A group of 45 teenagers from the Diocese of Buffalo swam in a sea of 23,000 new friends of faith at the National Catholic Youth Conference. Held Nov. 15-18 in Indianapolis, with events at Lucas Oil Stadium and the Indy Convention Center, the event is a national conference similar to the local diocesan Youth Convention, with a series of keynote speakers, music, breakout sessions, prayer and fun.
Father Joseph Espaillat, who attended last year's Youth Convention in Buffalo, along with Emily Wilson and Chris Stefanick, opened the event with music by TobyMac and Matt Maher.
The theme of the event, "Called," came from Isaiah 45:4, "I've called you by name." Each day had a sub-theme such as "Called to More" and "Called to Listen."
Due to the size of the crowd, many bishops from across the country were invited to celebrate Mass. Bishop Richard J. Malone was one of them. He came to share the experience with the Buffalo contingent.
During one Mass, Cardinal Joseph W. Tobin, CSsR, archbishop of Newark, N.J, and former archbishop of Indianapolis, addressed how Catholics should listen when the Lord is calling them.
"If we study Jesus, we come to know Him. We let Him speak to us, because He'll tell us what to look for and what not to look for. He'll tell us where there is peace, where there is forgiveness, where there is weakness. Where there is trust, you're going to find the kingdom of God," he said.
"It's a lot to take in. It's such an overwhelming, but beautiful experience, so spiritual, educational, fun-filled," said Kathy Nicastro, director of youth ministry for Our Lady of Lourdes Parish in Bemus Point. "Too bad it only happens every other year."
Nicastro brought four teens from her parish this year. Parish groups sit together during Mass and meals, but for most of the day, the teens have the opportunity to attend any breakout or mega session they wish, or participate in the thematic village, which offers service projects and informational booths.
"Two of my young girls, when they went to a workshop called 'Prayer in Painting,' they got very excited about it," Nicastro said. "They're going to bring it back here to our parish. We're going to try doing a Prayer and Paint here with the littlest to the oldest parishioners. And they'd like to do that at Convention in March."
Nicastro regularly takes teens to the biannual conference. She finds the event helps the participants find answers to the faith questions they have.
"Sometimes you get young people who go for the fun of it, but they get something out of it. They may not always tell you want they get out of it, but it might resonate with them down the road," she explained. "Adoration may be something that makes an impact on them; something that one of the keynote speakers says or a speaker at a mega session might say; or when they're in the theme visiting the different vendors, or the interactive part of the theme park. I think it's mind-boggling for them to see 25,000 Catholic Christians just like I am. I think it really makes an impression on them."
The large-scale event draws people from all over the country. Many are eager to make new friends and share souvenirs with each other. This includes silly hats, so when Tanner Newell met someone from Iowa, he traded a chicken wing hat for a corn hat.
"I knew it was pretty much a onetime experience that can't make up. It was quite fantastic," said Newell, 18, from Immaculate Conception Parish, East Aurora. "Being with 20,000 other Catholic youth sounded like a really neat experience."
"NCYC allows you to be open with your faith in the surrounding 25,000 people at are your age. It allows you to feel every emotion and be surrounded by people from all walks of life. It is an experience like no other," said Caroline Franczak, 17, from Our Lady of Lourdes.