Thousands gather for state Catholic youth rally

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By Jennifer Mauro – Catholic News Service

JACKSON TOWNSHIP, N.J. — “I love this song,” said a young man, one of nearly 3,000 faithful gathered for the May 19 NJ Catholic Youth Rally, as he jumped to his feet in the Six Flags Great Adventure arena.

The Franciscan Sisters of the Renewal, who serve in Atlantic City, hosted the opening prayer and welcome May 19 NJ Catholic Youth Rally at Six Flags Great Adventure in Jackson Township.

Turning around 360 degrees, he raised his arms to encourage those around him to stand up and join the praise band in singing “Our God.”

But his encouragement wasn’t needed, as youth from parishes in the five dioceses in the state, their families and youth ministry leaders were already standing, hands in the air, and singing, “And if our God is for us, then who could ever stop us? And if our God is with us, then what could stand against?”

The annual NJ Catholic Youth Rally, organized by the dioceses of Trenton, Camden, Metuchen and Paterson as well as the Archdiocese of Newark, brought together parish youth ministries and leaders, families and faith communities for a day of fun, lunch and Mass and a concert by Christian artist Matt Maher.

The day was a mix of activity and prayer.

Of the 3,000 participants at the rally, some 500 were from the Diocese of Camden. They represented 23 South Jersey parishes and schools.

Next year the Diocese of Camden is the hosting diocese for the Mass. This year Camden collaborated with the Franciscan Sisters of the Renewal in Atlantic City in hosting the opening prayer and welcome. Sister Chiara spoke about attending the Six Flags Great Adventure event as a teenager from North Jersey. She recalled the fun she had and the importance of belonging to a youth group that helped her grow in her faith and eventually hear God’s call to become a sister.

Gregory A. Coogan, director of Youth, Young Adult and Campus Ministries for Camden, said the annual event tries to reach today’s youth in the same way.

South Jersey participants smile for the camera.

“Parishes and youth ministries have used this event to help build community and strengthen the ministry’s relationship with teens who don’t necessarily come to a youth group event. Some parishes use this as a thank you to celebrate youth choirs, altar servers or other teens who are involved in parish life,” he said. 

In short, he said. the main purpose is to “build a culture of community and evangelization through good old family fun.”

At the end of a day of roller coasters, faith and camaraderie, Bishop David M. O’Connell of Trenton, principal celebrant of the Mass, asked, “Are you willing to be known as a Catholic? As a Christian?” 

“Does your faith make a difference in the way you show yourself to others, in the way you live as a young person?” he continued. “Here’s the fact: We are all created by God just as we are, and God loves us just as we are, regardless of what others may think about us. Don’t let anyone tell you differently,” Bishop O’Connell continued.

“At every moment of our lives, God is present, offering us his love. Our strengths, our talents are God’s gifts. Our weaknesses are God’s gifts, too, opportunities to grow. No one is perfect. Everyone is different. We grow. We change. We mature. But right now we are who we are.

“Gifts can come in all kinds of packages,” he continued. “You are God’s gifts, every one of you. What’s on the outside of the package is only the means to cause you to open up and find the gift, to use the gift, to share the gift — your true self. … Love is our true self. Show your true self to everyone you meet, with all your strengths and even with all your weaknesses. That is the message of our faith.”

After Bishop O’Connell’s homily, nearly a dozen concelebrating priests from the Diocese of Trenton and beyond went out into Great Adventure’s Northern Star Arena to distribute the Eucharist. They were joined by more than 40 youth, young adults and volunteers who served as readers, extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion, musicians or in other ministries in support of Mass.

Faithful of all ages roamed the park in the hours before Mass, many wearing T-shirts that represented the parish and town from which they hailed.

“It’s special to have a bunch of people here with the same beliefs,” John Ruona of Saint Mary of the Lakes Parish in Medford said as he and his fellow youth ministry pal walked through the park.