Three parishes boarded a bus at 4 a.m. on Oct. 13, then sped west to a youth rally in Bowling Green, Ohio. Billed as a middle school event like no other, Holy Fire welcomed over 2,000 sixth-, seventh-, and eighth-graders involved in religious education and youth ministry to grow in their faith. Speakers Katie Prejean McGrady and Brian Greenfield shared their stories, while musicians Joe Melendrez and Sarah Kroger performed. Bishop Daniel Thomas of Toledo opened the daylong event. Bishop Earl Boyea of Lansing, Mich., celebrated the Eucharist at the close.
Forty-eight kids from Immaculate Conception, East Aurora; Nativity of Our Lord, Orchard Park; St. John the Baptist, West Valley, arrived at 9:35 a.m. and immediately started dancing, jumping and making holy noise for Jesus.
"They were pumped, they were excited," said Denise York, director of Youth Ministry for Immaculate Conception Parish in East Aurora.
International educator and author McCrady talked about God's eternal love by describing her own love for her daughter, and her father's love for her.
"It really conveyed the message that God's love is bigger than we can imagine and God loves us no matter what," said York.
Evangelist and motivational speaker Greenfield knew how to handle the rambunctious tweens, using a rhythm to his speech that picked up the kids, then drove them to a place of peace and prayer. He told the 2,100 young people and adults to close their eyes, then stand if they wanted to commit to following Christ no matter what. Then they opened their eyes to see everyone in the auditorium standing.
Nashville-based singer-songwriter Kroger sang her hit, "Run to the Cross." "It was this beautiful moment of prayer as they stood with their hands open in total silence praying," York said.
Bishop Boyea spoke on God breaking us out of our boxes. "God is God and we are not. God does not want payment. God wants to be received. Ask to be received and then wait," York explained.
There were opportunities for reconciliation during lunch and adoration.
York asked some of her participants what they thought of the event after returning home. Along with "fun" and "exciting," they said, "We learned music we can pray with that is music we haven't thought of before." "We were prayerful." "We were peaceful." One girl said, "I was proud to be Catholic."
"That right here, especially right now in our diocese, for a kid to say I'm proud to be Catholic, I thought was huge," York said.
York is already planning on returning to Holy Fire next year, as it is the only national event for Catholic middle school students. "It really gave them the opportunity to see other young people their same age who were there for the same reason, who were excited and on fire for their faith in a positive way. It affirmed who they were. It met them where they were at," she said.
Organized by the National Catholic Youth Ministry Foundation, Holy Fire is a response to findings that the teens who are disaffiliated with the Catholic Church begin to drift away around the age of 13.
St. Mary's Press Catholic Research Group and the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University conducted a two-year national study on disaffiliation in young Catholics. The study found that 35 percent of youth polled identified as having no religious affiliation. When asked at what age they no longer identified themselves as Catholic, 74 percent of the sample said between the ages of 10 and 20, with the median age being 13 years old.
The study found that disaffiliation is a process that happens over time for young people, typically prompted by a series of events or unresolved questions that simply accumulate. The report stated that many disaffiliated youth believe in what Jesus taught, but they perceive organized religion as having corrupted Jesus' fundamental teachings. They see the Church's dogmas and doctrines as nonsensical, and they believe they can live more moral lives without the baggage of religion. Many perceive that religion was forced on them, and they report feeling freer and happier without what they experience as the burden of religion.