West Roxbury teen's commitment to youth ministry leads to meeting with pope

WEST ROXBURY -- Justin Fannon's involvement with youth ministry started in his school and parish, but this year rose to the national level. More recently, it even brought him as far as the Vatican, where he was commissioned with a special message for the youth of America.

Justin and his family are members of Holy Name Parish in West Roxbury. He is a junior at Xaverian Brothers High School, where he participates in rugby, football, the business club, and the international culture club. When asked about plans for the future, he said he wants to be a police officer.

He has been involved with youth ministry since he was in seventh grade. He also serves an unusual role for a young person in his parish: he is part of the parish council and the youth service project council.

"His role as somebody on the parish council is to speak up for the young people of the parish. And he does that so beautifully, so powerfully, so respectfully," his former youth minister, Jim Flanagan, told The Pilot.

Flanagan got to know Justin's family during his three years working as the coordinator of youth ministry at Holy Name Parish. He noticed that Justin serves as a role model for younger teens and children.

"He's not just somebody that talks the talk, but walks the walk," Flanagan said.

He soon thought of another way Justin could serve in ministry. Flanagan is a founding member of the National Federation for Catholic Youth Ministry (NFCYM). Based in Washington, D.C., the organization supports youth ministries in dioceses across the U.S. As the New England region coordinator for NFCYM, Flanagan had the opportunity to nominate someone for their National Youth Advisory Council, which launched this past summer. This group, with members representing different cultures and areas of the country, would collaborate with their local and diocesan communities and speak on behalf of the youth in the work of NFCYM.

Flanagan decided to nominate Justin, whom he described as "one of the best models of what a young person in our Church is about: full of faith, even though he may not realize he even has it."

"I always know that if he's going to run something, I don't have to worry about it," Flanagan said.

After Flanagan told him about National Federation, Justin made a video for his application, and was chosen along with 11 other high school students to be on the council for a two-year term. He was told they would primarily communicate through Zoom. But many of them also got to spend time together in person on a recent pilgrimage.

Fannon was one of nine council members who traveled to Italy Oct. 10-16, accompanied by Archbishop Nelson Perez from the Archdiocese of Philadelphia and members of the staff of NFCYM.

The group had a private audience with Pope Francis on Oct. 12 after his weekly general audience. They presented him with a multicolored bracelet and letters from the council. Justin was one of the four young people to shake his hand.

"It was a surreal moment meeting the pope," Justin said, speaking to The Pilot after returning to the U.S.

The Holy Father gave them a message to take back to the youth of America, urging them not to lose their joy.

"What we took away from the message was to bring joy back to the Church, and to stay joyful in the Church," Justin said.

In addition to meeting the pope, Justin said he also enjoyed visiting Assisi, riding a high-speed train for the first time, and getting to know his fellow National Youth Advisory Council members.

"Throughout all, we appreciate each other, we strengthen each other. We grew as brothers and sisters on the trip," Justin said.

They shared the pope's message at the National Catholic Youth Conference, which took place Nov. 10-12 in Long Beach. Justin talked to the assembly about not being afraid to encounter God. They also heard inspirational speakers and held eucharistic adoration.

One thing that struck Justin during the conference was seeing many people crying in adoration.

"That was intriguing to me, to be honest. It made me reflect on what God has done for us and how I kind of tied that into my life," Justin said.

He said he is "very thankful for all this."

"I'm very thankful for what Jesus has brought to me, and everything else," he said.