Bishop talks life, faith, vocations with youth in Middletown parish

By Dr. Carly York | Correspondent

Bishop David M. O’Connell visited youth of St. Mary Parish May 11, encouraging open dialogue, enjoying camaraderie over dinner and sharing his thoughts on vocations.

More than 50 teenagers joined parishioners of all ages as the evening began with the Bishop celebrating the vigil Mass for Good Shepherd Sunday at the invitation of Father Jeffrey Kegley, pastor, and Father Richard Osborn, parochial vicar and Life Teen chaplain.

Photo Gallery: Bishop visits youth in St. Mary Parish, Middletown

After greeting parishioners following Mass, the Bishop was warmly welcomed by Life Teen members.

“The young people were amazing and asked all kinds of questions, ranging from what a bishop does to how young people can grow in their Christian lives,” Bishop O’Connell said. “I felt so encouraged by their joy and hope.”

Father Osborn explained that the Life Teen ministry had been studying about vocations throughout spring.

“We are blessed that the Bishop came to say Mass and to talk with us. I hope this event will be a powerful experience for the teens and help them confirm their faith as they journey as young disciples of Jesus Christ,” Father Osborn said.

The excitement was palpable as teens shared dinner and conversation with Bishop O’Connell. After dinner, the youth took part in a relaxed discussion and question-and-answer session with the Bishop, where he candidly and honestly answered a myriad of questions.

“When did you know that your calling was to the priesthood?” one young man asked.

Without pause, the Bishop answered, “Second grade… My grandmother had been sick, so the priest came to give Communion to her at my home, and I immediately thought, ‘I want to be like him.’”

The Bishop continued by explaining how his parish priest encouraged the vocation during his childhood through altar server work and eventually by his enrolling into minor seminary at age 14.

Another student asked, “How did you become a Bishop?”

In response, Bishop O’Connell recounted that "It is a mystery, you never really know."  He knew Vatican Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger during the Bishop’s time as president of The Catholic University of America, Washington. After Cardinal Ratzinger became Pope Benedict XVI, a need arose for two new bishops to be named in the United States. After a long process, priests' names were put forth to Pope Benedict who selected Bishop O’Connell. The Bishop recalled that a friend in Rome told him that, among other reasons, Pope Benedict sent him“to Trenton so that he can be close to his mother who was ailing.’”

The students discussed difficult topics with the Bishop as well. In addition to showing the young people his prosthetic leg and talking about the circumstances surrounding having his lower left leg amputated, Bishop also answered questions about the pro-life issue.

“Being pro-life is not a Catholic issue, it is a human issue,” Bishop O’Connell said. “Science says that life begins at conception.”

He gave examples of discussing pro-life issues with Catholics whose stances are not in line with the Church. “I never give up on people,” he encouraged the teens. “Something that you say could always make a difference in someone’s life. You are not only God’s children; you are his instruments. Never be afraid to preach the Gospel, and sometimes you don’t even need words to do it.”

Bishop O’Connell was asked his thoughts regarding the many recent school shootings. Wanting instead to hear what the youth had to say, since they are going to school every day, Bishop asked the students how they felt. Many answered that they are often now desensitized.

The Bishop also addressed the abuse scandal in the Church. “This is a time when we are all carrying the Cross. We have corrected our mistakes, and we are making the Church a safer place.”

At the conclusion of the hour-long dialogue, Father Osborn presented the Bishop with a “spiritual bouquet” of prayers the youth group have pledged to pray for the Bishop.

“I am inspired by the size of your group, and I have loved being with you,” the Bishop said. “Be people of prayer. Stay close to the Eucharist. You are blessed.”

Youth ministry members said they were honored by the Bishop’s visit and blessed to be part of the parish group.

Kaylie Santoro, a sophomore in Middletown High School North, has been a Life Teen member since her eighth-grade Confirmation. “There are a lot of people here that I can express my faith with. It is hard to relate that in public school. But here we can have fun with people and still share our faith.”

Julia DiBiasi is a student in Brookdale Community College, Lincroft, who will attend Franciscan University, Steubenville, Ohio, next year.

“This is a big family,” DiBiasi said. “Everyone is very accepting of each other, and the faith of the whole group is so strong.”