More than 100 young adults turned out for a Catholic Young Adult Conference (CYAC) sponsored and hosted by St. Benedict Church in Anchorage. Attendees participated in confession, adoration, Mass and myriad presentations on how to deepen and share their Catholic faith amid a culture that is often hostile to belief in God.
Inspiration for the June 29-30 gathering began with a simple conversation over coffee among Elise Zajicek, director of youth and young adult ministry for St. Benedict’s, Oreile Kinder and Marisa Ramos.
“I wanted to put together an event where young adults can gather, grow in community and really delve deeper into their Catholic faith,” Zajicek said of her vision, which was somewhat modeled after the success of a one-day women’s retreat with the Sisters of Life at St. Therese’s Camp in Wasilla last summer.
Participants, ranging between ages 18 to 36 years, were mostly college students, though a significant number of young adults also attended — some with children in tow. An attractive feature for young parents was the availability of childcare throughout the event. A handful of little ones played in the school gymnasium at Lumen Christi High School under the watchful eyes of volunteer caregivers.
Themed, “The Good, the True, the Beautiful,” the conference kicked off Friday night with Mass, followed by Moose’s Tooth pizza and a keynote presentation by Katie Gesto, a registered nurse practitioner from California. She has been a missionary in Mozambique, recovered from bulimia, and now runs her own integrative medicine clinic. She encouraged attendees to grow in their love of Christ, embrace vulnerability and share healing with others.
The Aly Aleigha Band provided evening entertainment with a two-hour concert featuring Aleigha’s unique brand of indie folk music. A graduate of Franciscan University in Steubenville, her background in theology and catechetics was evident in her intimate and soulful lyrics, which touched on timeless Catholic truths.
The evening concluded with opportunities for confession and adoration in the Lumen Christi High School gym.
Saturday’s jam-packed presentations were preceded by Mass. Over the course of the day, four workshops offered widely divergent discussions on topics like relationship building in dating and marriage, Catholic bioethics, missionary evangelism and living an authentic Catholic life in a secular world. Sessions on healthy lifestyles and encountering beauty in the world and in our Blessed Mother, rounded out the topics.
Presenters hailed primarily from the local Catholic community of educators, archdiocesan employees, clergy and laity. The Sisters of Life, a contemplative and active religious community based in the Archdiocese of New York, and consecrated under a special vow to protect and enhance the sacredness of life, were joined by graduates and students of Franciscan University traveling throughout Alaska for summer missions with Father Michael Shields.
Bob McMorrow, director of evangelization and catechesis at St. Benedict’s, offered a workshop with the intriguing title: “Clones, Chimeras, and Google Babies: Catholic Bioethics for a Crazy World.” Trained by the National Catholic Bioethics Center, McMorrow’s well-attended presentation focused on the enticements of science, which have pushed morality out of the public discourse.
Noting that we live in a world where “if you can conceive it, you can make it happen,” he said the Catholic Church has had a tough time communicating its pro-life, pro-marriage teachings.
“The church has always been pro-science, with the dignity of the human person having precedence,” he said. Speaking of “Google babies,” he said these are embryos, designed and purchased, via sperm banks, eggs and uterus donors. Such approaches, he noted, completely circumvent the marital act as designed by God.
Katie Gesto’s popular “Healthy Body, Healthy Lifestyle” session, addressed the connection between the health of our gut and the health of our relationship with God. A holistic approach to life incorporates a sound diet, adequate sleep and taking care of ourselves: body, mind, soul and spirit. Attendees brainstormed ways to deal with stress, and to honor the body in ways God intended.
Deacon Dez Martinez and Dr. Cindy Sena-Martinez outlined how to best live in a committed marital relationship, stating, “In marriage you become who you are.” They emphasized that through “one blessed family at a time,” the world is going to be transformed.
Attendee Mariana Desantiago, of Kodiak, said the event reminded her of her time attending the young adult group at St. Patrick Church, in which she participated while studying at the University of Alaska Anchorage.
“It helped me realize I am not the only one who shares the same faith,” she said, adding that she found the workshop “Authentic Relationships in Dating, Friendship and Life” particularly enlightening with its ordering of priorities through the acronym JOY — Jesus, others, yourself.
Jilene Galle, from St. Andrew Church in Eagle River, attended with her three-year-old son, Abraham. She said childcare was a big benefit. A past organizer and attendee of the Alaska Catholic Youth Conferences, she praised the young adult conference saying, “It is wonderful that this is geared toward us. We have other priorities in life now.”
The day concluded with a keynote address by Sister Fidelity Grace of the Sisters of Life, followed by an outdoor barbecue and bonfire on an exceptionally warm summer evening.
Organizer Elise Zajicek said her goal of “filling the gap between not having community or feeling alone in the faith to being strengthened and united with Christ-centered relationships” was met with resounding success through the conference.