Young people take part in the Diocesan Youth Conference Feb. 8 in Toms River. Jeff Bruno photo
Young people take part in the Diocesan Youth Conference Feb. 8 in Toms River. Jeff Bruno photo
“Young Church, are you ready to be inspired today? Say Amen!”


The resounding affirmation came from the more than 600 teens, youth ministers, two dozen priests and others who converged Feb. 8 on Donovan Catholic High School, Toms River, for the daylong Diocesan Youth Conference.

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“Today is my favorite day because the entire young Church comes together. Welcome to DYC!” Dan Waddington, director of the diocesan Department of Youth and Young Adult Ministries, continued after the rousing response from the crowd.

Those of all ages clapped and swayed to music as Gez Ford, youth minister in St. Raphael-Holy Angels Parish, Hamilton, led the band that provided the soundtrack for the day, which had as its theme, “Inspired – You are the light of the world,” from the weekend’s Gospel, Matthew 5:13-16.

Jeff Siedlecki, youth minister of Holy Eucharist Parish, Tabernacle, took to the stage to praise the young people for attending this year’s event.

“There are a billion other places you could have been today. But you chose to be here, to be the light. To share your time with your fellow, awesome Catholics, with your fellow, awesome youth group members, with awesome priests,” Siedlecki said.

A ‘Light in the Darkness’

This year’s DYC featured keynote addresses, a service project, lunch, Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, Confession and Mass with Bishop David M. O’Connell, C.M. Each part of the day had a theme connected to Matthew’s Gospel.

In his homily, Bishop O’Connell encouraged the youth to be an inspiration to the world at-large.

“God has inspired you, has breathed his life and love into your hearts. He has inspired you to be a ‘light in the darkness’ as our First Reading [Isaiah 58:7-10] reminds us ‘to share your bread with the hungry, to shelter the oppressed and the homeless, to clothe the naked and not turn your back on your own’ so that ‘your light shall break forth like the dawn.’ This is a different message than the world wants you to believe,” the Bishop said.

“Today, let’s all make the decision to be inspired and to live that way. Sometimes later becomes never. Do it now,” he said.

That call to action was on display during the day, as youth took part in the Box of Joy service project. Teens worked in pairs to assemble boxes, and pack them with small toys, school supplies, soap, toothpaste and toothbrushes as well as notes of encouragement. The boxes will be sent to young people in impoverished countries at Christmas.

Leeanna Holmes – development officer of Cross Catholic Outreach, which works globally to overcome physical and spiritual poverty – served as one of the day’s keynote speakers. Box of Joy is a ministry of Cross Catholic Outreach.

Holmes shared a personal story, explaining that she placed a child up for adoption when she was a teenager. This led to years of feeling shameful, she said, a time when she did not feel that she deserved Christ’s love.

It was on a mission trip to Santa Rosa, Guatemala, and meeting a local woman who prayed for her that would prove to be a turning point, Holmes said. “For the first time in my life, I encountered the extravagant love of Jesus Christ.”

Moved by Faith

During his keynote address, Dr. Alex Gotay, or “Dr. G,” spoke on the life of St. José Sanchez del Río, canonized by Pope Francis in 2016. The 14-year-old boy was martyred in 1928 when he refused to denounce his Catholic faith.

“His death spoke life. Every one of us has that same spirit as Jose Sanchez. It’s just that we stop it, don’t we?” said Gotay, a national teen and young adult speaker.

“Don’t tell me you’re the Church of tomorrow,” he said. “You’re the Church of now.”

The DYC also held opportunities for Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament – led by Father Martin O’Reilly, pastor of Mary, Mother of the Church Parish, Bordentown, and for all to receive the Sacrament of Reconciliation.

Youth at the DYC said they took the day’s messages to heart and said they were inspired to grow in faith.

“Dr. G was the best. His message and faith inspired me,” said Jacqueline Garcia, 14, of St. Joseph Parish, Toms River.

Mikey Umbrino, 16, of St. Catharine Parish, Holmdel, said he felt inspired to put his faith into action.

“The Box of Joy service project was my favorite part of the day,” he said. “We were able to fulfill children’s wishes in Third World countries and give them something they could enjoy.”

Mary Holler, 16, of St. Dominic Parish, Brick, explained how the day was important to her faith development.

“The theme being ‘Inspired’ – lately I’ve been feeling like I was being called to work in Church ministry, and I thought it would be a good idea to come and to see if this is something that I really want to pursue,” she said. “I appreciate all the speakers and them sharing their stories. I feel like, after today, I am being called even more to serve in youth ministry.”