By JORDAN MCMORROUGH
WHITE OAK — Organizers promised diocesan youth that this year’s high school conference March 9-11 would be one event that they would not soon forget, and they delivered on that pledge.
The fun started with the opening video on Friday night with its “Mission Impossible” introduction and theme song blaring in the background. After a chase scene of several minutes through the White Oak Retreat Center, the drama culminated with a black-clad participant doing his best Tom Cruise impression and repelling down from the catwalk to the floor of the retreat center gym amidst the spotlight to the roar of almost 850 approving teens. Participants knew that this year’s event, which assembled some of the best Catholic presenters, would put the gathering on par with any national level meeting.
Music throughout the weekend was provided by the St. Mary Magdalene Life Teen group, which again served as the house band for the conference.
Members of the diocesan Youth Advisory Council were active throughout the event performing skits, based on TV shows like “Survivor” and “Gilligan’s Island,” and leading icebreakers during interludes between the keynote presenters. In an unusual twist, video interviews with the speakers served as their introduction before the performer appeared on stage. They were asked questions like what cities they’ve performed in and their most embarrassing moments.
Jesse Manibusan was the first of three keynoters on March 9. He is a pastoral musician at St. Joseph’s Basilica in Alameda, Calif., who has more than 26 years experience as a professional musician. Manibusan gave a dynamic performance that had the teens on their feet and in motion to the music.
He was followed by Steve Angrisano, a well-known composer and storyteller to most of the South Carolina youth. Angrisano performed at the recent diocesan youth ministry ski trip to West Virginia in January, as well as last year’s high school youth conference.
Father Stan Fortuna, a “rapping” priest, who is one of eight original members of the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal in New York City, rounded out the day’s activities.
Father Stan played the drums for one of Manibusan’s numbers earlier in the evening, but that proved to be just a warm-up for his high energy talk. With his patched gray Franciscan habit, thick beard, and heavy South Bronx accent, he mesmerized the crowd with tales of his youth as a jazz musician playing clubs and touring Europe with his own group before he entered religious life 22 years ago.
The Franciscan priest also talked frankly to the teens referring to the “zipper zone” and giving his thoughts on intimate kissing: “Uptown shopping for downtown business.”
But his music was the main feature, as Father Stan intermingled performances of rap, jazz, and spiritual songs from his many albums.
In a deeply spiritual portion of his program, he asked all of the attendees to seriously think about making a public commitment to live for Christ, after when the priest asked those willing to do so to stand when the youth that remained seated prayed for them.
Saturday morning came early as another set of veteran diocesan performers, Apex Ministries, opened the day with their mix of juggling, personal storytelling and skits based on Grimm’s Fairy Tales. The duo, Gene Monterastelli and Bradley Farmer, performed at the 1999 papal visit in St. Louis and at last year’s National Catholic Youth Conference.
Afterward, “Who Do You Say That I Am,” a band made up of youth and music ministers from the Diocese of Cleveland, held an hourlong concert before the teens split into groups to attend either the Youth Congress or a variety of workshops.
Sessions were led by Father Stan; Angrisano; Manibusan; Apex Ministries; “Who Do You Say That I Am”; Msgr. Joseph Roth, vicar general for the diocese; and Father Dennis Willey, diocesan director of vocations.
The teens played sports Saturday afternoon; some getting in a little healthy competition. They also had some free time before the evenings festivities. Keynote addresses were later given by Apex Ministries, Manibusan and Father Stan. A combined concert featuring “Who Do You Say That I Am,” Manibusan, and Angrisano wrapped up the late evening.
Ribbons were given out the following morning by members of the Youth Advisory Council to the parish and school teams who had placed in sports competitions on Saturday.
In addition, the youth council members also gave two unexpected special awards of recognition. John Waters, youth minister at St. Joseph Church in Columbia, and Jerry White, diocesan director of Youth and Young Adult Ministry, each received a plaque and standing ovation for all their hard work in helping to plan and organize the successful conference. White’s wife and young son were with him on the stage to accept the honor.
The highlight of Sunday was the liturgy, celebrated by Bishop Robert J. Baker. In his homily, the bishop reiterated what had been said by some of the other speakers, that the celebration of the Eucharist was the high point of the retreat.
“In life you have mountaintop experiences, and then you go back to the valleys of everyday life. And most of life is made up of valley experiences,” said the bishop. He asked, “How do you transition back and share the messages you are bringing back?” After soliciting some replies from the audience, Bishop Baker told the youth to take some time to reflect on their experiences.
The bishop said, “We are not saved alone. God set up a community of the saved. Stay close to the body. Listen to the call of God.”
At the conclusion of the Mass, Father Stan, in a continuation of activity he had done the previous evening, conducted a type of “altar call” in which he asked youths who think they have a vocation to religious life to stand up publicly and come forward to receive information on that path. He asked teens to keep their eyes closed while their some of their fellow conferencegoers were answering the call. After a time, the priest asked everyone to open their eyes, and they cheered as they saw well over two dozen of their own standing proudly before the stage. In addition, Father Stan also asked for those who may be interested in taking part in the Diocese of Charleston Volunteer Program to rise, and about 50 people did just that.
Before the closing of the conference, White asked the teens to consider attending the upcoming Search retreat April 6-8 in Chapin and the National Catholic Youth Conference in Indianapolis. He emphasized that only 150 spaces were open to the diocese for the event.
A videotape chronicling highlights of the weekend brought an end to the revelry, with the youths and their chaperones then dispersing back to their parishes across the state, each carrying a deeper commitment to holiness.