Seated at office desks, kitchen tables, comfortable couches, and even in backyards, 20 teens from eight parishes along with several teen coordinators and adult youth leaders gathered online from across the Archdiocese of Washington last week for the first-ever virtual LITE Conference. The all-Zoom event held July 7-11 featured prayer, music, inspiring witness talks, presentations, small discussion groups and games – through the Internet –during the five-day LITE conference, an acronym which stands for Leaders Inspired to Evangelize.

“Every retreat has its own challenges,” noted Ray Gilmore, an adult leader and seminarian at the archdiocese’s Saint John Paul II Seminary who said the virtual format was not “ideal,” but “we can trust God will work through it.” With large gatherings prohibited due to the coronavirus pandemic, LITE organizers decided to go virtual and lean into the challenge.

For his part, Gilmore even compared the Eucharist to fighting the pandemic in his presentation, “Eucharist: The Heart of Discipleship.” He described the coronavirus as the most recent threat to one’s physical body just as all types of sin can come between the faithful and the goal of one day reaching heaven. The Eucharist is the “ultimate hand-washing,” Gilmore said. “The Eucharist removes all venial sins, removes all little germs and strengthens you against the bigger danger – the occasions for mortal sin.”

He reminded participants that the Body of Christ refers to both the Eucharist and the people who make up the Church. “Victory is a group effort – the Church provides us with herd immunity.” And Gilmore urged the participants when sin sickens the soul to quarantine themselves from the Eucharist until they can get patched up in the Sacrament of Reconciliation. “We are all sick, but there is a doctor in the house, and he died for us,” Gilmore said.

Valerie Kuzma, a member of the Archdiocesan Youth Leadership Team from St. Patrick’s Parish in Rockville, Maryland, speaks during the virtual LITE conference. The participants also included Kamryn Johnson Heyward, below, from  St. Margaret of Scotland Parish in Capitol Heights. (CS screen photos/Andrew Biraj)

In addition to sharing their faith, leaders of the LITE conference focused on a daily theme working through the concepts of encounter, accompany, community and send.

The annual event is “a great collaboration between adult leaders and youth leaders that develops the gifts and talents of youth so that they can evangelize in their family, parish, school and community,” said Tex Phelps, Director of Youth Ministry Catholic Youth Organization/Office of Youth Ministry for the Archdiocese of Washington.

Participants are nominated by their parishes to attend the conference and often work with the Office of Youth Ministry throughout the year. This year the parishes represented included: St. Peter’s, Capitol Hill; St. Francis of Assisi, Derwood; St. John Neumann, Gaithersburg; St. Margaret of Scotland, Capitol Heights; St. Peter, Olney; Mother Seton, Germantown; Our Lady Help of Christians, Waldorf; and St. Bernadette, Silver Spring. 

“I hope to facilitate an encounter with Christ and one that bears fruit in their daily lives,” said John Paul “JP” Libanati, the youth assistant coordinator for this year’s conference. “It’s going to be a difficult time with lots of obstacles, but through God all things are possible,” he added. 

A recent graduate of St. Anselm’s Abbey School in Washington, D.C., Libanati said he first experienced the LITE conference after his sophomore year. The parishioner from St. Bernadette’s Parish in Silver Spring acknowledged that this year would be different. “We’ll have to adapt. We’ll be actively trying to be present to each other (in order) to bridge that divide of the screens,” he added.

Also joining the LITE conference were Cattleya Nora, above, a member of the Archdiocesan Youth Leadership Team from St. Martin of Tours Parish in Gaithersburg, Maryland, and Gabriel Radich, below, a member of the Archdiocesan Youth Leadership Team from St. Patrick’s Parish in Rockville. (CS screen photos/Andrew Biraj)

The youth coordinator for the conference, Maggie Dressman, agreed. It’s important to “stay open to whatever happens,” she said. Dressman, a recent graduate of Mount de Sales Academy in Catonsville, Maryland, said she would do her best to remain engaged and excited in order to convey energy online. 

In her talk, “Living as Missionary Disciples (Why Am I Being Called to Follow Jesus?)” Dressman told participants “God places a desire on my heart for communion with Him.”

Following Jesus is the way to such a communion, Dressman added. She shared that through her experience at LITE and as a leader in her parish, St. Mary of the Mills in Laurel, she “has grown closer to God, and feels confident talking about faith.” 

Juan Aznaran, the archdiocese’s regional coordinator of youth ministry and a member of the adult planning team for LITE, credited the conference for helping the participants see their gifts of leadership within themselves. “We need more young people to be leaders, to talk about their experiences, to invite other young people,” Aznaran said. He advised parishes to really look for the young people and provide a space for them to flourish – they already are members of the community but often go unnoticed, he said.

Matthew Avery, above, served as the coordinator for the virtual LITE conference. The participants included Helen Trimble, below, a member of the Archdiocesan Youth Leadership Team from St. Mary of the Mills Parish in Laurel, Maryland. (CS screen photos/Andrew Biraj)

Conferences such as LITE can also help give young people the confidence to get noticed agreed Matthew Avery, an adult coordinator who was involved in the first LITE more than 10 years ago. Avery said the goal is to create an “atmosphere of friendliness, of kindness and allow people an opportunity to be comfortable to share.” For Avery that starts with the Holy Spirit through prayer and his advice to the team members included imagining they were standing next to one another – not connected through technology. “The Holy Spirit can transcend any chasm created by physical space,” Avery added. 

After nearly a week of getting to know one another through faith sharing and fellowship, Washington Auxiliary Bishop Roy Campbell Jr. joined the conference with a message on leadership. “You and I are called to be leaders in this discipleship,” the prelate said, adding, “to be a leader for Christ as a disciple has to be rooted in our own spirituality.”

He urged participants to listen for God’s call and to go out and proclaim it. “It starts with the Holy Spirit – how we receive the Holy Spirit, how we accept it to flourish in our lives so we can go forth and be an instrument of His peace, of His love here on earth.”

Bishop Campbell cautioned participants to be both humble and mindful of their actions. “Our actions will lead others to God,” he said. 

Phelps, the Office of Youth Ministry director, said he knew the teens would be fine with the technology, but the most difficult challenges this year included not knowing what to expect from the week and how to set expectations for himself and his team. 

But he acknowledged the success of the event noting, “My favorite part was watching the participants transition from nervous and unsure in the beginning to empowered and ready to take their leadership to a new level at the end. The week was inspirational and motivational for the young leaders that attended,” Phelps said. “Even though it was a virtual experience, the participants did not want to sign off at the conclusion of the conference.”

Kately Javier, the coordinator for adult formation and Hispanic catechesis for the Archdiocese of Washington, speaks during the July 7-11 virtual LITE conference for young Catholic leaders. (CS screen photo/Andrew Biraj)