Thousands of middle school students from the Archdiocese of Chicago gathered with their classmates on Nov. 5 and 6 to get fired up in their faith.
This year’s Holy Fire event — a day of prayer, praise and worship and talks about faith directed at students in grades six through nine — took place online, with students at their home schools and parishes, rather than having them come to one arena in a cheering, singing, dancing crowd.
Emcee Oscar Rivera Jr. introduced the event by saying he would proceed like “there are 10,000 of you in one auditorium.”
To help build the sense of community, Rivera used interactive games and quizzes, including asking participants to decide whether certain phrases come from the scriptural accounts of Jesus’s life or just sound like they do. Hint: Jesus never said, “The Lord helps those who help themselves.” He did say, “But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”
More than 12,000 students had registered for the program, most from the archdiocese, said Krystle Erler, events manager for the archdiocese’s Department of Parish Vitality and Mission.
In his greeting to the students, Cardinal Cupich said he was grateful that they could participate online since they could not gather in a large group.
The cardinal reminded the young people that even though they could not be together physically, they were not alone.
“You are walking with each other, and in doing so, you come to a greater awareness that Jesus is walking by your side,” he said. “You are lighting a fire, a holy fire, in each other. You have that power to impact each other by your good example and the encouragement you give to each other.”
That theme carried through the event, as speakers reminded the students that no one is too young or too old to be a child of God.
“You have the power to impact lives,” Rivera said, speaking from St. James Chapel at Archbishop Quigley Center. “You have the power to transform not just Chicago, but everyone you come into contact with.”
Speaker Chika Anwanyu told the students that when she was in high school, she liked going to Friday night football games, post-game parties or even the movies, but more and more Friday nights, she found herself choosing to go to youth group instead.
“Finally, my friends started asking, what’s up with this whole church thing? Why do you like going? What is it about Jesus?”
At the time, she said, “I didn’t really mention Jesus so much. I mentioned all the fun stuff.”
But what she asked the students to think about is that Jesus wants them to want a friendship with him, and that there are plenty of ways to get to know him.
“God has given you a revelation as to who Jesus is, through your encounters with him in your daily life, from the sacraments, from the kerygma, the proclamation of salvation,” she said.
That relationship brings joy, and, often, draws people in.
“If anyone tells you being Catholic is easy, they are wrong. But is it worth it? It is so worth it,” she said. “How are you living your life so that people ask what is it about you that makes you joyful, even in adversity? What is it about you that makes you righteous in the sense that you want to see justice served?”
Father Ajani Gibson, ordained this year for the Archdiocese of New Orleans, opened his talk by singing the refrain, “What a friend we have in Jesus.”
His real friendship with Jesus, he said, started in the despair he felt after Hurricane Katrina decimated his city and his home.
He had just started high school, thought he had everything under control, and for the first time in his life, his parents packed up the family and evacuated in the face of a hurricane, driving through the night to Houston.
He still was not too concerned, expecting his family would return in a few days.
“I remember watching images of my city, my home, full of water. There was water everywhere. There were reports that the levees had broken. What does that mean?” Gibson said. “I look over and see my mother, and she starts to weep. It starts to hit me that my home, the places where my friends were, where I encountered Jesus Christ, where my life was, was gone.”
He felt angry and abandoned.
“How could you just take it away? How could you allow something like this to happen in my life?” he remembers praying. “Where are we going to go? We’ve got clothes for a week. We can’t go home. God, why did you abandon me? You are seemingly silent. Where is this friend named Jesus?”
“You may go through a similar experience,” he told the students. “You may be going through it now, where you are so destitute that it seems God is dead. This friend is nowhere to be found. But God did not give up on me in that moment. He started to take me to places I didn’t know I could go. He opened doors that normally would have been closed. It was in that moment that it started to become real.”
Gibson, now a priest, was about the age of his audience when that happened.
Rivera reminded the students that faith is for everyone.
“You’re not too young,” he said. “Stop saying that to yourself. This isn’t an adult thing. This is a child of God thing. …. You don’t like fake people. So why be fake around the Jesus who knows and is the truth? God needs you. Feel empowered by that.”
For a few hours on Oct. 14 and 15, Credit Union 1 Arena at the University of Illinois at Chicago turned into a large worship space filled with praise and worship music, inspirational speakers, eucharistic adoration and Mass with Cardinal Cupich and over 8,700 young people in grades sixth through nine.
After serving 10 years in prison, André Rodríguez, 43, decided that his reintegration into society would largely consist of preventing young people from making wrong decisions about the course of their lives.
The spirit of Easter visited St. John of the Cross Parish in Western Springs a little early when on March 14 teens in the parish youth ministry program assembled Easter baskets to be delivered to children in underserved communities.