Diocesan Youth Rally helps 300 get early start on Year of Mercy
Three hundred high school-age youths in the Diocese of Peoria not only stepped into the Year of Mercy weeks before Pope Francis declares it open on Dec. 8, but last Saturday they were challenged to lead their schools, families and friends into the jubilee period as well.
“This faith started with 12 and with God,” said Father Matthew Hoelscher, chaplain at The High School of Saint Thomas More in Champaign, in his homily at a Mass that closed the 2015 diocesan Youth Rally in Peoria on Nov. 14.
“There are 300 of us here,” continued Father Hoelscher. “We really can change the world when we understand how much God loves us and that there is always, always, hope. That’s a message the world needs to hear.”
The youths who filled Sacred Heart Church in downtown Peoria had spent the day hearing about, singing of, experiencing and sharing that love and divine mercy during an afternoon of activities at the nearby Spalding Pastoral Center. Even though nearly a dozen priests were present, lines for the sacrament of reconciliation lasted beyond the allotted hour, during which many of the youths prayed silently before the exposed Blessed Sacrament.
LOVE OR LUST?
The day’s keynote address was a rapid-fire hour of straight talk on sexuality by chastity speaker and author Jason Evert, who in the days prior to the youth rally had traveled throughout the diocese speaking at high schools and parishes.
With humor and storytelling, Evert invited those youths who plan to marry one day to “love and honor your future spouse before you meet them” by remaining chaste until their wedding. To those who have already failed chastity, Evert -- invoking the rally’s theme of God’s mercy -- encouraged them to begin again that day.
“When you’re dating somebody, abstinence is a greater expression of love than making love, because you’re doing what’s best for your beloved, and not just what feels good in the moment,” said Evert.
Sex outside of marriage is “sexist,” Evert claimed, because “girls always pay the biggest price” in terms of sexually transmitted diseases, unwanted pregnancies, single motherhood, etc.
To the girls in his audience, Evert encouraged them to more modest dress, because when guys see too much “it distracts us from there being so much more about you than your bodies.” He recommended they buy a white candle that weekend and “let your husband light it on your wedding night as a sign of the purity you’ve maintained from this day until the day he lifts the veil.”
“You are worth the wait,” he told them. “From this point on don’t you dare be afraid. Is a guy going to leave you because you don’t give him something sexual? You turn that right around. You let him be afraid. He’s the one who’s going to lose you unless he knows how to respect you.”
Evert called the boys to “authenticity.”
“You can’t be one guy on Saturday night, a different guy Sunday morning in church,” he said. “One guy in front of her parents, and when their backs are turned you’re somebody else.”
“You conquer women for the sake of yourself,” he said at one point, “instead of conquering yourself for the sake of the woman. It’s all backwards.”
Evert encouraged all teens to frequently seek the sacrament of reconciliation, “at least once a month.”
OUR TRUE IDENTITY -- CHILDREN OF GOD
Father Kyle Lucas, taking up the theme of mercy, urged the youths to reflect God’s mercy by being “quick to forgive, quick to heal wounds.”
Speaking to the teens after most experienced the sacrament of reconciliation, Father Lucas --- parochial vicar at Blessed Sacrament Parish in Morton --- read the parable of the Prodigal Son. While the story shows the mercy of the father,
at its root are two sons that have “identity problems,” suggested Father Lucas.
“They don’t know who their father is, they don’t know who they are, or how to relate to their father.”
During the Year of Mercy, he encouraged the youths to further their relationship with God.
“We have to honestly ask ourselves ‘Where is God in my life?,’” said Father Lucas. “How do we fall in love with God enough that we become channels of his mercy?”
The youths were introduced to two saints of mercy -- St. Maximilian Kolbe and St. Maria Goretti -- through reports by Katie Bogner, director of religious education and youth minister at Immaculate Conception Parish in Lacon, and Jenny Witt, director of evangelization for St. Philomena Parish, Peoria. The examples of these saints, they said, show that mercy requires courage and stepping “outside ourselves,” and that it brings forth life in others.
The rally was coordinated by Shirley Plaag of the diocesan Office of Evangelization and Faith Formation. She guided the teens and their youth leaders though a corporal work of mercy -- decorating lunch bags to be handed out to the hungry of downtown Peoria through Sophia’s Offerings from Angels Kitchen with messages of God’s love, and their own.
“Every sack needs a message of hope on it,” said Plaag. “While you are decorating it, pray for the person who is receiving that lunch.”
Music for the rally was led by Matt Faley, a graduate of Peoria Notre Dame who is now a Christian recording artist based in Indianapolis. He repeatedly led the teens through a chorus praising God as a “good, good Father” and recognizing that we find our identity in being loved by Him. Faley played guitar and was accompanied on keyboard by Michael LaBelle and on vocals by Brie Anne Eichhorn.