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BLOOMFIELD – Hundreds of young people joined Archbishop Henry J. Mansell Sept. 29 in packaging 11,232 meals to provide hunger relief for the country of Burkina Faso in western Africa. It was one of many workshops that some 1,223 youths from 56 archdiocesan schools and parishes took part in during the Office of Religious Education and Evangelization’s (OREE) eighth annual Catholic Youth Spectacular, held at the Archdiocesan Center at St. Thomas Seminary.
The Helping Hands food-packaging program is an initiative of Catholic Relief Services (CRS) and Stop Hunger Now and was sponsored here by the Office for Catholic Social Justice Ministry (OCSJM).
Sarah Hillier, OCSJM parish social ministry/social justice coordinator, and volunteer Rachel Malinowski organized the event. The food was supplied by Cargill Corporation and local companies and included a vitamin and mineral packet, soy cereal, dehydrated vegetables and rice. Each 390-gram package (about 13.75 ounces) contains enough food for six meals after adding water and cooking, at less than 50 cents per meal, according to Sara Robinson, manager of community giving and the Helping Hands program of CRS.
Archbishop Mansell personally assisted the young people, adding soy cereal to scores of packages. He later praised the students’ efforts, remarking that they knew it was a serious project but they took great joy in performing it. He noted that this attitude embodied the message of Pope Paul VI’s 1965 encyclical “Gaudium et Spes” (“Joy and Hope”).
“There is hope because of what you did today and what you will continue to do in joy,” he said in his homily at the Mass that closed the day’s activities.
In referencing that encyclical, Archbishop Mansell was echoing a message delivered a few hours earlier by keynote speaker and entertainer Father Joseph Espaillat (“Father Joe”), a motivational speaker and Christian rap artist who heads the youth ministry in the Diocese of New York. His presentation focused on the theme of this year’s event, “Affirming Life: Blessed. Broken. Shared.”
“The main part of the talk I shared with them is ‘Gaudiem et Spes’ [section] 27, which basically delineates everything that we are responsible for as a church, and that is not just about pro-life or just about abortion,” Father Joe told the Transcript.
“We think pro-life is all about abortion, but it means everything. It’s about refugees; it talks about the dignity of workers; it talks about mistreatment of the body; and so I addressed that. I thought it was well received,” he added.
His audience echoed that assessment. Asked about her favorite part of the day, Northwest Catholic High School senior Madison Mortillaro said, “Definitely Father Joseph. He was not afraid to talk about the issues that are facing society today.”
While drawing Noah’s Ark in colored chalk on the sidewalk for the “Gospel Graffiti” display, Nicole Robitaille, of St. Bridget Parish in Manchester, said Father Joe was her favorite, too. “He raps and stuff, but it’s more a rap about helping people and living your life, not about all this inappropriate stuff. He kind of turned it around and uses it to guide people.”
Vendors and agencies displayed wares and handed out literature, including representatives from Foodshare, the YMCA, Brake the Cycle of Poverty, Pro-Life Ministry, Carolyn’s Place, the Archbishop O’Brien Library, Carmelite Sisters, Felician Sisters, the Family Life Office, the Vocations Office and more.
Peter Buck, a representative from Equal Exchange, explained that the company works with 40 farmers in more than 20 countries to ensure that profits from their produce find their way back to them.
Staff members from The Catholic Transcript handed out copies of the newspaper and received more than 100 completed questionnaires from attendees.
A moderator of a workshop by OCSJM handed around a tin of sardines and explained that this is how an average man in the Philippines feeds his family for the day.
Mary Marsan, coordinator of lay ministry at OREE, said that she helped lead a workshop discussing the Visitation. The group then created greeting cards from colored paper to give to people who may need encouragement.
Father Christopher M. Tiano, OREE director and pastor of St. Francis of Assisi Parish in South Windsor, provided an introduction and later told the Transcript, “It is a big event because we have a beautiful representation of people from across the archdiocese, young people with an inspiring message of faith in Jesus Christ.”
Dr. Dale R. Hoyt, archdiocesan superintendent of schools, said, “It’s a great day to bring our youth together to really appreciate our Catholic Church.”
The young will transform the old, he said, “into being stronger and better holy people.”
Shawnee Baldwin, archdiocesan coordinator of youth and young adult ministries at OREE, organizes the Catholic Youth Spectacular every year. She told this year’s group in a newsletter, “YOU WERE AWESOME. This is the MOST attentive group we have ever had.”
Alexa Eves, a young participant from Church of the Resurrection in Wallingford, said, “This year, it’s to learn about how we can take our religion and use it to help other people.”
Giselle Reyes, of St. Ann Parish, Avon, said, “This is my third time. I love it. It’s always fun. I look forward to it, I do. I love the music. I love the speeches. And then confession.”
At the start of the Mass, Archbishop Mansell told the young participants, “They call this the Youth Spectacular, and truly it is spectacular because you are all spectacular.”
In his homily, the archbishop recalled the installation in March 2013 of Pope Francis and the thoughts the new pope must have had as he gazed at the million-member crowd overflowing St. Peter’s Square, representing the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics. “Pope Francis must have been thinking of all those parishes across the world that do the things we’re called to do, and you do them so well,” he said.
“The cameras are here,” he added. “I hope they pick up what you are doing, the way you have helped our Catholic Charities’ programs, bringing up all those packages during the prayer service before we began and then for the two hours in between, from 3 o’clock to 5 o’clock, packing all those gifts, packages of dried food, 11,232 packages you brought together. That’s your work.”
He said, “You understand what it means to be compassionate; you understand what it means to be sensitive; you understand what it means not to be indifferent.”