Teens strive to renew their hearts at the Eucharistic Congress

March 29, 2016

by Elena Castello

When Keeley Doski ran up on stage to sing, she said she had no idea what the rest of the day would hold at the fifth annual Eucharistic Congress held in Jacksonville, March 12. Several hundred teens attended a session just for them where they listened to two speakers, played engaging icebreakers and spent time in adoration, all to “renew their hearts,” which was this year’s theme.

Chris Stefanick plays his electric guitar during the Youth Track at the Eucharistic Congress in Jacksonville, Fla. | Photo by Brandon Duncan
Chris Stefanick plays his electric guitar during the Youth Track at the Eucharistic Congress in Jacksonville, Fla. | Photo by Brandon Duncan

As Doski sang the lyrics to Justin Bieber’s “Baby,” the audience was surprised at how talented she was, and clapped along to the beat.

Chris Stefanick, an internationally known persona of the Catholic world, and the first speaker of the teen session, accompanied her on guitar. Stefanick chose to open his talk with an icebreaker called, “Race to Finish the Song,” where he began to play a song on guitar, and any member from the audience could run to the stage and sing it.

Doski finished her song. The audience cheered. And after the game, Stefanick began his talk, “If there’s no God, there’s no purpose to life,” he said.

Stefanick was clear and direct with the teens. He discussed the need to end moral relativism, because it’s a mentality that leads to corruption and evil. He also stressed the need to have faith in God, saying “God is love.”

He said he knew the teens had heard it before, probably hundreds of times, but faith goes beyond hearing it. He challenged the teens with what God wanted from each of them: “Everything.”

To end his talk, Stefanick gave teens some practical advice on how to live, as well as some real-life examples. Blessed Chiara Badano, one of Stefanick’s favorite saints he said, was so joyful and filled with love, nothing could keep her from Jesus. Even when she suffered, the light in her eyes came from “loving Jesus as much as she could.”

“The greatest saints in the history of the church were teenagers,” Stefanick said. And those who weren’t were because they lived longer he said.

Stefanick captivated the teens in Jacksonville with his humor and intense love for God. There wasn’t one person in the audience quiet when he finished his talk.

Soon, Leah Darrow took the stage to share her testimony. She was a former contestant on the popular television program, America’s Next Top Model who left the high glitz and glamour life of a model to live her life for Christ.

“Authentic love is love we’ve been made for and made out of,” Darrow said. She told the teens her personal testimony, a difficult story to hear, and one that is very relevant to modern youth.

Leah Darrow speaks to the youth at the 2016 Eucharistic Congress at the Prime Osborn III Convention Center in Jacksonville, Fla. | Photo by Woody Huband
Leah Darrow speaks to the youth at the 2016 Eucharistic Congress at the Prime Osborn III Convention Center in Jacksonville, Fla. | Photo by Woody Huband

Darrow spoke about the shame she felt growing up, all the way through the moment when she called her father, asking him to come pick her up in New York City.

“I identified myself with my sin – and it’s not a fun place to be.”

Darrow’s dad then told her he wanted her to go to confession, and unwillingly, she did.

But that’s where it all changed. She laid it all out for the priest and for God and his grace and forgiveness transformed her life, she said. From then on, it was all about authentic love.

“Jesus is the real deal,” she concluded, “We were made for more!”

When she finished her presentation, the audience gave her a standing ovation.

Two seminarians, Fernando Chang and John Sollee, served as emcees and entertained the teens with more icebreakers as they awaited the Eucharistic Procession.

Bishop Felipe Estévez processed in with the monstrance and everyone spent some time in quiet adoration before the Eucharistic Lord.

“I really loved the teen session,” said Melissa Gunkle, a 17-year-old high schooler. “It helped me see that God’s my friend.”

Bishop Estévez leads the faithful in Eucharistic Adoration at the Prime Osborn III Convention Center in Jacksonville, Fla. | Photo by Woody Huband
Bishop Estévez leads the faithful in Eucharistic Adoration at the Prime Osborn III Convention Center in Jacksonville, Fla. | Photo by Woody Huband

She said as she returns to her parish, San Juan del Rio, she’ll be more involved in Mass. She can focus on being a daughter of Christ in a better way because of Leah’s talk, she said.

Dante Gregson, who has attended the Eucharistic Congress three times, said he likes to attend retreats, and these conferences tie it all together.

“[The speakers] demand a lot from us,” he said, “but it’s inspiring. I listen to that more and I felt like they were speaking directly to me.”

Gregson, 14, said he loved the music and adoration, which he attends regularly at Sacred Heart Parish in Jacksonville.

As the Eucharistic Congress came to a close, Keeley Doski left the teen track and went straight to confession. Leah Darrow’s talk had such an impact on her that she had no other option, she said.

“This year, I’ve really felt like I’ve been reborn,” she said, wiping away tears. “It’s been one of my favorite experiences of my life.”

She said she felt that she needed to give God everything, and hold nothing back.

“Now I feel this overwhelming joy,” Doski said. “It’s not a feeling, but knowing. No matter what, I know I can always keep this joy, this grace.”

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