Courage in numbers at diocesan youth gathering

College students pray at adoration during Summit’s closing session on Saturday, Feb. 10. (Photo/Office of Communications, Office for Evangelization)

The rain outside did not dampen the mood inside the Greater Richmond Convention Center and adjacent Richmond Marriott. From Feb. 9-11, about 750 high schoolers came to celebrate the Diocesan Youth Conference (DYC); from Feb. 9-10, about 475 college students participated in the College Campus Ministry Summit (Summit). The theme for both events was “Take Courage.”

In addition to Mass, adoration and confession, there were opportunities to attend breakout sessions, pray, play, and make faith-based friendships. Fifty volunteers, more than 40 clergy – including Bishop Barry C. Knestout – more than 20 seminarians, and about 15 religious sisters from different communities joined the diocesan Office for Evangelization, which hosts this massive annual gathering.

“I’ve never done anything like this before,” said Carli Wadas, a Radford University student and first-time attendee. “I re-discovered my Catholic faith about a year ago. I thought this would be a good opportunity to build a community base for Catholicism.”

Students arrive at Greater Richmond Convention Center for DYC’s programming on Feb. 10, 2024. (Photo/Office for Evangelization)

Courage in numbers

On the surface, Summit and DYC are full of fun and noisy activities; there was a Christian pop concert at DYC, square dancing at Summit, games that caused raucous laughter during the general sessions, a gymnasium-sized room full of inflatables and a rock-climbing wall, and a food-packing service project with Rise Against Hunger.

Students take a selfie with Bishop Barry C. Knestout. (Photo/Lily Nguyen Dunkle)

Despite the jam-packed schedule, student after student said that Mass and adoration were the highlights of the weekend.

Saturday morning, Bishop Knestout celebrated a combined Mass, with dozens of his brother priests, for the more than 1,200 DYC and Summit attendees; more than 20 of the diocese’s seminarians served at the altar.

“There was something so special about getting to participate in such a big Mass, especially when everyone joined in song and prayer,” Lewandowski added. “It was a good reminder that our brothers and sisters in Christ are always by our side to bring us closer to God.”

During his homily, Bishop Knestout told the students that it was encouraging to see so many young people accompanying each other. “It takes courage to gather together in faith,” said the bishop.

The bishop told them that God will bless all the things they bring to DYC/Summit, whether it’s stress, troubles, or challenges related to school, work, family and friends.

“God wants us to take each obstacle as an opportunity,” said Bishop Knestout, “an opportunity for us to make small acts each day that prepare us in case we are called one day to make a big, heroic act for Our Lord.”

The bishop also led adoration twice on Saturday, once for DYC and once for Summit. The moments of silence, mixed with contemporary worship music, spoke to many of the attendees.

“I didn’t expect to get so emotional during adoration,” said Rachael Marsh, a tenth grader who is a parishioner at St. Mark, Virginia Beach.

“I was brought to tears almost immediately when the monstrance began to be processed in,” said Marsh, who has attended DYC twice. “I didn’t expect to feel so much joy and so loved. I could truly feel the Lord’s will at work the entire time.”

“Adoration was very special,” said Emma DeLaHunt, an eighth grader from Our Lady of Mount Carmel, Newport News. “It was so peaceful, and it was wonderful to be surrounded by so many people. It felt like we were all united as one.”

“The most astounding thing I experienced was the divine love and care of Our Lord during adoration,” echoed Lewandowski. “His presence was so strong that I was moved to tears, and I just felt so comforted that he was watching over me and that he has a plan for me, even if I don’t understand it yet.”

Bishop Barry C. Knestout celebrated Mass for over 1200 faithful the morning of Feb. 10, 2024. (Photo/Office for Evangelization)

Listening and learning

The theme “Take Courage” was running throughout DYC and Summit. The two keynote speakers, Michael “Gomer” Gormley and Mari Pablo, spoke to both groups of students about the courage it takes to live as Catholics.

During the first general session at Summit on Friday night, Gormley told the students not to be afraid of following and trusting God, even if it means losing bad friends. “There are worse things than being lonely,” said Gormley.

“When you don’t have Jesus, you limit yourself to you,” Gormley told the college students. “When you have God, you are as big as the universe.”

Bishop Knestout explained that many people think of courage as something that happens spontaneously when you step up to that moment. “I think courage is what builds up to that moment – your day-to-day perseverance, patience and determination in handling those small, daily situations.”

“If we’re going to meet that big moment that requires strength in us,” explained the bishop, “we have to practice, and we do that through the daily challenges in life. That courage builds up over time.”

Many of the breakout talks focused on the theme of courage, with a number of popular speakers from around the diocese explaining that courage does not mean doing dangerous things, but trusting in God’s will and letting him take control.

“I really thought of courage in such a different way before,” said Anne Notebaert, student at Radford University, after one breakout.

Henry Veeck, student at William & Mary, said he and his peers had discussed the concept of courage at Bible study in the week leading up to Summit.

“We defined courage as the intersection of doing what’s hard and what’s right,” said Veeck. “You have to stand up for what you know is right, even when it’s not popular.”

Meanwhile, across the sky bridge at the Marriott, Alejandro Coello-Beillette was at a breakout talk given by St. Edward, Richmond, youth minister Andrew McCarthy.

Coello-Beillette, a 20-year-old Virginia Commonwealth University student, was at DYC as a chaperone for the delegation from Our Lady of Lourdes, Richmond. He attended last year as a high schooler and wanted to come back this year as a catechist and a leader. He said that his takeaway from McCarthy’s talk was one of immediacy.

“To evangelize, we don’t need to be perfect, we don’t need to know the Gospel by heart, we don’t need to be masters of theology,” said Coello-Beillette. “Go and proclaim the Gospel by your life, by the way you live. People will see you. People will see that you’re different. They will be able to see the Gospel through you.”


Click the following links to see more about the weekend:

Reflections by attendees

Read a reflection from Summit attendee Rachel Kraft. 

Read a reflection from Summit attendee RaeAnna Kelly.

Read about breakout talks

Read about a DYC breakout talk on Catholic dating given by Deacon Steven Cottam.

Read about Summit breakout talks on courage by Father John David Ramsey and Father Brian Capuano.

Read about a Summit breakout talk by William & Mary Campus Minister Victoria Garcia-Nicoud.

Look at photos

Look at photos from DYC.

Look at photos from Summit.

Look at photos from the groups together.



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