By Debbie Shelley

The Catholic Commentator  

Teens took a deep look at what it means to belong to the modern world, within the church and ultimately to the Sacred Heart of Jesus at this year’s Red Stick Catholic Fest on Aug. 29. The event, themed “Belong,” was hosted by the Office of Youth and Young Adult Ministry for the Diocese of Baton Rouge.  

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Father Mathew Dunn, parochial vicar at St. John the Evangelist Church in Prairieville, leads a eucharistic procession from the church’s parish activity center to the church for eucharistic adoration and benediction. Photos by Debbie Shelley | The Catholic Commentator 


Because of the coronavirus pandemic there were two avenues youth participated in the conference. Some parishes held an in-person gathering where teens maintained social distancing and safety protocol.  

The second was virtual.  

A large group of youth, including those from St. John the Evangelist Church in Prairieville, Holy Rosary Church in St. Amant and St. Michael the Archangel Diocesan High School in Baton Rouge, gathered at St. John.  

Bishop Michael G. Duca welcomed the youth via video with a message of affirmation.  

“You are important,” the bishop told the youth, noting that with the many stresses separating people from one another it is important to gather with family, friends and the church.  

“God love us, has called us, we are his beloved,” he said.  

Tapping on the conference theme, Bishop Duca said he hoped the youth will realize God’s love for them and they belong to God. This will strengthen them to go out and serve the mission of the church.  

“Let us feel belonging to God in our hearts and to one another,” Bishop Duca said.  

The youth were urged to consider their specific life mission in a video presentation by Father Andrew Merrick, director of seminarians for the Diocese of Baton Rouge. He said what’s important is not the “doing” but “being with” God in discerning their vocation in life.

He emphasized people’s sin can never change God’s view of them because they are his beloved sons and daughters. Father Merrick said God calls people to mission in the midst of their sin because it is based on the nature of God and not sin.  

“We start with a relationship with God the Father ‑ not based on what we do but who he is,” said Father Merrick.  

He added the world is hurting and that is why God came into the world through the incarnation, and today he calls people to be his eyes, hands and feet. Father Merrick said as the youth spend more time with Jesus in their relationship, he will conform their heart to his and in the words of St. Catherine of Siena “be who God meant you to be and you will set the world on fire.”  

“If you focus on your relationship with God, you will step into your vocation,” said Father Merrick.  

Next, international speaker Avera Santo spoke about how her turmoil over her same-sex attraction led her to a deeper understanding that the desire of love and wholeness is something only God can satisfy.  

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Father Joshua Johnson, right, director of the Office of Vocations for the Diocese of Baton Rouge, talks to the youth about listening to God’s voice to discern their vocation in life. Pictured with him is Father Mathew Dunn, parochial vicar at St. John the Evangelist Church in Prairieville.  


Santo told the youth she was terrified and distressed as she came to grips with her sexual desire during high school. She said it was at that point that God journeyed with her and she came across the book “Made for Love: Same Sex Attractions and the Catholic Church” by Father Mike Schmidt.  

She called the book a “resounding call of compassion, as well as a demanding call to conversion.”  

Santo said she discovered God saw her for who she was and not who she was trying to convince him regarding who she was. She also found the Catholic Church to be “home” where she has a place and urged the youth, no matter their struggles, to see themselves as loved and needed by the church and its ministry.  

“All he wants you to do is to come and be healed,” said Santo.  

The conference also included activities during the day. Father Joshua Johnson, director of the Office of Vocations, kept the momentum going by talking about having a game plan when it comes to their faith.  

Father Johnson recalled the annual and highly anticipated rivalry “bonfire” football game pitting St. Joseph Seminary College in St. Benedict against Notre Dame Seminary College in New Orleans. He said much time, energy and effort go into preparing for the game.  

He urged the youth to think about what their faith life would be if they put that same time, energy and talent into their relationship with Jesus.  

“Jesus is calling us to holiness, to a relationship with him,” said Father Johnson.  

He noted many people put off an invitation from Jesus to know him more intimately by saying, “I will put more time into my relationship with Jesus when …”  

One of the reasons people do this is because they are afraid that if Jesus knew them for who they really are he would reject them, according to Father Johnson. He shared stories about individuals who were initially hesitant to attend Mass and pursue a relationship with Jesus because they lived sinful lives. But they took him up on his urging to “keep coming,” and they experienced deep conversion.  

“Keep showing up when it comes to Jesus,” said Father Johnson, who also presented a talk earlier in the conference about listening to the voice of God when discerning one’s vocation in life.  

His messages resonated with Destin Daigle of Holy Rosary, where Father Johnson is pastor.  

“I liked his examples about developing a relationship and spending time with the Lord,” said Daigle.  

The event also included Mass and ended with a eucharistic procession from the parish activity center to the church for eucharistic adoration and benediction. During this time, many of the youth filed out of the pews to take part in the sacrament of reconciliation when invited to do so. 

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The parish activity center at St. John the Evangelist Church in Prairieville was filled with youth for an in-person gathering for Red Stick Catholic Fest Aug. 29.