Hundreds of young Catholics gathered in Farmington, NM on November 3rd for the annual Southwest Catholic Youth Conference. Now in its 8th year, the conference is organized by LifeGuard, a pro-life advocacy group based in Durango, CO.
“Fruits” was the designated theme for the 2018 conference, which featured national Catholic speakers Joel Stepanek and Katie Prejean McGrady, Bishop Stephen Berg of the Diocese of Pueblo, CO, and live music and entertainment from Josh Blakesley and his band.
The conference is annually co-sponsored by the Diocese of Gallup and the Diocese of Pueblo in southern Colorado. Youth groups, parents and sponsors traveled from parishes in Arizona, New Mexico and Colorado, along with nearly a dozen priests and religious from all three states.
While Stepanek and McGrady each gave a keynote address, a more direct talk was prepared by each for a select audience – Stepanek spoke one-on-one with the young men, followed by a talk of McGrady’s to the young women.
Stepanek specifically spoke out against apathy, criticizing young people who argue and fight from behind a screen or on social media but don’t stand up for their beliefs face-to-face.
“The battles that matter, the battles that are worthwhile, they exist for you,” Stepanek told the young men present for his talk. “But a lot of guys choose apathy: ‘It’s somebody else’s fight, it’s somebody else’s job, not mine.’ And God calls you to more. God calls you to protect those around you.”
Stepanek recounted the story of one young man who had written to him: a friend was considering an abortion, and the young man decided to speak to her and encourage her to have her baby, ultimately succeeding. This, Stepanek said, was a sign of true manhood: reaching out to those around you, even in uncomfortable situations.
“What does it mean to be a man? It’s nothing to do with how hyper-masculine you are, what sport you play – it’s how you treat your work. What do you cultivate in your life? Is it fruit, or is it weeds?” Stepanek asked, referencing the the 2018 conference theme. “And do you protect, or do you choose apathy? As guys, I need you to look at those areas, because the world needs what you bring.”
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When her turn came to speak one-on-one with the young women, McGrady also emphasized society’s need for the unique gifts and talents offered by those in attendance.
“I’m convinced the greatest crisis young women today face – specifically Gen Z – the biggest struggle you face right now as a young woman is battling those voices that tell you again and again that tell you that you’re not enough,” McGrady said. “And I cannot be the one that convinces you you’re enough – only Jesus Christ can. I cannot be the one to tell you that the Church needs both who you are and what you do – because we desperately do.”
“Look at what’s happening in our Church right now,” McGrady added, referencing that the #MeToo movement and the latest abuse scandal in the Church, have only highlighted the struggles that women and vulnerable persons still face.
“I’m convinced that if more women were able to take leadership and positions of – not just power and influence – but their voices were heard and they were valued, and we knew young women were there because of their gifts and their talents and what they had to offer, that we would have a Church that is able to go to the far reaches of society, to the margins of the world, and be able to proclaim the gospel in a beautiful and passionate way that only women could do.”
McGrady encouraged all of the young women to read Pope St. John Paul II’s Letter to Women, and to look to Mary as the truest model for the unique gifts of women: strength, limitless fidelity, and penetrating intuition.
“The loftiest sentiments of the human heart – we embody that, as women! So when you think to yourself ‘I’m not enough’, that’s a lie straight from the pit of hell. Yes you are. Not only are you enough, you’re the apple of God’s eye, and he delights in you.”
She told the young women that their value is not measured by whether or not they have a boyfriend, or power, or how they measure up to others through superficial measurements.
“Why are we constantly comparing ourselves to other people? Why are we constantly in competition with what another person is doing? Why aren’t we looking at the Lord and saying ‘what do you want of me, and what can I give to you from the depths of my heart?’ Because at the end of the day, the Lord doesn’t need what you do, he needs who you are, and then He is able to do incredible things through you.”
“Don’t ever tell me that the Church marginalizes women. Don’t ever tell me that the Church is not a place for you,” McGrady concluded. “Don’t tell me that you don’t matter and you’re not needed, because it’s a lie. You do matter, you are important, you are valuable, let your voices be heard, let your gifts be used, and go be the bold, incredible women that our world, that our Church, desperately need.”
For his talk, Bishop Stephen Berg also touched on the current abuse crisis, noting that he especially wants to hear the opinions and thoughts of young Catholics.
“We know the Church is in a difficult place right now…we have this issue now, and it’s a past issue, and now it’s come up again, and it’s very hurtful, and for that of course I apologize to you. I know that it’s hard for you too, for us to be authentic as Christians and as Catholics.”
Echoing the theme of McGrady’s talk to young women, Bishop Berg emphasized Christ’s love for those gathered at the conference.
“What do you see when you look in the mirror? Because what you see is what Jesus loves the most. What Jesus sees is the goodness in you. He looks past the sin. We’re the ones that focus on the sin, because we can’t get over it, or we love it too much. But he looks at the goodness in us, and the Saint that he wants us to be, the holiness and the wholeness. We can’t do it alone.”
Bishop Berg also related his own vocation story, recalling that as a young man, he desired a family of his own, “but that wasn’t what God had me directed for.” Joking that he is known to his nine siblings and dozens of nieces and nephews as the “wedding uncle”, Bishop Berg said that that his flock and parishioners have fulfilled that desire.
“You are my family. And that’s what Jesus prepared me for, when he allowed me to do my own research and my own planning, and finally to come into this wonderful life that he’s got for me, and this wonderful joy.”
Bishop Berg concluded his talk with a reflection on the works and words of St. Therese of Lisieux, the patroness of the Diocese of Pueblo, and how she taught that “every challenge is an opportunity for grace and love.”
“You have something valuable to add, and so go for it. Keep trying to grow in holiness,” Bishop Berg said. “Don’t let the spiritual part of you wither, and go unused. God will be conquered by our little efforts.”
With a final nod to the theme of the conference, he added, “In these difficult times, as I look at you, my brothers and sisters, I find such joy. When I look at the path God has for me, to make my Diocese the best it can be, and to look at all of these different challenges that we have…to find that joy, that peace that comes, those fruits of the Holy Spirit that can only come when you know that you’re on the right path, and that path is going through authenticity, humility, and single-minded purpose. And the purpose is joy.”