St. Patrick Church in Anchorage was filled with teens from across the state who gathered for the opening Mass of the Alaska Catholic Youth Conference (ACYC) on June 3.
After a full day of activities under sunny skies, some of the participants prayed in the parish’s outdoor cloister before the start of Mass. Others sat on the grass around the church and mingled and laughed with one another.
As the youth slowly filled the parish, a quiet exuberance filled the church. Some youth sported ACYC tee shirts and backpacks. Others, heads covered with chapel veils, were quietly praying. Adult volunteers, conference presenters, chaperones and family members joined the youth.
The late afternoon liturgy opened with the joyous music of Shannon Cernaka and Orin Johnson of Oddwalk Ministries, who led a group of young musicians from several parishes. Youth assisted in liturgical roles as lectors and gift bearers.
The liturgy was concelebrated by three Alaskan bishops, Anchorage Archbishop Emeritus Roger Schwietz, Juneau Bishop Andrew Bellisario and Fairbanks Bishop Chad Zielinski, who were joined by five archdiocesan priests, two seminarians and acolytes.
Archbishop Schwietz, welcoming the assembled and noting the recent departure of his successor, Archbishop Paul Etienne, quipped, “Since we’re getting into recycling, here I am.”
The Mass for the day was the Memorial of Saint Charles Lwanga and Companions, Martyrs. The concelebrants were vested in red — the color worn when celebrating the sacrifice of those martyred. It was a visible reminder to those gathered of the ultimate price of faith.
In his homily, Archbishop Schwietz explained that Charles Lwanga and his companions were martyred in Uganda in the late 1800s. The 22 executed by the Ugandan king were all under the age of 26, hence Saint Lwanga is known as one of the patrons of young people.
Archbishop Schwietz referenced Saint John’s Gospel, the passages known as the Last Discourse before Jesus’ crucifixion.
“He is opening his heart to those closest to him,” Archbishop Schwietz said. “He was indicating to them that he knew they were going to desert him.”
He noted how Jesus told his companions at the Last Supper that he wants them to be at peace with him.
“He is showing how much of a person of mercy he is,” Archbishop Schwietz added, “how sensitive he is to those disciples who will out of fear be deserting him, but at the same time will come to their senses and realize that he is forgiving them and calling them back beforehand.”
Noting that Jesus is aware of what his friends will do, Archbishop Schwietz pointed out that the Lord is still there, holding out love and forgiveness for each one of them. This heart of Jesus, hours before his death, should give joy to us, he affirmed, because God is aware of our own failings and yet is still there for us.
Explaining the circumstances of the martyrdom of Charles Lwanga and his companions, the youngest of which was only 13 years old, the archbishop said, that when ordered by the Ugandan king to commit immoral acts, these young martyrs refused.
“What they wanted, more than anything else, was to remain faithful to Jesus,” he said, adding that they were willing to undergo torture and death, and the Lord was with them, strengthening them.
Archbishop Schwietz urged the youth to reflect on who Jesus is and how they have experienced his great love. It is a cause for joy.
Reminding the Mass attendees of the theme of this year’s ACYC, “The Joy of Our Faith,” the archbishop concluded with prayer for conference participants.
“May each of you find a little bit more of that joy, realize a little bit more the love Jesus has for you, and the way in which you need to be called back,” he concluded. “He is there with open arms.”
Finding joy at ACYC was one of the perks of attending this year’s conference for several young people, who traveled from Palmer and Wasilla.
“I enjoy ACYC, praying with friends and hanging out,” said Ziven Witczak from St. Michael Church in Palmer.
His companion, Euvita Poglitsh, added, “There’s a lot of camaraderie. It is encouraging to be with a bunch of Catholic kids.”
Ellie Hennemann, also with St. Michael’s group affirmed that, “It is the one time of year young Catholics can get together and share the same belief.”
In addition to a sense of kinship among attendees, some of whom keep up with each other on social media and reconnect at youth events, learning more about their faith is always a high point of the conferences.
Sarah Myers, of Sacred Heart Church in Wasilla, appreciated the weeklong opportunity to grow in her faith.
“No matter how much you think you know,” she said, “there is always something to learn.”