Diocesan youth conference energizes Catholic teens

WHITE OAK — The 13th annual diocesan youth conference blasted off over the weekend of March 7-9 at the White Oak Conference Center. It was a raucous affair, blending music and spirituality, laughter and prayer, games and liturgy.

“It’s a lot of fun,” said Sally Walbourne, a youth minister at St. James in Conway. “Larry (her husband) wanted to know, does the music have to be so loud? But you have to stimulate them; that’s how you reach them. This gives them a sense of belonging and sends them back energized in their faith.”

Walbourne said that a youth conference, where 700 to 800 Catholic teen-agers from across the state meet and mingle for a weekend, gives the youth courage to identify with Catholicism. Conferences supplement the Christian formation taking place at the teens’ home parishes.

John Deeden and Renee Montgomery-Carney, youth ministers at Church of the Nativity in Charleston, spend a good part of their annual budget on the annual conference, which is put on every year by the Youth and Young Adults Ministry Office. They have no doubt of the value of it.

“To see this many kids interested and involved, I find that exciting,” Deeden said.

Montgomery-Carney called it “the best conference in my 10 years here” and said that some of her teens come away “really spiritually enriched” every year. That was symbolized on Saturday afternoon, when the participants attended the workshop of their choice. Most went to hear religious entertainers or students witnessing their unique conversions. But 25 of them went to hear a deacon and a seminarian talk about vocations.

“Young people are interested in their future,” said Deacon Joseph Cahill, assistant director of the Vocations Office. “They want to know a mature way to come to some conclusions about who they are, who God is and what will make them truly happy with themselves.”

Michael Cassabon, a seminarian spending his pastoral year teaching theology at Bishop England High School in Charleston before journeying to Rome for graduate studies, also talked with the teens at the vocations workshop. He said that the participants are young, but demonstrated a key characteristic of maturity.

“It’s significant that they came, showing that they are open to whatever it is that God might have in store for them. They wanted to know: ‘How do we know we’re not making a mistake?’ The answer is to be always open and honest,” he said.

Cassabon said that he was impressed with the youth at the conference, calling their attendance “a sign of things to come.”

Sophie Hodaly, a senior at Cardinal Newman School, came for the fourth straight year, her second straight year to work as part of the so-called E-Team, the evangelization team of teen-aged spiritual leaders. She worked hard all weekend, but she was glad to do it. “When I was a freshman and a sophomore, God touched my life through this conference,” Hodaly said. “I just wanted to help others experience that.”

God obviously touched many of the teen-aged lives through the almost nonstop music that characterizes these huge events. In addition to featured attractions for special performances, the conference had a house band, Daniel’s Window. The Christian rock group plays around the country at youth conferences. Their music is hard-driving with a twist.

“It’s really worship music,” said band member Alby Odum. “We give it a modern twist.”

A Catholic musician with Daniel’s Window was impressed and gratified with the response from South Carolina’s Catholic teens.

“It’s great to see seven or eight hundred kids on fire for their faith,” said David “Phunkee” Vogrinc. “We feel privileged to be a part of that.”

Bishop Robert J. Baker celebrated Mass at the end of the conference in which he challenged the youth to go the distance in prayer and generosity. The theme of the weekend was “Go the Distance.”

Lots of young people felt privileged to be part of a religious weekend that was both energetic and energizing.