Junior high students are ‘Gold Medal Catholics’

Dan Harms, left, and Kyle Heimann, who make up the duo of Popple, sing during the “Gold Medal Catholic” Junior High Youth Rally in Iowa City. More than 400 youth attended the rally at Regina Catholic Education Center in Iowa City.

By Celine Klosterman

IOWA CITY — Whether you’re an athlete or a “mathlete,” you’re a gold medalist in God’s eyes, Diocesan Youth Ministry Committee members told more than 400 people at the Davenport Diocese’s Junior High Youth Rally.

DYMC, Catholic humor band Popple, Bishop Martin Amos and workshop presenters from around the diocese played off the theme “Gold Medal Catholic” during the rally, held March 29 at Regina Catholic Education Center.

In between performing funny and faith-related songs, Dan Harms, a guitarist who’s one half of Popple, told early in the rally how his attempts at basketball made him realize God hadn’t given him athletic talent. So he took up guitar, and after a few years was invited to play for youth Masses and several other church events. The experiences made him a better guitar player and more engaged in his faith, he said. “God took this little pebble of something I was good at and really used it.”  Now, “playing guitar for Jesus” with band mate Kyle Heimann is a full-time job, Harms said.

He challenged middle-school students to think of gifts they had to offer the church, too.


“We’re called to be like the giving tree,” said Heimann, referring to Shel Silverstein’s children’s book in which a tree offers a boy each part of itself for different uses. Heimann said that since all we have is from God, we’re to give it all — including our life — back to him.

During a breakout session after Popple’s morning presentation, Ray Shovlain, men’s basketball coach and athletic director at St. Ambrose University in Davenport, also encouraged using God’s gifts. His session was one of 11 workshops students could choose from on topics such as faith and sports, Bible stories, liturgical dance, rosary-making and Catholic traditions.

Even if God hasn’t given us the abilities we want, we should thank him for what he did give us, Shovlain said. And the Lord did offer all people one thing equally: 86,400 seconds each day. Use them — ideally to help others — or “lose ‘em,” Shovlain said.

He also challenged students to thank their teachers and parents, saying he hadn’t told his now-deceased dad he loved him when he should have. “I thought I was too cool to show appreciation for him.”

At St. Ambrose, men’s basketball players are required to write a letter to their parents, Shovlain said. One athlete who had a rocky relationship with his dad resisted at first, but eventually gave in — and later said the letter changed his life. 

Doing small things can make a big difference, Shovlain observed.

After his and other morning breakout sessions, lunch and games, Popple took the stage again with an original song called “Forever Yours” — a hymn to Mary — and the band’s spin on the theme song to children’s TV classic “Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood.” 

Then, on a more serious note, Harms recalled his days in competitive rowing. Though his team lost often, he holds fond memories of rowing and learned much from the defeats. Similarly, he asked, what do you need to fail at to learn from? Sometimes God puts stumbling blocks in our paths to help us grow, he said.

Even if you stumble, don’t quit — becoming skilled in a sport takes regular practice, Heimann noted. So, too, our faith life needs exercise through praying, reading the Bible and actively taking part in Mass. And the reward you’ll get from God for your devotion is worth more than any sports award, he said.

In our “race” to get that spiritual reward, we can learn from looking back to biblical events, said Pat Finan, diocesan youth ministry coordinator, during an afternoon breakout. He briefly shared the story of Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son, and compared it to God’s willingness to give up his own son. “We can look back and realize that great example of love,” he said.

We can also benefit from looking around us, Finan said. A former marathon runner and triathlete, he told how he once ended a race hand-in-hand with a struggling friend. Similarly, he encouraged students, find someone around you willing to journey spiritually with you.

“We’re in training not to win gold medals, but to win the ultimate prize — eternal happiness with Jesus.”

Finally, we can benefit from looking in front of us, Finan said. As Jesus’ disciples, we need to discipline ourselves to be ready for the future, though we don’t yet know where our lives may lead. For inspiration, he cited the Apostle Paul in 2 Timothy 4:7: “I have competed well; I have finished the race; I have kept the faith.”

Later, Bishop Amos wrapped up the rally by celebrating Mass, at which Popple and band 1 of 12, formerly called Leap of Faith, led music. The bishop shared a story, originally told by spiritual writer Louis Evely, in which a king told a young peasant, “I can’t go into my whole kingdom, I want you to go and give them an idea of who I am.” The young man did, telling people things like “unless the grain of wheat dies, it remains just a grain of wheat.” After he died, people found in his home a well-worn book that began, “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.”

We’re like that young peasant, said Bishop Amos. At our baptism, God commanded us to give the world an impression of who he is. “I hope we will be wise in making decisions to follow God’s will,” he said.

“It was very inspiring to come here” and be with other Catholic youths, said Julie Heater of St. Alphonsus Parish in Mount Pleasant at the rally’s end. “I had a lot of fun.”

Rebecca Lyons of Prince of Peace Parish in Clinton said she especially enjoyed a breakout session by 1 of 12 on the distractions of cell phones, iPods and other technology.

Popple’s humor, meanwhile, won over Drew Perry of St. Alphonsus Parish in Mount Pleasant and Samantha Claypool of St. Patrick Parish in Ottumwa. The band and other rally presenters made the rally fun and “put your faith into a new perspective,” said Claypool.

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