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Teens jump on winning team at World Youth Day

Bracing for the birth of his second child and facing the real possibility of having his electricity cut off – despite having steady employment as a religion teacher at a Catholic school – Brian Greenfield remembers screaming into the chill of a Washington, D.C., winter’s day.

“God, where are you? Why aren’t you doing something?” he asked.

Fortunately, God inspired the despairing Greenfield to revisit the second chapter of the Book of Genesis. After looking at the man he had created and seeing that he was “good,” God evidently foresaw the struggles his children would encounter in the future.

“God said, ‘This kid needs to know that he’s not alone. This kid needs to know that I am with him,’” said Greenfield, speaking to more than 2,000 teenagers and youth ministers gathered at Loyola University for World Youth Day on Oct. 23.

God’s Spirit of life

“So what does God do? After he creates everything, what does God do next?” Greenfield asked. “He breathes his spirit into him – and that was the key. That’s how we know that God is with us. That’s how we can see God. He breathed his spirit into us!”

The idea of God the ever-present neighbor was explored throughout the day at the annual gathering of young Catholics sponsored by the archdiocese’s Youth and Young Adult Ministry Office.

Greenfield, founder of the New Jersey-based Catholic ministry “Hard as Nails,” noted the irony of how no matter how many “neighbors” people have around them – from “followers” on Twitter to real friends at school – they are continually on the brink of loneliness. He confessed that the fear of being alone haunted him from his teenage years to early adulthood, and that he would compensate by doing “things to assure that I would never be alone,” such as acting tough, flirting with girls and worshipping popular culture.

“My ego was up here,” said Greenfield, who was attending Seton Hall University at the time. “(Acting like) ‘the man’ at parties would ensure that people would like me and I would never be alone.”

While attending adoration at a college retreat, Greenfield noticed that the people around him were crying. Facing Christ head-on in the Eucharist, he finally cast off his mask of bravado and began crying himself.

“It was like God had a bat with ‘Jesus’ spray-painted on the side and he blasted me with it,” Greenfield said. “God said, ‘Every single thing that you’ve been looking for, you already have. I’ve already given it to you.’”

Trying to be ‘slick’

Yet even after going to weekly prayer groups and learning the hand motions to Christian rock songs, Greenfield still found it difficult to shed all his pretentions at once. He wanted to be the one who would pray “the quickest and the slickest” in his growing circle of Catholic peers.

“You can hear the word of God, but if you don’t let it into your heart then it doesn’t mean anything,” Greenfield said. If one acts “holy” for show, “it’s not God that’s feeding us; it’s the opinions of others.

“The problem is this: A lot of us don’t care what it takes to get people to notice us,” Greenfield said. “Instead of reaching out to God to keep us from loneliness, we turn friends into God; we turn other people into God; we turn popularity into God, to the point that we don’t care what we have to do, as long as we’re not alone.”

This craving to fill the void of loneliness is so potent in our need to be the center of the universe, people do “anything they can to get a pat on the back” from their equally fearful peers, such as bullying a classmate, getting drunk or building their reputation on pessimism, he said.

“If we don’t understand that God is with us, then we’ll always be trying to prove ourselves to someone else. It will never be enough,” he said. “You have a lot of people patting you on the back, but you still don’t feel like you’re as amazing as they say you are.”

Father left him at age 4

After lunch and attending the breakout session of their choice from a list of talks on issues relevant to Catholic teens, the attendees – sixth through 12th graders from more than 80 schools and parishes – reconvened in Loyola’s Rec Center to hear from the event’s other keynote speaker, Catholic convert and Christian musician Chris Padgett.

Padgett, whose father left him at age 4, told his young audience that feelings of brokenness, weakness and emptiness prevent God’s children from doing “something dynamic” in their lives. He said too many people settle for mediocrity and “play games” with the awesome gift of life.

“What would happen if we strove for Christ in his fullness?” Padgett asked. “What would happen if you went home from this event and you said, ‘I’m gonna give myself entirely to Christ – to the baptismal promises, to the beauty of what it means to be called – give myself more intensely to God than my football team, my basketball team, my academic chess club, my robot-building, my Dungeons and Dragons, my cheerleading, my hair-braiding?’”

God, like a good neighbor, “is interested in our whereabouts, what we’re doing, our call, our abilities, our failings,” Padgett said. “What does it mean to (realize) that God wants to be present in our life on a regular basis, and that he’s so radically in love with us, so committed to us, that no matter how dysfunctional and odd that we are, he still wants to do something dynamic in us and though us?”

Only God can fill void

Today’s teens face varying degrees of brokenness, including being raised in splintered or loveless families and involvement in violence, bullying, drugs and sex.

“I don’t know where you’re at in your journey, but I promise you this: God is ready to heal you of the brokenness in your life,” Padgett said. “Each and every one of you in this room needs Jesus to be your physician, if you just ask him to come in and begin that work of healing in your life, then you’re gonna have it.”

Weakness also daunts human beings, Padgett said. But like the dehydrated runner who feels too weak to run his last few yards, perhaps all it takes is a sip of water to get to the finish line. The sacraments, Padgett said, are there to help Catholics in times of weakness, but we don’t take advantage of this bounty.

“When was the last time you went to confession? When’s the last time you went to Eucharist with a clean heart?” Padgett asked. “You are weak, but you’re weak because you’ve not been running to Christ to fill you and give you strength,” he said.

Combat bullying with love

During the concluding Mass, homilist Archbishop Gregory Aymond urged the teens to see all “those other people” in the classroom and on the playing field as their neighbor.

“It doesn’t mean that we have to fall in love with everybody, and they may not particularly like us (either),” Archbishop Aymond said, “but we still are to love and respect them as Jesus calls us to.

“If you say you love God, but you don’t love your neighbor, then you’re not telling the truth (about loving God),” he added, urging teens to become more vigilant against bullying and of peers who are exhibiting extreme behaviors, such as too much time on the computer.

“God is a good neighbor. He’s always there, and he wants you to be always there for someone else,” Archbishop Aymond said.

At the conclusion of his second World Youth Day, Brad Giacone, a Brother Martin sophomore who was attending with his fellow youth group members from St. Clement of Rome, said he was blown away.

“I just like the atmosphere,” Brad said, “the atmosphere of being with thousands of teens who all just love Christ the way I do, who really want to be here and fully indulge themselves in him.”

Beth Donze can be reached at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .