BKERKE, Lebanon - Pope Benedict XVI urged young Christians in the Middle East not to flee violence and economic insecurity through emigration, but to draw strength from their faith and make peace in their troubled region.

The pope spoke to some 20,000 young people from several Middle Eastern countries gathered outside the residence of the Maronite patriarch in Bkerke in a celebration that included fireworks, spotlights, singing and prayer.

The crowd began to form hours before Pope Benedict arrived in the popemobile a little after 6 p.m. After passing through the metal detector and the gates of Bkerke, visitors were greeted by Scouts who gave them an olive branch to wave to welcome the pope and a knapsack containing water, snacks, an Arabic Bible and the new edition of the youth catechism -- "YouCat," a gift from Pope Benedict.

A giant rosary fashioned from yellow and blue balloons hovered over the crowd, its colors blending in with the cloudless sky and Mediterranean Sea below the hillside.

Pope Benedict asked young Christians, whose population is diminishing across the Middle East, not to abandon their homelands.

"Not even unemployment and uncertainty should lead you to taste the bitter sweetness of emigration, which involves an uprooting and a separation for the sake of an uncertain future," he said. "You are meant to be protagonists of your country's future and to take your place in society and in the church."
Warning against escapism, the pope urged his listeners not to "take refuge in parallel worlds like those, for example, of the various narcotics or the bleak world of pornography."

He acknowledged that online social networks are interesting, but said they "can quite easily lead to addiction and confusion between the real and the virtual." He called money a "tyrannical idol which blinds to the point of stifling the person at the heart."

Offering encouragement, the pope invoked the inspiration of the first Christians, inhabitants of the Middle East who "lived in troubled times and their faith was the source of their courage and their witness."

"Courageously resist everything opposed to life: abortion, violence, rejection of and contempt for others, injustice and war," Pope Benedict said. "In this way you will spread peace all around you."

Maronite Patriarch Bechara Rai, in his welcoming speech, told the pope, "These youths suffer from social, political and economic crises that negatively affect their faith and cause some of them to lose the real meaning of their Christian identity."

Two youths spoke to the pope, basing their remarks on input from young Christians from all over Lebanon.

The Middle East's young Christians, they said, "yearn for peace and dream of a future without wars, a future where we will play an active role, where we work with our brothers, the young people of different religions to build a civilization of love ... homelands where human rights and freedom are respected, where each one's dignity is protected."

"We are looking for a culture of peace," they said, calling for the condemnation of violence. "We want to be living bridges, mediators of dialogue and cooperation."

The crowd cheered when the pope said he did not forget the Syrian people, stressing that he is always praying for them and that he is glad there were some Syrian people at the gathering.

Syria's civil war has left thousands dead and displaced hundreds of thousands of refugees since March 2011.

"The pope is saddened by your sufferings and your grief," he said, his first public reference to the Syrian conflict since he arrived in Lebanon. "It is time for Muslims and Christians to come together so as to put an end to violence and war."

Pope Benedict also offered a word of thanks to the Muslims in attendance, urging them to work with Christians to build up the region.

"Muslims and Christians, Islam and Christianity, can live side by side without hatred, with respect for the beliefs of each person, so as to build together a free and humane society," the pope said.

After young people presented the prayer intentions, fireworks erupted from all corners of Bkerke, taking the pope by surprise. Sparklers cascaded from the roof of the outdoor chapel facing the stage, lighting up the sky.

At the conclusion of the gathering, spotlights atop the chapel illuminated the courtyard. The huge inflatable globe that had been placed earlier under the cross was sent airborne, with young people bouncing it like a volleyball.

A light show flashed "take-home" reminders on the walls: "love," "missionaries of peace," "pray."

Published in International

TORONTO - On Aug. 11 campers travelled about three hours from Toronto to St. Mary of Egypt Refuge for the inaugural week of the "Youth Camp ... with a difference."

"We're not so much wanting to entertain kids,” said Mary Marrocco, the refuge’s executive director. “We really want to help them to become strong, solid people by teaching them skills (and) doing that in a community way and having them actually contributing to the building of the place."

That’s literally building. These campers, aged 13 to 18, were to spend seven days evaluating design concepts, learning basic woodworking skills and constructing a physical structure — in this case an outhouse.

They’ll do this while still enjoying the 1.16-square-kms of wooded property in Queensborough in eastern Ontario, working on crafts and participating in prayer (which is optional as the camp is non-restrictive).

According to Marrocco, even money didn’t get in the way of registration for campers.

"Our priority is for the people for whom the fee might be difficult,” she said. “If people phone us and say, 'I'd really like to send my kids there but I really cannot afford to pay the $250,' then we say you're first on our list."

A limit of 15 campers ensures all-inclusiveness as each person will have a designated role during the construction process, said Marrocco.  

"Another difference is that it's not a big camp with a couple hundred kids and staff, it's more of a family atmosphere," she said. "None of the kids are building it by themselves, but they'll all be given a real part to do that will contribute to the real building."

Overseeing the construction is Luc Lafond, a 58-year-old semi-retired automated equipment designer. Lafond’s involvement, as well as the camp itself, came about last fall when he stepped forward to organize a group of volunteers and lead them in building a cabin for the refuge. During the three weeks of construction something changed in Lafond.

“In the past I was always giving my money, doing what I would have called my share,” said Lafond. “I realized that it is never too late to start helping others and it’s not just by putting money in an envelope that is the most efficient.”

With this new sense of satisfaction from community service, and having observed a lack of basic construction skills in young volunteers, Lafond offered to co-ordinate a construction-themed summer camp.

"What I realized was that the kids who were helping us, they didn't know how to hold a hammer or use a screwdriver,” he said. “I said this is mind boggling. When I was a kid I grew up with my dad in his garage and he showed me everything. I never realized how lucky I was to have a father that showed me all that so I thought maybe I could turn around and do the same for those kids who do not have that opportunity.”

Marrocco, and the refuge’s sponsors who were involved in the conversations, liked Lafond's idea so much that soon he found himself volunteering for a second camp. Week two is aimed at the parishioners of St. Silouan the Athonite, mission parish of the Carpatho-Russian Orthodox diocese of the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople. With campers slightly older, most between 16 and 18, and of a specific faith, the projected will reflect their Orthodox faith.

“The second week is mainly directed to the kids at our church,” said Lafond, who was baptized Catholic but attends an Eastern Orthodox church with his wife and daughter. “We’re building the Iconostasia, the wall in an Orthodox Church separating altar and the people.”

Although St. Mary of Egypt Refuge is a Catholic faith-based refuge, the parish’s mission, St. John the Compassionate Mission, has partnered with the site since opening in 2001.

“We are really in a partnership with the refuge. It has to do with the personal relationship that Mary Marrocco had over the years with the mission,” said Deacon Pawel Mucha. “The relationship between us and the refuge is so good. I would say the distinctions (between religions) are pretty blurred.”

He repeatedly said what is more important is the “common ideal of service” shared between the mission and refuge.

The second camp begins on Aug. 17.

Published in Canada: Toronto-GTA

It’s a typical experience for students. As the end of the semester approaches, class assignments pile up. This leaves students, especially university and college students, feeling overwhelmed and lost.

Personally, I had been feeling the pressure of a fourth-year course load. With bi-weekly quizzes, four assignments and a thesis due, there were many times I felt trapped — like I could not get out from under the mountain of homework. But I persevered and, this time, I had something in my arsenal to use: prayer.

Published in YSN: Speaking Out

VATICAN CITY - When young people recognize the dignity and beauty of every human life, including their own, and are supported in their natural desire to make the world a better place, they become agents of justice and peace in the world, Pope Benedict XVI said.

Peace and justice are built on "a profound respect for every human being and helping others to live a life consonant with this supreme dignity," the pope said in his message for the World Day of Peace 2012.

The Catholic Church celebrates World Peace Day Jan. 1. The pope's message for the occasion was released Dec. 16 at the Vatican and sent, through Vatican ambassadors, to the leaders of nations around the world.

Published in Vatican

Markham, Ont. - One teenager doesn’t attend Mass regularly because he finds it boring. Another prefers sleeping in on Sunday. Whatever the excuse for skipping Mass, we’ve heard it before. But some parishes in Toronto are offering a solution: youth Masses.

Grade 12 student Isaac Peiris attends youth mass because it speak to issues he’s experiencing while avoiding the generation gap sometimes found at traditional Masses.

Published in Youth Speak News