Faith Amid Fear of Coronavirus Addressed at Student Leadership Conference

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How to keep the faith despite the fear and uncertainty of the global coronavirus pandemic was one of many subjects discussed at the fourth annual Student Leadership Conference sponsored by the archdiocese’s Superintendent of Schools office.

“The Culture of Encounter: A Catholic Lens” was held March 12 at the Sheen Center for Thought and Culture in lower Manhattan for student leaders from Catholic high schools across the archdiocese.

And what a topic it became in real time. Because of the coronavirus crisis, some schools opted not to send their students to the conference.

Cardinal Dolan delivered the opening prayer and remarks, providing a pastoral perspective of what was on the minds of many of those present.

“In this time of concern and anxiety, as we’re all a little worried and fretful about the coronavirus, there’s a sense of encounter in the whole world,” the cardinal said. “Every citizen of this planet—every man, woman and child—feels connected to everybody else as we all realize we’re vulnerable, we’re at risk. We feel a commonality, we feel a connectedness, we feel a sense of encounter.”

The greatest encounter of all, said the cardinal, “is between God and us.”

“And we have a God who took encounter so seriously that He took on human flesh, and became one of us, in what we call the Incarnation...God encounters us in the person of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ...”

The cardinal noted the conference would offer the young leaders present an opportunity to ponder “life after high school. I’d like to recommend that you also think of life after this one because we’re destined for all eternity. God loves us so much, He wants us to sit next to Him in joy for all eternity. And that’s our goal, that’s the goal of Catholic schools...And a morning like this helps us do it.”

Panelists were keynote speaker Pete Burak, director of a Catholic outreach initiative that seeks to form young adults into international disciples of Christ; Danielle M. Brown, associate director of the Ad Hoc Committee Against Racism for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops; Father Joseph A. Espaillat, pastor of St. Anthony of Padua parish, the Bronx and director of the Hispanic Catholic Charismatic Center.

The two student panelists were Virginia Capellupo, a senior at John F. Kennedy Catholic High School in Somers, and Frank Scafuri, a senior at Msgr. Farrell High School on Staten Island. The moderator was Monica Morales, a reporter at WPIX-TV 11 in New York.

The first topic addressed by the panelists was “fear versus faith.”

To help conquer fear, Burak suggested seeking an atmosphere of “true silence” as a way to start to pray. “Don’t Facebook Live your silence,” he quipped. He also advised setting a specific time and seeing it through. “Be realistic. If you’re saying, I need to just sit and be with the Lord for six minutes, set an alarm on your phone and then finish it…”

And be patient. For those who find they lack the desire to pray, “ask for the desire to pray,” Burak said.

Among the many questions the assembly of student leaders asked during the question-and-answer session were two with a similar theme: one about multiculturalism and the Church and another about racism as it relates to the coronavirus.

Ms. Brown, referring to the United States as the melting pot for which it is known, underscored the sad reality that society has become individualistic. “The Lord,” she said, “doesn’t want you to go at life alone. We are made for mission, we are made for love, we are made for God, but we are also made for each other.”

To make others feel more welcome, she encouraged engaging with someone “who doesn’t talk like you, doesn’t look like you, maybe even doesn’t think like you, doesn’t act like you.”

Ms. Brown also advocates for the power of prayer in confronting ethnic conflict.

Regarding the coronavirus and the persecution of Asians in the United States because of it, “it’s horrific,” she said and again suggested prayer for “our brothers and sisters.”

The conference concluded after Exposition of the Blessed Sacrament and Benediction led by Father Espaillat, who is also spiritual director of the Office of Youth Ministry.

Michael J. Deegan, superintendent of schools for the archdiocese, delivered the welcome and introduction. Michael J. Coppotelli, associate superintendent for student services and public policy, served as master of ceremonies.

Later that day, the superintendent of schools announced that all Catholic elementary schools in the archdiocese would be closed the following week, “with the possibility of a lengthier closure” out of “an abundance of caution.” Four days later, he announced an extended enclosure through April 20. 

Closures of high schools and private independent Catholic schools are made independently of the Superintendent of Schools Office.

The Sheen Center announced the day after the student leadership conference that it was suspending programming through the end of March.

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