It was, in a word, eye-opening.
The Diocese of Rockville Center is alive with activity, especially when compared to my own, rather elderly corner of the Catholic world.
We got lucky planning my visit when we did – as it turns out, a monthly holy hour for vocations fell during that weekend. I remembered him describing them to me in the past, but I wasn't prepared for what I saw.
People. Tons of people, from middle school to 20s and up. In fact, there were more than 500 of us there, so many that there was no longer any room in the pews. Instead, people sat on chairs and on the floor, in the aisles and around the altar. To say the place was packed is an understatement.
At dusk, before Adoration began I went to confession outside in the host church's rose garden. It was serene and quiet, which surprised me; there were ten or so priests scattered on the grass, and yet we couldn't hear their conversations at all.
I have to admit the hour itself was pretty cool. It was geared toward youth, and I was impressed by how eager the crowd was to get involved. Those kids could sing.
And yet, in what could only be described as a miracle, you could have heard a pin drop as soon as the Blessed Sacrament was exposed. Have you ever seen a bunch of quiet middle schoolers? Everyone knew Who they were there to see.
I walked away from that night encouraged. Where I'm from, the Church believes that youth have given up on faith. The number of youth groups has dwindled, with very little activity from most of those that remain. It feels to me that the attitude is one of "Why bother? They won't come."
Long Island proved to me what I always knew: they will come. And this is truly what John Paul II called the Church's "new springtime." It's beautiful. I'm so glad to be a part of it.
The next day we visited the Shrine of Our Lady of the Island, which felt less like a shrine and more like a 65-acre Catholic nature walk. The whole day was a perfect opportunity to reflect on the ways I've grown in the past year, especially in my blossoming relationship with Mary.
We walked the Stations of the Cross at the end of the day, the climax of which is a long flight of stairs leading to a life-size Crucifixion scene. I knelt on the stone ledge to pray and in about 90 seconds felt it digging deep into my shins and ankles.
I willed myself to stay down despite watering eyes and am so glad I did. Yes, it was very painful; I still have the bruises. But in that time of prayer, I got to experience suffering that meant something. It showed me in a tangible way what it means to suffer for the sake of love. All I had to do was look up at His face and remember. Pain is not the end.
A year ago, I sat on his bed weighed down by the elephant in the room and the terrible, aching distance between us ... the things we couldn't express then out of fear, confusion and the sheer newness of it all.
This year, curled up together with ice cream and old Nintendo games, it hit me.
Somewhere in the midst of the last year, we grew up. I look at him now and I don't see a strange boy that I don't understand at all. I see a man, my partner.
God has used every second of our fumbled attempts at communication and vulnerability to teach us. Through all our mistakes and the cross of separation, He has brought about an incredible good: honest, messy, life-breathing love.
It hasn't always been easy. But every day, we ask for daily bread. And we get back more than we could ever deserve.
It's like that Gungor song: "You make beautiful things out of the dust..."