On Valentines weekend, 750 teenagers were asked to give their hearts to God. As they poured into the Adam's Mark Hotel in downtown Buffalo to attend the 62nd annual Diocesan Youth Convention, they saw a banner with a broken heart. The more they learned about their faith, experienced their faith and shared their faith, the more that heart healed.
The Department of Youth and Young Adult Ministry mixes education and experience into the convention. Teens attend breakout sessions that deal with friendship, self-image, forgiveness and social media. Large group "mega-sessions" helped teens to understand the value of true love, the importance of the pro-life movement, and how to live as an intentional Catholic.
In recent years the diocesan Youth Board, which helps to plan the convention, has added more prayer experiences, such as the Benedictine practice of praying with Scripture, praying with song, using the Rosary, and walking through a labyrinth. A teaching Mass, adoration and reconciliation were also offered through the weekend.
"The highlight of the weekend was the adoration because it was just very powerful and a lot of people were embracing each other and really feeling that God is powerful in your mind and your body," said Patrick Nelson, 16, from St. Mary of Lourdes Parish, Bemus Point/Mayville.
St. Mary's offers a program called Footsteps in the spring and fall. Described as a smaller, more intimate version of convention, the program is open to all.
"(These programs) help me in my faith because I get to interact with teens my age. I'm able to relate to them at a level that I'm at," said Andrew Akin, 15, also from St. Mary's.
Keynote speaker Doug Brummel, from Black Forest, Colo., brought a cast of characters with him including Estelle, a confused woman who wandered into the convention thinking it was a heart clinic; Timmy, a 5-year-old, who loves his Slinky; and Rob, the cynical chaperone who drifted from the Church but has come to realize he needs God in order to be a better person.
As Joe, an elderly widower, Brummel affirmed to role of the young Church. In a story reminiscent of the movie "Up" he told how the different chapters in your life will fill you with grace or break your heart. His wife of 57 years passed away from cancer. Now alone, living in a self-serve world where he pays at the pump and cashes out his own groceries, he might go a week without touching another person's hand.
"I miss my wife," he said, bringing tears to the audience. "I miss her touch. I miss her holding my hand during the Lord's Prayer. Let me tell you, when one of you reach outside of your own comfort zone to give someone like me the sign of peace, you don't know, but you are the only one who has touched my hand all week. You are the Body of Christ to me. I just thank you for giving me the Sign of Peace."
With his wig and costume off, Brummel got real and told of a fire last June that displaced his family and neighbors for six months. The support of his friends helped Brummel, his wife and seven children weather the tragedy.
"The only way our hearts are being restored to this day is because of the support of our parish family and people younger and older and people who lost their homes as well. We all have been together trying to rebuild our hearts," he said. "So, any time you hear of a tornado, a fire, a tsunami, something happening in your own area, I would encourage you to pray for the people of those parishes. When you hear there is a tornado in Kansas look up a Catholic parish in that area and write them a letter. You will never know how much that support helps put together their heart."
The teens come to convention to meet people and grow in their faith, that's the common motivation.
"I like meeting people that share the same faith as I do, and being one on one with God with a bunch of other teens," said Emma Okoniewski from Immaculate Conception Parish, Ransomville. Her parish holds For Teens Only rallies with adoration and witness talks.
The 16-year-old wants to grow stronger in her faith. "I guess there's nothing better than to do that with your peers and even people that you never met that you're meeting now," she said.
During the nightly expo, teens played volleyball and Kan Jam, strummed their guitars in the coffee house and even learned to Zumba. This year the Department of Youth and Young Adult Ministries teamed up with Roswell Park Cancer Institute for several service projects. Along with their hearts, some teens gave with all their hair, cutting and buzzing their noggins for Locks for Love and raising $2,813 by going Bald for Bucks. Father Todd Remick and Father Seán Paul Fleming joined in. The money raised will go towards Roswell's Teens Living with Cancer program. Conventioneers also made over 181 superhero capes for young cancer patients.