Of the 2.8 million people in the Catholic Diocese of Savannah, covering the lower half of the state, only about 74,000 are Catholic.
So when 17 of those attended the bi-annual National Catholic Youth Conference in Kansas City, Mo., last weekend, they were reminded of the size of their faith.
They found strength, if in nothing else, in numbers.
The group from the Columbus area was the only group from this diocese to attend.
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About 22,000 people joined them from around the country. “Overall, it was awesome and amazing. That’s the best way to describe it because here, in the South, there are not as many Catholics,” said 16-year-old Konrad Ard, a sophomore at Smiths Station High School who made the trip.
The youth mega-event was Nov. 19-21 at the Sprint Center. The local group flew home Sunday.
Most of the 17 people represented Holy Family Catholic Church and a few are members of St. Anne.
For the local group, the road to Missouri started about a year ago when they attended the diocesan youth gathering on the Georgia coast. While there, they saw a promotional video about the national gathering. Many knew right away they wanted to raise the funds to go.
“I already knew it was cool and awesome but then it looked so much more awesome,” said Ard, who moved to this area from California about four years ago. He said his previous home was not heavily Catholic, either.
The pilgrims raised money through the diocese, their church and private donors. They called it the “Sponsor a Mile” program, based on the number of round-trip miles — about 1,800.
The theme of the conference was “Christ Reigns.” Participants had opportunities to pray, go to confession, recite the Rosary and to walk a labyrinth. The event also featured entertainment, a multitude of workshops for youth and for youth leaders. Many bishops and archbishops attended. In fact, the brother of Bishop Kevin Boland of the Diocese of Savannah is Bishop Emeritus of the Diocese of Missouri-St. Joseph, Raymond Boland.
Holly Calhoun is in her sixth year of leading the Holy Family youth group. She grew up United Methodist but converted to Catholicism because she married a Catholic.
“It’s really life-changing,” she said of the conference. “You get real empowered and it’s a reaffirmation of your faith. … You’re surrounded by so much positive energy.”
On the opening day outside of Genghis Grill and Chef Burger, one group shouted: “God is good!”
“All the time!” responded a passing one.
“There’s a lot of screaming, a lot of pride, I guess,” Cillisha Knight, a freshman from Washington, D.C., told the Kansas City Star. “You know how a lot of people represent for the Ravens or the Redskins? We be representin’ for Christ.”
The Catholic Key reported that volunteers represented a broad cross-section of the church in both the Archdiocese of Kansas City in Kansas and the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph in Missouri.
Some volunteers were in their 80s and mixed with the young people.
The closing Mass, held last Saturday night, was a highlight for the Columbus group.
“For me, to be part of the closing liturgy with 22,000 other Catholics was an awe-inspiring experience,” said Jonathan Miles, a 27-year-old adult youth volunteer at Holy Family.
“It’s almost counter-cultural for kids to be interested in faith and be involved in a religious event like this,” added Miles, who had never been to one of the conferences. It also marked the first time Holy Family sponsored such a youth trip.
“We’re already making plans for the next one in 2011,” Miles said.