Unique in His eyes: Middle and high school students learn about Jesus’ unconditional love at Word Made Flesh Conference
ARLINGTON — He was born in poverty, spent most of his time in a 12-square-mile area, and never benefitted from a publicity campaign. Even the end of his life is a sad, tragic story.
“Here was a guy who spent a few years trying to tell people God loved them, and they killed Him for it,” explained Deacon Bob Rice to a roomful of middle and high school students attending the Word Made Flesh Youth Conference held Sept. 23 at St. Joseph Parish in Arlington. “Yet, two thousand years later, we are sitting in a church dedicated to Jesus. How is that possible?”
The Son of God was the most dynamic, exciting person who ever walked the face of the earth, he told the young audience. There was something fascinating and life-giving about Jesus that attracted crowds during His three-year ministry.
“More books and songs have been written about Jesus than anyone else in history,” claimed the teacher, author, and permanent deacon in the Diocese of Steubenville. “We even judge time, A.D. Anno Domini (in the year of the Lord), after Jesus.”
The diocesan-sponsored Word Made Flesh event brought together more than 150 7th through 12th graders and their chaperones from six different parishes. In addition to talks about salvation history, the program included small group discussions, recitation of the Divine Mercy Chaplet, and Mass.
“The youth conference is a wonderful way for young people in individual parishes to get a sense of the larger Church,” said Gabe Gutierrez, emcee and worship leader for the Saturday afternoon gathering. “Unless you go to a Catholic school, faith isn’t something that is shared a lot with friends. An experience like this allows them to see they are not alone.”
Inspired by the Gospel of John 1:14, “And the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us,” the theme “Word Made Flesh” was chosen to focus on the Body of Christ.
“Christ was made incarnate to be with us. We want young people to know how we can take the next step and make Him incarnate in our lives,” Gutierrez explained. “The goal is to be with Him in heaven.”
Deb Pretzlaff, youth minister at St. Catherine of Siena Parish, traveled to the conference from Carrollton with several 8th to 11th graders. She tries to expose her group to a variety of faith-building opportunities offered in the diocese.
“Each one connects to the kids differently,” she said. “Some kids might leave here today and not get anything out of it. Yet others might make a real connection with Jesus and feel He is saying something specifically to them.”
One of two keynote speakers invited to the event, Dcn. Rice stressed to his listeners that God is real, became man in the person of Jesus, and “is alive in our hearts and our minds but especially in the sacraments.” God made a covenant with man to be faithful.
“Even when we’re unfaithful, God is faithful,” he pointed out. “God doesn’t make deals. He just loves. He is always present and never changes.”
The deacon reminded the teens and pre-teens they are made “wonderfully in His image” and were worth death on the cross. Each person is a unique creation in God’s eyes.
“Understand that God wants the best for you because He made you,” Dcn. Rice added. “If you ever think you did something and God doesn’t love you anymore, it’s a lie. God is always faithful and is waiting for you to come back to Him. He rejoices in repentance. Remember, Jesus Christ loves you and gave His life to save you.”
During a presentation peppered with humor, anecdotes from his childhood, and lingo familiar to young people, Dr. Alex Gotay shared with the crowd his conversion to Christianity, and eventually, Catholicism. Today, the ex-Marine is an evangelist who uses a multicultural approach to engage youth and young adult audiences.
“I did not grow up in a home with faith,” admitted the Houston resident who had his first church experience as a 12-year-old. Everyone he met at the church was welcoming and that impressed him.
“I remember thinking if what this dude [the preacher] says is real, maybe I should be open to it.”
Attending a Christmas service in a Protestant church years later led him to explore Catholicism after he heard the Virgin Mary called a “lie.”
“My wife and I are good Christians and knew that wasn’t right,” he said. “God reveals himself in many different ways but the way He reveals himself in Scripture is powerful,” Dr. Gotay added.
He wants people to know Him.
“God wants a relationship with you,” the speaker suggested. “He revealed Himself to you and all of humanity for one reason — to say, ‘I love you.’”
Delivering that message to young people now is more important than ever, he told the North Texas Catholic. Generation Z (people born between 1997–2012) is the most information-based generation in history because it’s comprised of people who grew up with the internet and social media. It is also an age group riddled with anxiety.
“Young people today are being influenced heavily at an early age,” the speaker observed. “Because of their [cell] phones, so much is accessible to them, and they’re asking questions earlier: ‘What’s the point of this? Does God exist? What am I doing here?’”
Those questions used to come from high school students. Now they’re being asked by 6th and 7th graders.
“Events like this help because they reach young people at their level. We have to be willing to understand their world and tell them why Jesus is important,” Dr. Gotay explained.
Aneida Huerta sees firsthand how social media affects her peers and what they believe.
“Everybody follows what other people are doing, and some of those influences are not good,” said the 16-year-old who attended the youth conference with other teens from St. Mary Parish in Graham. “Knowing God loves us no matter what is impactful. We can’t make Him love us less or more. That’s the lesson I learned today.”