By Lindsay Steele
The Catholic Messenger
IOWA CITY — It’s easy for young people to believe that a life rooted in Christ isn’t worth it because of the enticements of the world in which they live. “Today, I want to make that thought disappear,” singer/songwriter Dana Catherine told a crowd of about 200 adults and youths assembled at Regina Catholic Education Center. “The world has nothing in it that is better than a life with Christ.”
Catherine, a young adult based in Nashville, served as the main speaker for the Iowa Catholic Youth Conference (ICYC) April 3. The faith formation offices of the Diocese of Davenport and Archdiocese of Dubuque planned the new event, themed “Rooted,” as a way for middle school youths and their parents to become more grounded in the Catholic faith.
After leading participants in a series of icebreaker games, Catherine offered a welcoming message. “Wherever you’re at with your faith and what you feel about God and the Catholic Church … It’s OK… God can handle it.”
Catherine shared her testimony with ICYC participants and performed original songs with voice and acoustic guitar. She said her childhood identity was rooted in being the best at everything. She set her sights on becoming a doctor even though music was her passion. When she left her friends and family to go to college, she began to question her identity and sense of belonging. She decided to root herself in the belief that she is, first, a child of God. This new identity freed her from the weight of self-imposed expectations.
She found stability within the Catholic faith community. “When life changes, we can lean on our brothers and sisters in the body of Christ.” She takes comfort in the idea that the Church has a place for everyone. “You belong because you are you,” she told the crowd. “We are made up of so many cultures, backgrounds; people with different experiences, strengths and weaknesses.”
Her new foundation in faith gave Catherine the courage to pursue her vocation: evangelizing through music and witness talks. “I gave up what I thought I was going to do for what Christ would have me do: sharing the Gospel and sharing how good he has been in my life in hopes that you will see how good he can be in your life.”
Catherine shared a life-changing experience that made her believe in the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist. While Catherine was a teenager growing up on the East Coast, her mother suddenly lost her sight. Doctors were unable to diagnose or treat the blindness. She regained her sight after the family participated in eucharistic adoration. “I’m not making this up,” Catherine said, admitting that the story may seem improbable. “It sounds like the stuff we read about in Scripture, yet it was happening in a little town in North Carolina” in modern times. The experience strengthened Catherine’s belief that Jesus is truly present in the Eucharist “and that he’s here for us.”
Participants engaged in breakout sessions after her talk. Youths had the opportunity to walk down the “Avenue of the Saints” and discover different forms of prayer inspired by the saints. Olivia Uhlenkamp from St. Ann Parish in Long Grove chose to learn about praying with music in the spirit of St. Cecilia. “That was fun because I like music a lot.” Other youths chose to learn about praying through art, in nature or in conversation.
In another breakout session, youths chatted with Catherine and participated in hands-on activities such as making knotted rosaries and decorating SMACK (Spreading Messages of Affirmation, Compassion and Kindness) cards.
While decorating SMACK cards with colored pencils, youth Anna Prosise from St. Joseph Parish in DeWitt said she thought it would be cool to make more cards back home and pass them out after Mass. Sarah Johnston, eighth-grade religious education teacher from the parish, loved the idea. “We’re always trying to figure out how to get them (students) more connected to their parish.”
Adults at the conference had the opportunity to participate in sessions about internet safety and talking to youths about faith. Parent Albert Schinstock, who attended with his wife, Stephanie, and children McKayla and Noah, said he appreciated the parent-centric sessions. Their family belongs to St. James Parish-St. Paul. “We’re still learning, too.” He was inspired by the overall message that parents should teach their students about the faith rather than “forcing the faith up on them.”
Three students from Loras College in Dubuque served as emcees, including Assumption High School-Davenport graduate Quinn Frese. The trio led games in the main gym and helped the youths and adults navigate Regina’s halls. “We’re pepping them up, letting them know ‘you’ve got this.’ We want them to feel welcomed, valued and like they have a purpose here,” Frese said.
Lay leader Jeri Bollwitt of St. Mary Parish in Solon had designed an event banner that participants signed with names and fingerprints. Later, it adorned the altar at Mass. Father Jeff Belger, priest director of Newman Catholic Student Center on the University of Iowa campus in Iowa City, presided at Mass. Father Denis Hatungimana, a Tanzanian priest ministering in the Diocese of Davenport, concelebrated. Youth participants served at the Mass and Catherine led music.
Zachary Joyce, a youth from Divine Mercy Parish in Burlington-West Burlington, said the conference was a great experience that helped him feel “connected to God.” He loved praying with the saints and said Catherine’s message helped him realize “that miracles really do happen.”