Youths ‘united’ at Iowa Catholic Youth Conference

Lindsay Steele
Middle school youths and adults participate in a Palm Sunday procession at the Iowa Catholic Youth Conference March 24 at Regina Catholic Education Center in Iowa City.

By Lindsay Steele
The Catholic Messenger

IOWA CITY — Middle school youths donned glow necklaces and jumped up and down as Catholic band The Scally Brothers shook the walls of the Regina Catholic Education Center gym with their rock-infused worship music. The band’s performance capped a day of faith, fellowship, Mass and educational sessions at the third-annual Iowa Catholic Youth Conference (ICYC) March 24.

For a small group of middle schoolers from St. Mary Parish in Pella, the event offered a rare and valuable opportunity to connect with hundreds of young Catholics from eastern Iowa. “It was their first time experiencing anything like that,” said Paulina Loaiza, the parish’s director of faith formation and youth ministry. “It was a very positive experience for them.”

The Diocese of Davenport and Archdiocese of Dubuque organized the event, themed “United,” to help youths focus on what it means to be united with Jesus in the celebration of the Mass, in hard times and suffering, and to each other on a mission of joy. Roughly two-thirds of the 300 attendees hailed from the Diocese of Davenport, said Trevor Pullinger, diocesan director of faith formation and catechesis coordinator.


Youths started the day with circle games, led by young adult emcees Brynn Beenblossom, Lindsay Davison and Renee Thomas of the Davenport Diocese and seminarian Jackson Miller of the Dubuque Archdiocese. Participants then headed outside for a Palm Sunday procession. Archbishop Thomas Zinkula’s vestments rippled in the brisk wind as he blessed the participants and their palm leaves.

The archbishop celebrated Mass in the gym with the assistance of Deacon Mike Linnenbrink and Deacon Dane Dickinson who, God willing, will become a priest for the Davenport Diocese this year. The archbishop said he felt “very much at home” in the Davenport Diocese, having served as bishop for about six years before being appointed Archbishop of Dubuque in 2023. “It’s really great to be together this morning to celebrate the passion of Jesus Christ.” The Ohio-based Scally Brothers led music worship.

Lindsay Steele
Middle school youths participate in a circle game during the Iowa Catholic Youth Conference March 24 at Regina Catholic Education Center in Iowa City.

In his homily, the archbishop offered a summary of Max Lucado’s “You Are Special: A Story for Everyone,” in which Eli the woodcarver helps Punchinello the Wemmick understand how special he is — no matter what other Wemmicks may think. Archbishop Zinkula asked the youths, “Have you ever felt like a failure at home, at school or in sports? … Picked on, left out, like nothing you do is good enough?” The archbishop admitted he felt those emotions many times during childhood. Praise feels better than criticism but it’s fickle and conditional; Jesus experienced praise on Palm Sunday but was soon ridiculed by the community and abandoned by his friends. “What mattered was what his Father thought, not anyone else,” Archbishop Zinkula explained. “Jesus acted independently of the opinions of other people. We are what God says we are, no more no less. He is the only one who has the right to judge.”

After lunch, students could “choose their own adventure” — in the words of emcee Davison — by selecting two of five breakout sessions. In one session, youths learned of the ways people hurt Jesus during the passion and reflected on their own experiences treating others unkindly. The youths wrote their transgressions on colored notecards and nailed them, face up or face down, to a wooden cross at the front of the classroom. “This is an exercise of healing, taking challenges and giving them up to Jesus,” speaker Marcy McElroy of the Dubuque Archdiocese explained. “It’s not the same as reconciliation but it’s a kind of prayer we can use to start to heal.”

In another breakout session, Archbishop Zinkula answered questions about his vestments and liturgical items. He joked that he wears a zucchetto (skull cap) to keep his balding head warm.

In “Crossing the Line,” speaker Rosie Guerrero of the Dubuque Archdiocese named various challenges, inviting youths to take a step forward if they’d experienced one of them personally. In looking around and seeing how many others had stepped forward, youths could understand the point Guerrero hoped to make: that they are not alone. “There is always at least one other person there.” Youth Elyse Siesicki of Sacred Heart Cathedral in Davenport said the breakout helped her understand that others are going through “the same things as I am.”

While youths participated in breakout sessions, Deacon Linnenbrink led an “organic, grassroots conversation” with adults about the issues they are facing with their children, including social media, access to porn, church involvement, sexual orientation and gender issues.

Participants reunited in the gym for more get-to-know-you games and testimonials. The event culminated with music and inspirational messages from The Scally Brothers. “We’re trying to lead people to Jesus through music,” vocalist Jake Scally told participants earlier in the day. He hoped the conference would remind the youths of how much God loves them.

Cole Niemann was among more than 20 youths from St. Joseph Parish in DeWitt in attendance. He appreciated the opportunity to “be around other people who are of the same faith as me.” “It was a fun and full day,” Loaiza said.

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