Catholic Herald staff
On Wednesday, March 18, more than 400 teens assembled at the Cathedral of Christ the King, Superior, for the annual diocesan youth rally.
Joining them for adoration, Mass, music and inspiration were chaperones, priests, deacons and youth ministers from across the 16-county diocese. Joel Stepanek, Life Support Coordinator with the youth ministry organization Life Teen Inc., and former youth minister from St. Francis of Assisi Parish, Manitowoc, gave this year’s keynote address.
Four months after getting his driver’s license, Stepanek went joyriding with three friends and came within one and half feet of wrapping his family’s only vehicle, a minivan, around a telephone pole. In the moment before the near-crash, Stepanek recited the Act of Contrition; when he was in first grade, his mother told him to say the prayer before he died to avoid hell.
The reminder of his mortality stuck in his mind.
“I learned a lot in high school,” he said. “Learned about life, death. Learned about love.”
Motivated by a desire to see more of Kimberly, his crush at the time, Stepanek joined a youth group in high school. Kimberly always seemed to be dating other guys, and it wasn’t until just before prom his senior year that Stepanek succeeded in asking her out.
Unfortunately, she got back together with her old boyfriend a couple days later, and she broke her prom date with Stepanek.
He offered this advice: “If you ever get denied by somebody the way I was at prom, don’t date that person later on.”
He learned that lesson the hard way. Stepanek and Kimberly dated for two and a half years in college. He was a pre-med major, intent on becoming an orthopedic surgeon. He envisioned his future with her.
“Things seemed to be going very well,” Stepanek said. “It was very comfortable.”
“Here’s the incredible thing, though,” he added. “We’re not happy with comfortable, because we’re not made to be comfortable.”
Stepanek knew he wasn’t fulfilled in the relationship, but he didn’t feel able to end it. He prayed to God for guidance.
The world conspires to equate happiness with comfort, he said. Industry tells us chasing something or someone will bring happiness.
“Sometimes we find things that satisfy us for a little bit,” he added. But, as Stepanek learned, a future that promised emotional and financial comfort was not enough.
Echoing Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI’s words, Stepanek said, “You’re made for something great. You’re not made for comfort.”
In the Bible, Peter made the leap from comfort to greatness when he left the boat and walked on water toward Jesus, Stepanek observed. A fisherman, Peter was most comfortable in a boat – so why did he leave his boat in the midst of a storm?
“Because Jesus is there,” he concluded. “If he’s on the water with Jesus, he’s safer there. He’s safer in the storm.”
“What is your boat?” he asked the teens. “What are you walking toward?”
Boats will decay and sink, he said. The things of this world don’t last, but, “He never sinks, because Jesus lasts forever,” and he wants our lives to be an adventure.
Stepanek and Kimberly broke up on Christmas Eve one year.
“I stepped out of the boat,” he added.
Several years later, he met his wife, Colleen. They now have a son, Elijah.
Whatever your vocation, he told the audience, stay close to Jesus and you will be fulfilled.
“You will look back and say that was an awesome adventure,” he said.
Teens who feel they are far away from Jesus, “all you need to do is simply turn around,” he added. “Jesus is right there to save you … he has never left you.”
Fr. Andrew Ricci, rector of the cathedral, celebrated Mass following Stepanek’s talk, assisted by deacons Kevin Feind, Solon Springs, and Steve Linton, Cumberland.