Adults and teens, families and friends filled Lucarelli's Banquet Center on Nov. 3 to honor the dedication of those working in youth ministry. The diocesan Department of Youth & Young Adult Ministry sponsored the annual youth awards banquet, which recognizes both teens and adults.
"Because of the people we've honored here tonight and so many more who I know who go unthanked and unrecognized, our diocese is better. Our Church is better because of the ways all of you point to Jesus in your life as disciples. Jesus is the center of what this is all about," said Kathryn M. Goller, director of the diocesan Department of Youth and Young Adult Ministry, addressing the 220 people who attended.
Bishop Edward M. Grosz was on hand to present the Discipleship Award, which honors young people who genuinely live as followers of Christ and remain active in their parish, and the Companions on the Journey Award to adults who are active with and support their parish's ministry with youth. The Venerable Nelson Baker Award, which honors a priest who has demonstrated consistent commitment to youth ministry, was presented to Father Jerome E. Kopec, pastor of SS. Peter & Paul Parish in Williamsville.
"We gather to celebrate all that is good in the world, and to celebrate and affirm the gifts of young people. And also to recognize the gifts of the adult mentors who accompany them and guide the young people on their faith journey," said Michael Slish, program coordinator for the diocesan Department of Youth and Young Adult Ministry, in welcoming the crowd.
Alex Judge, a sophomore at the Buffalo Academy of the Sacred Heart in Amherst and a member of St. Gregory the Great Parish in Williamsville, gave a witness talk to her experiences visiting the Dominican Republic over the summer. As someone who has never set foot on any soil more foreign than Canada, traveling to the Caribbean island with its 90-degree heat and 80-percent humidity overwhelmed the teen.
She said the cultural immersion was eye opening as she saw shack houses built with cinderblocks and sheet metal roofs.
"Imagine the heat with those metal roofs. I thought the people were baking and must be miserable. Never in my life had I been more wrong," she said. "These people were happy and joyful and they loved their families. They were always smiling. They were always grateful for the things they had, which in my eyes, were nothing. They didn't have running water, but they had their families, they had their friends and they had God. Those were the three things they had and those were the three things they valued. That's what made them so happy. Their joy radiated from them. I could honestly say they were some of the nicest people I have ever met in my life."
The experience has made Judge realize she does not need material goods, "because God will provide the necessities."
"The Dominican people are a direct example of how God wants us to live. If they can do it, I'm sure each one of us can do it too," Judge said.
Edward Theil, from St. John the Baptist Parish in West Valley, spoke about how he grew to love his role in the Church after his confirmation. He admits that he thought of being confirmed as an end to his religious education. It wasn't until his first Youth Convention in 2015, with the theme of "Restore," that he began to develop his faith life.
"That theme helped me build a desire to learn more about my faith and rebuild my relationship with God," he said.
He now serves as a peer minister and helps lead the same confirmation class that caused him so much frustration, as well as classes in St. George in West Falls and St. Aloysius in Springville.
"While helping out with these classes, I got to meet some pretty awesome people. These people really helped me grow in my faith and be a better disciple. I wouldn't be here without them," he said, thanking those people and calling them "family."
"Even though I was supposed to be leading them, I think I grew just as much in my knowledge and understanding of the faith, and learned what it means to be a disciple as most everyone else there did. No longer could I just go through the motions of going to church, saying prayers, and calling it good for the week."
After the banquet, in between a hearty round of congratulations and a flurry of photos, some recipients reflected on their accomplishment.
"It's humbling. I do it because I like to do it. I feel it's a responsibility for me," said Andrew Wargo, 17, on receiving his Discipleship Award. "I was honored when I got the letter. I hope to continue to do this for many years to come."
At Our Lady of Pompeii Parish in Lancaster, he captains the altar servers and serves as a member of the parish youth board.
"I love helping people and I've been involved in (altar) serving for a while. I started when I was in fourth grade, and I just fell in love with it and have kept doing it ever since," he said. "Being on the altar gets me a lot closer to the Eucharist. Like I said, I like helping people, so it's helping the priests. I've got to meet a lot of new friends. I've met some of my best friends through serving. That's why I continue to do it."
Dominique Martello was recognized for her work with the Mother Teresa Outreach Program at Our Lady of Mercy Parish in LeRoy.
"I do it because, for one, I really like helping out in the parish, and also because I really like God, and I feel like God would want me to do that. I also teach for the sixth- through eighth-graders because I feel God has given me the gift to teach. It also gives me a lot of experience because I want to be a teacher when I grow up. I also really like the kids," the 17-year-old said. "I do what I do for the parish because I love God, and I don't feel the need to be recognized for it. Even though I am appreciative of the award, I don't feel I deserve it, because I do it."