Youth and adults gathered to celebrate youth ministry on Nov. 15 at the third annual Witness the Spirit awards presentation, held at Mount St. Mary Academy in Kenmore. The evening saw people of all ages being recognized for the work and support of youth ministry.
"Tonight we are gathered here to celebrate all that is good in this world, to affirm the gifts of young people, to recognize the adult mentors who dedicate themselves to guiding youth through their faith journey, and to share in the mission of proclaiming the Good News," said Alexander Eadie, program director for the diocesan Department of Youth & Young Adult Ministry.
Seventeen teenagers from across the diocese received the Discipleship Award, which honors young people who genuinely live their lives as young disciples and actively participate in their parishes.
Among them was Ryan Fisk, 15, from St. Joseph Parish in Fredonia, who went through the Rite of Christian Initiation two years ago and received the sacraments of baptism, confirmation and First Communion all on the same day. Although his parents are Catholic, Ryan was not involved in the Church. After his parents signed him up for classes the teen found he liked them. Now, he helps others on the same path.
"I wanted to help the people," he said. "So I started going to the classes of the people doing the same thing that I was, and I became an usher because I wanted to get more involved with the Church."
Ryan uses his faith to counter peer pressure and avoid negative behavior.
Over a dozen adults were recognized as Companions on the Journey for being active and supporting their parish's ministry with youth.
The evening was extra special for the Roulhac family. Both 17-year-old Jayla and her mother, Evelyn, took home awards for their work at St. Anthony Parish in Lackawanna. Both mother and daughter teach faith formation at the parish and work with the youth group.
They have a way of paying the faith forward.
"I learned to practice it from my mother," said Evelyn. "She went to Church every Sunday and I try to instill that in Jayla so that she knows that faith is very important, and to volunteer and to serve the Lord. Walking in the light is just as important."
Jayla in turn brings that to her pre-K through first grade students. "(My mother) has taught me all the things that I teach to the students that I'm with," she said. "I hope they understand like I did. She has given me all the tools."
Throughout the evening, the achievements and talents of the youth population were showcased in a series of witness talks.
Eagle Scout Stephen Pasek shared his experiences on the St. George Trek in Albuquerque, N.M., this past summer. The 12-day, 50-mile hike included daily Mass, meditation while hiking and Eucharistic Adoration at the campsite, along with horseback riding and rock climbing.
Speaking on his service at the Response to Love center in Buffalo, Jared Negron, a Canisius High School senior, told of sorting food, setting up for Thanksgiving dinner and delivering toys during Christmas.
"I've seen where the food goes and who has eaten at Response to Love, and it is awesome to be able to say that I am part of all this and I can help make that one person smile," he said. "You come to learn that little things really do make a difference to people."
Artist Joel Congi, from St. Vincent de Paul Parish, Niagara Falls, spoke of how self-doubt led to an artistic block. Only when he focused his attention on God, did he break through the wall.
"God gives people their traits and identities, therefore he gave me my talents and abilities. I needed to find a purpose, and I found a connection," he said. "God had some idea that I need these abilities for something. Whatever it was, it had to be something special."
Congi presented Bishop Richard J. Malone with a charcoal portrait he drew. "You made me look good," Bishop Malone laughed.
Also honored that night was Msgr. Thomas F. Maloney, pastor of St. Amelia Parish in Tonawanda, who was presented with the Venerable Nelson Baker Award, which honors a priest who has demonstrated consistent and dedicated commitment to youth. Father Maloney organized a Scout pack in his first parish after being ordained a priest and has involved over 600 people in a bike trek to his home in Canada. In every parish he has worked he has retained a position for youth minister.
"This is a thrill for me to receive this award," he said. "Father Baker has long been one of my heroes."
After years of coaching basketball and chaperoning dances, he feels his role now is to keep youth front and center in the life of the parish.
"St. Amelia's has a long tradition of fostering youth and serving youth. That's reflected in how we spend our money and how we budget for the needs of the youth. And that's only possible because our people are aware of what's going on with our youth," he said. "Our youth are very important to our people, so they support the parish to such a degree that we are able to make financial provisions for youth ministry. It is very much a team effort."
Bishop Malone, who had just returned from a weeklong USCCB meeting, congratulated everyone and discussed his concern for Catholics who were "sacramentalized but not evangelized," people who received the sacraments, but never had an encounter with Jesus that left a mark on their souls that made them intentional disciples.
"I see in the development in the life of our diocese a wonderful core of young intentional disciples," the bishop said. "You're choosing in a very deliberate way to follow Christ, to accept the gift of His friendship, and to live lives that express that relationship with Christ and make a difference in the world. I am so grateful to all of you and so proud of you."