By Maureen Smith
MERIDIAN/NATCHEZ – One of the themes that emerged during the diocesan listening sessions hosted during three weeks in February was that people wanted to see more large gatherings for young people from different parishes. The good news: several deaneries are already hosting these gatherings with hopes to expand them in the years to come.
On Saturday, Feb. 13, more than 60 young people representing three parishes from Deanery six gathered in Meridian for a day of sports and prayer. The following weekend, another 80 young people and 35 adults from seven parishes spent the day in Natchez at a multi-parish youth day sponsored by St. Mary’s Basilica and the youth directors from Deanery two.
Although the days had different structures, the goal of getting young people together was the same. Father Augustine Palimattam, pastor of Philadelphia Holy Cross Parish, and deanery representative, feels it is very important for smaller parishes to work together on projects such as this one.
“We (Catholics) are such a minority here,” said Father Palimattam. He brought up the idea of hosting a youth day at a deanery meeting and the other parish leaders liked the idea. “We were pleased to host the event at St. Patrick, and we appreciate the initiative of Father Augustine and the others involved in planning the event. The parishioners from St. Therese traveled a great distance for the sake of community-building with other Catholics in east-central Mississippi, said Father Matthew Simmons, pastor of St. Patrick Parish. The day was simple, morning prayer led by Father Simmons, indoor soccer, dodgeball, lunch and time for fellowship.
“When our youth group of Holy Cross Catholic Church goes and plays soccer, basketball
or dodgeball, we always have an amazing time. It doesn’t matter if we win or lose, we always have the best time with our church group, our best friends and the other parishes around us,” said Emily Berry, a member of the youth group. Everyone was gracious, she explained, no matter what the score. “There was no change in attitude, change in fun, just a new change in friends. It was also fun when we got to talk with the other youth and hang out while eating pizza provided by the St. Patrick Parish,” she added.
Father Palimattam said he has already seen the benefit of the gathering. “You can see already that they have built healthy relationships,” he said. Young people fill liturgical roles at the 8 a.m. Sunday Mass at Holy Rosary, some have started coming to Adoration and they have started their own system of checks and balances. “If someone does not come, they call each other and ask ‘where were you,’” he said.
Father Palimattam said he happily embraces the challenge of being from a smaller, rural parish. “We don’t have a youth minister and we don’t have too much money, but what I have noticed in my parish is that if we offer more programs for the youth, people step forward,” he said. Since he started gathering the young people for activities he has seen an increase in both volunteers and donations specifically aimed at youth programs.
When Carrie Lambert took on the role of youth ministry in Natchez last September, her pastor, Father David O’Connor encouraged her to contact the other youth ministers in the deanery and work on projects together. She said Yvette Howard from Crystal Springs St. John was a big supporter of the idea of a multi-parish youth day. Seven parishes participated, including four students who came all the way from Greenville St. Joseph Parish, three hours away.
The Natchez program was for seventh through 12th graders. It included speaker, Nicole Marquez, who was pursuing her dreams of a career in dance in New York when she fell from the fire escape of her apartment. She has written a book and gives inspirational talks about how her faith plays a role in her remarkable recovery.
Lambert said she wanted students to hear from someone who had overcome real challenges because of the world these young people live in today, noting that all of them were born after the terrorist attacks of September 11th. “There have always been terrorists in their lives,” she said. She also believes very much in face-to-face contact.
“Now, there is so much technology for them to connect, but they are not really connected!” said Lambert.
This leads to another component of the Natchez youth gathering. Lambert invited representatives from the Catholic Campus Ministry organizations from Louisiana State University, the University of Mississippi and Mississippi State University.
The college students participated in ice breakers and met in small groups with the high school students to talk about how their faith made a difference in their college life. “They need to make a connection with their faith before they go to college,” explained Lambert. Not only does she want to encourage the idea that students should continue to practice their faith in college, she hopes that knowing someone in campus ministry at their college of choice will help them feel more comfortable when they get to campus.
A second speaker gave a presentation on Adoration before the Blessed Sacrament was brought out in the church. “You could have heard a pin drop. There was total silence in that church,” said Lambert. She said many of the students stayed for the entire half-hour of adoration.
The day closed with Mass. Students filled all of the liturgical roles. Both Father Palimattam and Lambert said they are already planning their next multi-parish gathering.