Over 800 high schoolers found themselves surrounded by mercy during the 64th annual diocesan Youth Convention. The teens, in turn, offered their own mercy through service projects and prayer.
Following the lead of Pope Francis, the diocesan Department of Youth and Young Adult Ministry and the teen-powered Youth Board chose "Know Mercy" as the theme of the gathering. The words appeared in keynote addresses, breakout sessions, small group discussions, and throughout the game-filled expo that opened the Feb. 26-28 weekend held at the Adam's Mark Hotel in downtown Buffalo.
On Friday, Feb. 26, the expo offered teens the opportunity to perform the seven corporal works of mercy. They made silk flower bouquets for Catholic Cemeteries as a way of honoring the dead, and fleece hats and scarves to clothe the naked and homeless. They learned about clean water from the Catholic Committee for Climate Change to give drink to the thirsty. The sick children from Children's Hospital and Roswell Park Cancer Institute will be comforted by the crowns and tiaras made by the teens. A goal of 20,000 meals packed to feed the hungry in Africa through Catholic Relief Services' Stop Hunger Now program was surpassed by 88 bags of rice and grains.
On Saturday morning, keynote speaker Stephanie Clouatre Davis spoke on her experiences being bullied back when she was in the seventh grade.
As a 12-year-old, Davis wanted nothing more than to be a cheerleader. Her three brothers all played sports, and she wanted to be a part of the cheering. She practiced every day over the summer, then was one of the first people to show up at tryouts. Nervous at her audition, the Louisiana native did the best she could. When she found her name listed on the roster, fireworks exploded in her mind.
At lunch, she heard one of the cool kids say, "Fat girls weren't supposed be cheerleaders."
The ballroom got quiet.
Davis recalled everything in her junior high cafeteria being in slow motion like in "The Matrix."
"I remember every step I took to leave that cafeteria," she said. "I opened the door and left the cafeteria. When I got out of there, I left behind part of me. My understanding of what mercy really was, and my understanding of why God made me to be me changed. Clap twice if you understand what I am saying."
The ballroom responded.
She had a friend named Chris, who had cerebral palsy. Davis said he was likeable and she was shy. At their lockers, Chris noticed Stephanie crying and asked her what was wrong.
"I said, 'I can't do it anymore.'"
Chris made her look at his neck, arms and legs, bent and twisted from the CP.
"God made me like that. I was like that when I was born. I will be like this when I turn 18, when I become a father, and it is good," Chris said.
"Hear my words," Davis told her audience. "It is a decision. You may choose to stay right where you are and not to receive any of the mercy you have been given, any of the loving kindness you have been given. And I know people and have looked you deeply in the eyes and said, 'Look at you. Look at all you have been given. Look at your beauty. Look at your gift. Look at all that God has given you. And you deflect it, and you deflect it and you deflect it. But you absorb this ugliness and you absorb this ugliness.'"
"(Davis) was wonderful," said Megan McGraw, 17, from St. Amelia Parish, Tonawanda, later in the day. "She told such deep stories that we could all connect to in different ways. She also combined comedy with that, so she drew in more people to the idea and moral behind the story."
On Saturday night, during a reconciliation service, a Mercy Walk was offered. Participants could chose among seven different paths based upon the spiritual works of mercy. Nearly 150 notes were written to other teens suffering from mental illness and drug addiction to comfort the afflicted. Prayers for the living and dead were written on paper and placed on a cross. Some teens carried bricks, like their burdens, through the hotel's grand pavilion to learn to bear wrongs patiently.
"I really liked that," said Kayla Whalen, 16, from St. Martha Parish, Depew. "It was about how we all have to carry so much around with us, and it can be hard sometimes."
Bishop Richard J. Malone celebrated Mass on Sunday morning, closing out the convention. Bishop, who turns 70 on March 19, mentioned he is part of the Baby Boomer generation, which was followed by Generation X, the Millennials, and questioned what the high schoolers of today will be called.
The Boomer generation began during a positive and hopeful time. They were the first generation to grow up with television. Today's generation grew up post 9/11 with a fear about terrorism.
MTV did a survey, asking what today's teens want to be called. Suggestions included Hashtaggers, Generation Z, iGen, Navigators, and the Bridge Generation.
"The one that MTV chose was to call your generation The Founders, that you are founding something new," Bishop Malone said. "The analysis of that was, and you have to see if this fits you. You are a generation who sees that not everything is as it should be. There is some disruption of things. And, of course, you don't want to make it any worse, in fact, you want to be a part of making it better. Does that sound like you?"
Other sources said the current high school kids are comfortable stepping out of the norm, not fitting in, and taking a stand on their own.
"If these things are accurate about this generation, I think that's a wonderful thing. It makes you less cynical than some folks older than you, and ready to make a difference. I hope to make a difference too. I hope we do it together," the bishop said.
The bishop talked about his hopes for the young people as they grow into the young adult Church.
"So, the Founders or the Rebuilders, huh? It's a wonderful thing. I call your generation the IMD Generation - Intentional Missionary Disciples. That is what the Lord needs of you, and that is what I ask all of us work toward becoming, to be intentional missionary disciples. Intentional in the sense that for us, our faith will not be something that we take for granted. It will not be something that is secondary in our lives, not simply something we inherited from parents and people who have gone before us as important as that is, but something that is intentional that there are decisions around. How about missionary, that all of us myself included, that you live your life with a sense of being on mission, a sense of being sent. You remember every single Mass ends, before the final song, with all of us being told to get out, in a kind gentle loving way, of course. Go in peace, go and announce the Gospel of the Lord. Sound familiar? We're sent out on mission, all of us, and every day I need to remind myself that I am on mission, that the Lord has sent me, not just because I'm a bishop or a priest, but because of baptism. We've been sent to make a difference.
"Disciples are folks who know they have been called and trusted and graced and forgiven by Jesus, chosen as his friends and followers and sent to make the world more like the Kingdom of God.
"If we tie that in with what MTV's survey brought up, you and I have to be rebuilders of the faith. We have to found it again. Christ is the founder, but it has to keep being refounded and to be stronger," the bishop said.
In between talks and service and prayers, the teens found a time to bond. Jacob Lanning, 17, from Infant of Prague Parish, Cheektowaga, said he made 800 new friends in less than 24 hours.
Lanning came after dealing with a personal tragedy of his uncle's murder a few months ago.
"I came to Convention because my life has been up and down, but God has brought me into a world with all these people who know what all of us go through every day," he said
Grace Auer, 15, St. Mary of Lourdes Parish in Bemus Point, is preparing for confirmation and came with an open mind.
"I've seen a strong sense of community here. I really see that a lot in the Catholic Church. I see a lot of people helping each other, neighbor with neighbor. I really like that so far. I haven't seen that anywhere other than this environment," she said.
Sean Black, 17, from St. Vincent de Paul Parish, Springbrook, had been on religious trips lacked the power of the convention.
"This has been great. I'm here with friends, I've met new friends. It's really brought me closer to God. It's making my faith better and stronger," said Black.