states, Aidan engaged in the NCYC tradition of sharing and trading such items as hats, pins and scarves. A simple introductory proposal for a crab hat in exchange for a cheese necklace can lead to deeper conversations. Aidan and his fellow South Jersey youth passed out stickers and wore aprons saying “Jersey Fresh.”
Aidan said he found courage in Indianapolis to keep the fire of the faith alive and present.
“I’m not going to be afraid to incorporate Jesus more into my conversations with friends,” he said.
Jose Rodriguez, coordinator of Youth Ministry for the Diocese of Camden and leader of the Camden delegation to NCYC, called NCYC a “blessing that all walks of youth life from South Jersey — Caucasians, Hispanics, Haitians and African-Americans — came to Indianapolis to bear witness, be part of the body of the Catholic Church, and fall in love with the faith.”
“The now of the church, the youth, is promising,” he said.