BLOOMFIELD – Archbishop Leonard P. Blair processed to the outdoor Mass at the Sept. 21 Catholic Youth Spectacular over damp grass amidst over 1,000 young attendees at the Archdiocesan Center at St. Thomas Seminary. Led by vocals and guitar, they had assembled to prepare with song, and then silence.
The sea of umbrellas that appeared during a shower prompted Archbishop Blair to pray that “God will give us good weather to celebrate this Mass to its completion today.” And that’s just what happened. The only umbrellas were those that identified priests and deacons distributing the Eucharist.
See photo gallery at http:www.zenfolio.com/thecatholictrancript/p777961406.
This year’s Mass was marked by the same level of enthusiasm and emotion that has been long associated with this annual event.
Before celebrating his first Youth Spectacular Mass, Archbishop Blair told the Transcript, “I am looking forward to being with all these young people and for them to be with one another, to see that they’re not alone in the practice of the faith.”
In his homily, he offered a word of personal introduction and gratitude for prayer. He then focused on forgiveness, reconciliation and God’s mercy. “You know,” he said, “we don’t give enough thought sometimes to the Our Father. We just keep saying ‘forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.’ After all, this is a beautiful thing, but in practice, when you and I are sinned against we may have indignation and a sense of injustice.”
He referred to the keynote speaker, Alexie Torres-Fleming, who earlier had addressed the violence of drug dealers, with a reminder that God forgives even the most horrible sinner, and “it’s absolutely God’s will to let sinners and evildoers repent and be saved.
“We have to share that message of mercy with others.” Citing Pope Francis, he said, “The church must be a place of mercy freely given where everyone can feel welcome, loved, forgiven and encouraged to live the good life of the Gospel.” He posed a familiar homilist’s question, as had Father Christopher Tiano, director of the Office of Religious Education and Evangelization (OREE), earlier in the day, “If not us, then who? If not now, then when?”
Before the final blessing, he addressed the youth, saying, “You know all of you are at a point in your life when you have to think about what you’re going to do with it.” He spoke about vocations “to the Christian state of life.” To those who might feel called to the priesthood or religious life and to those called to be good mothers and fathers, husbands and wives, he said, “Do not be intimidated by the world, but recognize that your happiness lies in God alone, and that is our prayer.”
James Fursick, a sophomore at Manchester’s East Catholic High School, said he was excited about the day and that Archbishop Blair has “a lot of good things to say. I feel he’s really good with the youth and very interconnected with how things are in our lives. I’ve talked with him before and been at other Masses with him, and I think he really knows how to get in touch with the kids on a spiritual level.”
The ninth annual Catholic Youth Spectacular, an event for the young Catholics in the Archdiocese of Hartford, featured an inspiring talk by Ms. Torres-Fleming, founder of Youth Ministries for Peace and Justice (YMPJ), a grass-roots organiza-tion dedicated to ridding her South Bronx of illegal drug activi-ties.
A first-generation American of Puerto Rican ancestry, Ms. Torres-Fleming recalled growing up in the South Bronx, the poorest Congressional district in the country, during the late 1960s and early 1970s, an era called “the burning of the South Bronx.” The fires, many deliberately set to collect insurance money, were a response to a government policy of “planned shrinkage,” the closing of vital governmental services designed to force residents out of the area so that it could be rebuilt.
“That didn’t happen,” she said. Wealthier people could leave, but poor people could not. A crack epidemic sprang up. Heeding worldly advice to better herself, young Ms. Torres-Fleming left and got a high-paying job in midtown Manhattan.
She didn’t think she was doing anything wrong, but, “It was a very subtle, subtle sinfulness because it separated me from my community,” she said.
She did some charitable work, but the words of Saint Augustine haunted her: “Charity is no substitute for justice withheld.” So she returned to the South Bronx and got involved in a youth group, marching with them to try to shut down the crack houses. The drug dealers responded by burning her church and smashing a statue of the Blessed Mother. Looking at the people weeping over the shattered statue, Ms. Torres-Fleming vowed to herself, “This can’t be the last image in the newspapers of what happened here.”
She eventually founded YMPJ, whose mission was to prepare young people to become prophetic voices for peace and justice. “For 20 years, we worked to try to understand the sacred intersection between who we are as people of faith and who we were as people living in this community,” she said.
She closed with a dream her mother had, of people on a mountaintop asking God, “When are you coming?” God answers, “When are you coming?”
After her talk, she told theTranscript, “I think the central message is that we are called to understand that our work of faith is not just about us and it’s not just about our individual relationship with God. It is essentially about our connection to God amongst us and especially the God of the less fortunate.”
Rebecca Criscuolo, a student from St. Mary Parish in Branford, said, “I liked Alexie’s talk. It was her growing up, so as we grow up we can use that advice that she gave.”
Ashley Grady, attending from St. Patrick Parish in Farmington, said, “It was really inspirational. She’s very passionate. ... Going to church, you really can’t just think about yourself but the whole idea that everyone’s connected.”
Her friend and co-parishioner, Jessica Strainieri, said, “I have to agree with Ashley. I’ve never been here before and I thought that the speeches were really moving and inspirational and they definitely taught us a lot.”