Conference has long history of serving youth

By Ricardo Gandara
Correspondent

In 1982, a photo of hundreds of teens wearing T-shirts with “To Kiss a Frog” emblazoned across their chests might suggest they were at a pep rally or summer camp, but no, the photo was taken at a Catholic convention for youth.
Melinda Johnson, then a senior in high school and now executive assistant to Bishop Joe Vásquez, was there. “I’m sure ‘frog’ was an acronym for something spiritual,” she tried to recall. After all, fun and pranks are commonplace among high school students. 
Bishop Wm. Michael Mulvey, now bishop of Corpus Christi but then the spiritual director for the Austin Diocese‘s youth council in the mid-1970s and early 80s, shed light on the photo. He and Mary Hajda, the diocese’s youth director at the time, were brainstorming with members of the youth council about ways to include and recruit all teens to the conference. 
“We talked of ways of reaching out to those who perhaps are not the most popular youth,” Bishop Mulvey said. 
His favorite memory of Bishop Vincent Harris, the bishop of Austin from 1971 to 1986, happened during the youth conference as Bishop Harris played along with the “frog” message. 
“He was quite a formal man in his presentation and speech,” Bishop Mulvey said. “During Mass on stage, Bishop Harris said, ‘there’s a frog up here who could benefit from a little kiss.’”
“He endeared himself immediately to everyone,” Bishop Mulvey said.
Such is the way when thousands of teenagers come together for the Diocesan Catholic Youth Conference during which high school students meet for a weekend every year to enhance their faith and develop a deeper relationship with Jesus. 
“The goal of DCYC is to provide an experience of our diocesan church and celebration of our Catholic faith for our parish youth ministry programs,” said Alison Tate, the diocesan director of Youth, Young Adults and Campus Ministry. 
Tate, who attended DCYC as a teen and parishioner from St. Thomas More Parish in Austin, said the work that the diocesan staff and volunteers do rests on a strong history of dedication to youth in the Diocese of Austin. 
In February 2018, the high-energy conference celebrates its 60th birthday with the theme: “Fully Alive.” More information is available at www.austindiocese.org/dcyc.
“It’s based on the quote by St. Irenaeus: ‘The glory of God is man fully alive,’” said Jennifer Kodysz, associate director of Youth, Young Adult and Campus Ministry for the Diocese of Austin.
The 60th meeting of anything is the testament of success and longevity, and the youth conference has seen it all.
For instance, the conference has undergone name changes through the years. The gatherings through the early 1970s were called the Catholic Youth Organization (CYO) Convention. Then is 1976, it became Diocesan CYO Convention; in 1990, it was the Youth Congress. It has been the Diocesan Catholic Youth Conference (DCYC) since the late 1990s.
Regardless of its name, it has been a unifying meeting for the Austin Diocese’s high school students. Jason Deuterman of Dallas, a former volunteer and emcee, describes the conference as a “massive retreat” because the workshops are educational and pertinent. 
“It doesn’t matter where you are in your faith, you have an encounter with the Lord,” he said. Deuterman, director of Youth, Young Adult, and Campus Ministries for the Diocese of Dallas, was a featured speaker at this year’s conference held in January. 
The direction and purpose of this event has dramatically evolved as well. Early on, the CYO model emphasized socializing and sports, and that played out during the weekend.
“Yes, there was also a spiritual aspect, but CYO was more about socialization,” Johnson said.
Early attendees have fond memories of the popular Friday night dance. “Oh the dance was the thing. Kids loved that,” said Margaret McKinney, who attended between 1988 and 1993 as a youth minister for St. Anthony Marie de Claret Parish in Kyle. She said mixers were also held the first day to give teens the opportunity to meet one another. Attendance hovered between 400 and 600, a far cry of the 2,800 who attended this year.
Logan Mayes, the youth minister at St. Thomas More Parish in Austin, attended as a teenager while living in Bryan. “The dance was later replaced by a more effective, meaningful night of adoration,” he said.
On Saturday, a sit-down dinner and banquet was highlighted by awards presentations. 
“Boys wore a coat and tie and girls wore semi-formal dresses,” Johnson said. 
Now, the bishop has lunch with seniors on Saturday. It was made popular by Bishop Emeritus John McCarthy who was a great supporter of the conference.
Joanne Simcik Selucky of Granger, who was a youth minister from 1983 to 1996 and took teens to the conference every year, recalled that awards were given at the banquet. 
“It was friendly competition for banners and kids were also recognized for selling the most ads in the program that helped pay their way to the conference,” she said.
Some years, youth were also encouraged to bring food items that would be donated to food pantries. “It was community building,” McKinney said.
The conference bounced around in the early years, but recently it has settled at the Waco Convention Center to accommodate large crowds. In the early 1980s, it was held at Southwestern University in Georgetown and one year at the Stephen F. Austin Hotel in downtown Austin. The conference at the hotel was marred when some students threw items from the top floor to the street below. The incident, however, ended in a positive way.
Bishop Mulvey recalled that the youth council mulled suspending the conference. “The president of the youth council, a young girl, got up on stage with the entire council behind her and made the statement that throwing things from the top floor could potentially harm and even kill someone … And that we were youth for life and we would not tolerate this kind of activity because we believed in life. The response from floor was a tremendous applause … and the problem was solved. We learned that the most effective way to reach out to teens was to allow them to help organize and carry forward the conference,” he said.
The shift to a more spiritual conference had its roots in the mid to late 1980s, said Father Albert Ruiz, former youth director of the diocese and now pastor of St. Joseph Parish in Waco. He recalled the CYO emphasis of sports and social events. 
“Sister Mary Lou Barba, then in charge of religious education for diocese, and I went throughout diocese teaching the teams the concept of Catholic youth ministry. The concept was building community, family and church. We instilled in kids the religious dimension, the spiritual part, not just the sports,” Father Ruiz said.
Gradually, the spiritual aspect of the conference grew. Deuterman credits Chris Bartlett, who was the diocesan director of Youth, Young Adult and Campus Ministries from 2008 to 2011, for a change in focus.
“Chris was a dreamer, and he figured out how to take the spiritual connection deeper. He thought of the conference as a youth ministry,” Deuterman said. “He had the willingness to directly tackle the issues kids are dealing with like morality and the understanding of Christianity … Chris said OK, this could be a rally or we enter into a genuine intimacy with the Lord.”
The approach still works and adoration on Saturday night is a favorite. 
“When adoration comes, you are forming a deeper bond with your friends,” said Evan Millerick, 17, of Waco, who has attended three years and is on the discipleship team that helps put on the conference. 
“The emotions come. People are crying and laughing. It’s absolutely glorious that people you haven’t known long become family,” he said.
Emma Nevlud, 17, of Round Rock, said adoration strengthens her faith. 
“The adoration music is perfect and helps you focus ... I love being surrounded by thousands of teens praising our Lord,” she said.
The fun part of the conference also continues. Attendees are led by peers called discipleship crew members, once known as animators, whose job is to pump up the crowd. 
“They have games and activities and skits, and they even share testimonies,” Mayes said. 
While there is no longer a Friday night dance, the live band on stage is effective, often resulting in teens singing and dancing along.
So where do planners and organizers take it from here? Doug Tooke, director of Monarch Catholic Ministries in Helena, Montana, who was a speaker in 2015, said the Austin Diocese is doing a superb job. 
“I’ve been to hundreds of these, and I can say that what (the Diocese of Austin) has done is second to none. It beautifully serves the spirituality of young people. I like the way the different ethnic groups are served. The ministry on stage is diverse and engaging,” Tooke said.
He offers this piece of advice all dioceses: “This is a new generation, not like millennials. My advice always will be to engage the culture. Truth is not arbitrary. Truth is Jesus Christ and to know Jesus intimately helps youth seek truth to defy bullying, racism and gender bias. It’s exciting that young people are engaging these topics,” he said.
The conference today has become a historic and sacred event, thanks to the smooth transition of staff members in the diocese office, Chris Bartlett said. 
“God’s hand has been at work in this conference, more than anyone,” he said.
The diocese is collecting photos and stories for the 60th conference in February. 
Those who have attended DCYC in the past are asked to send photos to dcyc60@austindiocese.org.