By Barb Arland-Fye
The Catholic Messenger
IOWA CITY — Teenagers and adults listened intently to the stories of a couple whose 15-year-old son died after a valiant battle against cancer and a judge who made amends to a former junior high classmate for bullying behavior decades earlier. These and other talks, the sacraments, prayer, music and fun provided seeds of spiritual growth for participants of the virtual version of the National Catholic Youth Conference (NCYC) celebrated Nov. 18-20 at The Highlander Hotel.
Organizers put in extra effort to synchronize the virtual “NCYC 2.0” with the in-person event at the Indiana Convention Center and Lucas Oil Stadium. Michelle Montgomery, youth minister for St. Thomas More Parish in Coralville, and other organizers and participants believe the planning paid off.
About 130 youths participated, some of them staying overnight at the hotel and others commuting. “So far, it’s been wonderful,” Montgomery said mid-afternoon of the event’s second day as youths chatted and ate snacks during a break. Colorful posters of recognizable saints decorated the banquet room, along with a life-size cardboard Pope Francis, perfect for selfies with new and old friends. Participants were grouped by a saint’s name they wore on their nametags.
Anna Verry, 17, a senior at West High School in Iowa City and member of St. Thomas More, served as a peer leader at NCYC 2.0. “I was able to go to NCYC in 2019. I had an absolute blast there. I
wanted to bring the whole experience of NCYC to life here in Iowa City. It’s been wonderful.” She described “brilliant speakers who connect to our lives. They’ve been able to help us look at our own lives and see how we can apply their messages.”
Anna gave a witness talk on “how the light in my heart was lit when I did service work in 2019 in David, Kentucky. My passion is to serve other people. … My mantra is ‘God has a plan and I have a purpose.’”
Her parish collaborated with St. Patrick Parish-Iowa City, St. Mary parishes in Lone Tree and Nichols, St. Joseph Parish in Hills, and Holy Family Parish (Riverside, Richmond and Wellman) to create a faith-infused event that responded to the NCYC theme “Ablaze.”
The second chapter of the Book of Acts, which tells about the coming of the Holy Spirit, inspired the theme. Virtual participants “joined” their peers in Indianapolis via livestream.
Montgomery has led groups to NCYC many times before and said the decision not to travel to Indianapolis was difficult, but based on input from pastors, parents and youths in the midst of a pandemic. Approximately 400 youths and adults throughout the Diocese of Davenport did travel to Indianapolis. (Read about their stories in an upcoming issue.)
Among the speakers at the virtual event were Craig and Stacy Schroeder of St. Thomas More Parish. They shared how their family’s faith and the support of others guided them on the journey through cancer with their son, Austin, the eldest of their three children.
Austin, then 14, was diagnosed in 2014 with T-cell lymphoma, a blood cancer with a high rate of survival, his parents were told. However, Austin’s cancer became aggressive and he underwent a bone marrow transplant. Later, he suffered a seizure because of the fast-moving cancer.
They had moments of struggle and tears, but Craig and Stacy did not dwell in despair. A friend of Craig’s, a pastor, advised him to allow God to carry the burden. Craig liked to fix things, but he could not fix his son’s cancer.
The pastor’s advice allowed him to trust God, in the midst of struggle. “We knew God didn’t give Austin cancer,” Stacy said, “and that (God) would be there for us, for him.”
The Schroeder family has a favorite saying, “Win the Day.” The idea is to focus on the positive, even when life gets tough. His parents told Austin that he could decide what “wins the day” each day. Austin, an athlete whose nickname was “Flash,” loved playing baseball and did not give up his will to live. He complained about life being unfair — not for himself, but for other kids diagnosed with cancer. When it became clear that he would not survive cancer, his parents talked with him about it. He told them that he understood he could die any day. “He said he wasn’t afraid. He didn’t want to die, but if God needed him, ‘I will watch over you guys,’” Craig said. Austin died on April 28, 2015. After his death, Austin’s parents founded The Fight with Flash Foundation to raise money for the Adolescents and Young Adults (AYA) Cancer specialty center at The University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics.
Craig encouraged his NCYC audience to take the faith that they nurture at NCYC and “grow it. For it to grow, you have to work at it. You have to make time for God. Build a relationship with him.” Craig advised the audience members to “listen and learn from each other. Have an open mind and an open heart.” His audience responded with a standing ovation.
After the talk, peer leaders asked the youths to reflect on God’s presence in Austin’s story and they shared their thoughts spontaneously. One youth sensed God’s presence in a detail about a doctor who cried after a failed attempt to alleviate pain in Austin’s bladder. Austin, who had been screaming in pain, stopped, touched his doctor’s hand and said, “I know you’re doing the best you can.” God was in that, the audience member said.
Doug Slobodnik, a volunteer in youth ministry at St. Alphonsus Parish-Mount Pleasant, said a message popped up on his smartphone during the talk advertising a book about living for Christ through the game of baseball. Craig and Stacy had just been talking about their son’s love of baseball. “I couldn’t believe it,” Slobodnik said. “It’s just like a sign. God is here. The Lord is with us today.”
Father Chuck Adam, pastor of St. Thomas More Parish, invited the NCYC 2.0 participants to receive the sacrament of reconciliation later that evening. He said the sacrament provides an opportunity for participants to reflect on the things that hurt their relationship with God and with others. Reconciliation provides a sense of peace. “God wants us to be at peace with everyone.”
Speaker Thad Collins, chief bankruptcy judge for the Northern District of Iowa, shared his confession with the youths. He is a member of St. Thomas More Parish and participates with Craig Schroeder in a men’s prayer group. In 2010, newly appointed to his judgeship, Thad discovered that a long-ago classmate tagged him and others in a Facebook post for bullying behavior when they were junior high students in Iowa City. Sue, the classmate, wondered if Thad was still persecuting fat people. The post embarrassed him, but caused him to reflect on the “acid tongue” he had in junior high in the late 1970s. “I knew she was hurt and I owed her an apology.”
Sue accepted Thad’s apology, saying it helped her to process the hurt she had felt for so many years. “Your words matter,” he stressed to his audience. “Stand up for what you know is right and wrong.” His Facebook exchanges with Sue were uplifting and cathartic. “She forgave me, so I could let go and move forward and make it right.” He is grateful to Sue for calling him out. He later learned she was dying of cancer. “I was so blessed that I was forgiven by her.”
Jim Verry, an adult volunteer and father of Anna Verry, described NCYC 2.0 as awesome, crediting Michelle Montgomery’s strong faith and planning skills, which inspired him to answer the call to help. He could not imagine “a more wonderful opportunity happening for our young people.”