By Fr. Corey Close
Having just returned from my first Steubenville youth conference, held in Rochester, Minn., July 11-13, I couldn’t wait to write an article for The Catholic Messenger about this impressive event.
Here’s some background. Franciscan University of Steubenville in Ohio puts on dozens of youth conferences around the country each summer, with more than 40,000 in attendance. I couldn’t wait to check it out.
Four of us — two adult chaperones and two youths — jumped into my car early Friday morning and headed to Sycamore, Ill., to join a larger group which was experienced with this conference and was taking two buses. We arrived at 8 a.m. and were on the road by 8:30 a.m.
The trip itself was impressive as the adults and youths had been attending these conferences for years, and the level of maturity and ownership shown by the youths was apparent. In fact, parishes in the Sycamore area don’t have “youth groups,” but rather peer-to-peer ministry, which has completely rejuvenated the area’s youth ministry. On the road, students in one of the buses prayed the rosary and had chant music for 45 minutes, without any interference from adults.
When we arrived in Rochester, I was immediately impressed. The lanyards we received contained basic information about the conference, an examination of conscience, a list of ways to discern a calling to religious life, and a rosary.
When we entered the main arena, which looked like it was set up for a Catholic rock concert, things got more impressive. The band came out to start playing and working with the teens, but it was apparent something was different than what I might have expected. Rather than the awkwardness and hesitancy that typifies the beginnings of these events, there was instant participation.
Since many of youths are returnees, they started dancing and singing with such joy that any “newbies” overcame their hesitancy within minutes. Even more amazing, the band, rather than seeking to perform, led everyone into prayer.
Throughout the weekend, whenever things got intense, rather than play louder, the band would play softer and fade into the background to let the Holy Spirit do the rest.
The speakers demonstrated openness, honesty and faithfulness. Afterwards, one of our youths told me she was struck by how well the speakers connected with the teens and put things in language appropriate for their age. The relationship between the speakers and the band was great, as the band would bring the youths to sung prayer after the talks, depending on what was said.
What sets the Steubenville conference apart in my mind is the focus on Eucharistic Adoration. It was so powerful to witness more than 1,000 youths kneeling on concrete for an hour before our Lord, his body, blood, soul and divinity, in the Eucharist.
The second night, the priest brought the monstrance around the entire arena, and words cannot describe the sense of reverence experienced there. I loved seeing the spotlight hitting the monstrance, which reflected the beam, turning it into a cone of light emanating outward, like the ray of the Father’s love being transmitted to us through his Son in the Eucharist.
Even more extraordinary was the reverence the youths demonstrated during the Holy Hour, which after it was over, filled them with unbridled joy at what they had just experienced.
For me, the greatest privilege was being able to hear the confessions of the youths, which I did for an hour the first night and five hours the next day.
The talks, the witness of other youths, and above all, the Eucharist, brought about conversion in these young people’s lives that was incredible to behold.
I was blown away to be a part of it. It was great to see that youths of different backgrounds and struggles were coming to Christ at this conference, and I was allowed a privileged moment to be the conduit through which God forgave them of their sins.
Perhaps the great takeaway moment, however, was at the end of the weekend during Altar Call. This is when any youth feeling a vocational call to either religious life or the priesthood is asked to come forward. Several dozen young men and women came forward, which probably brought a tear to everyone’s eyes.
In fact, a poll of recently ordained priests found that 14 percent felt called to their vocation at a Steubenville conference! I can’t wait to go again next year.
(Fr. Corey Close is parochial vicar at Prince of Peace Parish in Clinton.)