(Editor’s note: See this week’s Catholic Messenger newspaper/e-edition for more NCYC coverage)
By Barb Arland-Fye
The Catholic Messenger
Brian Greenfield admits to being “loud for Jesus” in front of 25,000 Catholic teens and their adult chaperones inside Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis for the National Catholic Youth Conference (NCYC 17). Among them are 800+ youths and adults from the Davenport Diocese.
Greenfield stokes the flames of his audience’s passion for their Catholic faith and commitment to Jesus, aiming to stir the youths to action. “If Jesus gave everything … what is he calling you to do?” he asks the teens the morning of Nov. 18, the last day of NCYC 17.
He instructs them to close their eyes and raise their arms if they are willing to give their all for Jesus. Then, Greenfield counts down from five to zero and asks the youths to open their eyes and look around them. Thousands of arms remain raised, including Marijke Nielsen’s.
The teen from St. Thomas More Parish in Coralville is amazed as she scans the stadium and sees all the arms raised, just like hers. “I want to keep it going … I want to further my relationship with God even more,” she says later.
That experience was one of the highlights for Sydney Kaup, a teen from Prince of Peace Parish in Clinton. NCYC shaped her faith, she said. Seeing so many of her peers sharing the same Catholic faith was “in and of itself moving. But the best part was seeing how many people had stretched out their arms to respond to God’s call,” she said. Sydney was also moved to see “thousands of people receiving Communion, confirming their belief in God” during NCYC.
This three-day experience of prayer, community, evangelization, catechesis and service for Catholic teenagers of high school age occurs every two years. This year’s theme was “Called/Llamados. The National Federation for Catholic Youth Ministry sponsors NCYC as one of the ways of accompanying young people as they encounter and follow Jesus Christ.
Bishop Zinkula’s first NCYC
Organizers of NCYC “know what works” to tap into the youths’ longing in their faith lives, observed Bishop Thomas Zinkula, participating in his first NCYC this year. The conference “is not all hardcore catechism or liturgy — that is there, and they do it very well — but there’s also trading hats and socializing. They have a lot of fun.”
The Davenport Diocese’s new bishop was barely out the door from attending the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ fall meeting in Baltimore when he arrived in Indianapolis for NCYC. Don Boucher, diocesan director of the Faith Formation Office, and his staff maximized the bonding time for the bishop and youths through clever scheduling. Bishop Zinkula interacted with different parish groups on bus rides to and from the hotel and convention center and over lunch and dinner.
During a bus ride with the Keokuk group, the bishop “really interacted with us,” said Julianna Riney, a teen from Church of All Saints in Keokuk. “He was so nice. He joked around with us. He related to us really well.”
The bishop ate breakfast with youths and chaperones in the diocesan “social hall” at the hotel and at the end of each night’s events, around 11 p.m., he returned to the hall to chat with the teens and adults. Lack of downtime didn’t bother him. “That’s the nature of retreats,” he noted. “I wasn’t expecting to get a lot of sleep. I wanted to be present to the young people.”
As the new bishop, “I’ve confirmed some of these young people, but others have never met the bishop.” Now they’re more comfortable with the new leader of their diocesan church. They’d see him in the hall at NCYC or the hotel and say, ‘Oh, hi, Bishop,’” he added.
The bishop enjoyed the talks, the music — some more than others — and gained insights from a couple of break-out sessions on why young people leave the church. Among the insights: “We put it all on them when we need to look at ourselves. What do we need to do in our parishes and the diocese?” Secularism and atheism, those are real challenges, but, the bishop said, the adults’ role is to help restless hearts find rest in God.
Although he wasn’t needed to hear confessions, Bishop Zinkula heard an earful from youths and adults who stopped by the “HOLYwood” booth in the Thematic Village (exhibition hall) to talk to bishops about anything on the visitors’ minds. “I thought I’d stay for an hour; I was there for more like three hours,” the bishop said. Some of his visitors talked about concerns in their personal lives. One asked him the difference between a bishop and an archbishop. One young man is discerning a vocation to the priesthood. People from the bishop’s home diocese, the Archdiocese of Dubuque, also stopped by to chat.
Bishop Zinkula joined 13 other bishops to concelebrate the conference’s closing Mass, which he described as a great experience. Archbishop Jose Gomez of Los Angeles presided. Numerous priests and deacons also participated in the Mass, including some from the Davenport Diocese.
Teens and adults danced, applauded, sat down and stood up in appreciation at the end of the closing Mass. “With 25,000 Catholics all in Lucas Oil Stadium, you could just feel the presence of God among us. It gave me goose bumps, and I’m so blessed to have experienced an opportunity like no other,” said Matthew Karsten, a teen from Sacred Heart Parish, Newton.
Luke Ebener wore an oversized kelly-green leprechaun’s hat and hoisted a pole with dangling strips of cloth as a beacon for his youths from St. Paul the Apostle Parish in Davenport inside the enormous stadium. Jon Bassier approached his parish’s designated checkpoint wearing a badge decorated with more than 40 clothespins. Something is inscribed on each clothespin — a name, a message such as “Jesus loves you” or a Bible verse. In what has become an NCYC tradition (in addition to trading outlandish hats), youths clip a clothespin on someone else’s badge, backpack or clothes, for instance. Sometimes they do this in secret. Jon, attending his second NCYC, said “it’s a great opportunity for young Catholics to get out and see there are people like them.” He said there’s a “ton of great speakers who give you a new perspective on things, a new view that you might not get during the routine of Mass.”
Chris McCormick Pries, a chaperone with St. John Vianney Parish in Bettendorf, sets the scene in describing what makes NCYC so special: You’re inside a stadium with 25,000 kids pumped up by music tailored to their liking and speakers who connect with them. Fifteen minutes later, “you’re in adoration and you can hear a pin drop.” “That was awesome,” piped up Katie Kustes, a teen from St. John Vianney.
McCormick Pries and several other members of the St. John Vianney entourage were crashing in a corner of the Indiana Convention Center mid-afternoon Saturday, between break-out sessions. The youths were a little sleep-deprived, she explained. But that’s part of the adrenalin-boosting experience of NCYC. “It’s unbelievable,” Chris continued. “You live on snacks and Coke — Coca Cola, that is, and no sleep and yet you’re just energized by how the Spirit moves you throughout the whole thing.”
She has chaperoned at nine NCYCs — beginning in 2001, and observes: “It’s all about relationships. It’s getting to know the kids in our parishes, the priests in our diocese and getting to know each other. It’s a wonderful experience involving music ministry and prayer, the Marian rosary, Mass every day and adoration.”
Tim and Diane Foss, also of St. John Vianney Parish, are longtime NCYC chaperones. “It’s neat to see the kids grow in their faith,” Tim observes. As chaperones, they remind the youths — who may be rivals in their public schools — that “you have your Bettendorf family and your PV (Pleasant Valley) family but we’re here as the St. John Vianney family,” Diane said. “The kids do form lifelong friendships,” she added.
“It’s amazing for the first-timers to see that many kids celebrating their Catholic faith,” said Sharon Crall, a chaperone for St. Mary Parish in Albia. For chaperones, it’s exciting to “watch them process that.”
Highlights for the youths
Popular Catholic musician Matt Maher got the teens pumped up with music aimed at their hearts. Then he asked them to quiet themselves to prepare for eucharistic adoration. They followed his instructions and silence enveloped the stadium. Teens knelt on the hard floor for an hour, some not even shifting their knees.
“I would have to say my favorite part of NCYC was the adoration,” said Daniel Townsend, a teen from Sacred Heart Parish, Newton. “I found it stunning how 25,000 teenagers were silent in prayer and it was just such a powerful moment.”
Adoration was a powerful experience also for Kylee Klimes of Ss. Mary & Mathias Parish in Muscatine. She attended NCYC as a step toward her journey back into the faith. “This was definitely the right step to make,” she said.
Like so many of her peers, Aubry Ebeling of the Keokuk parish was inspired by Catholic speaker Chris Steffanick. “It was really motivational to me what he talked about. It hit me so hard. God loves us so much.”
First-timer Ian Johnson, a teen from St. Mary Parish in Solon, echoed the sentiment of so many NCYC participants, impressed by the number of Catholics coming together, sharing their faith. “It shows you are not alone in your faith,” he said. He especially liked Sister Miriam James Heidland’s talk. “She had a tough life. She talked about her life and how if she could get through all of that, so can we.”
For Makenzi Sparks of Prince of Peace Parish, Clinton, “one of my favorite parts was watching Joe Castillo doing the sand art each night. Visualizing what was being discussed through the art was helpful for me to better understand and learn about my faith.”
Collin Costello of St. Ann Parish-Long Grove said he enjoyed meeting new people, trading items, attending Mass and hearing people’s stories and “how deep you can think about stuff.”
Grace Christopher, Marijke Nielsen, Noah O’Connell and Riley Brunk of St. Thomas More Parish-Coralville, served as ambassadors at NCYC. They had the privilege of introducing two guest speakers. One of the talks, “Next Steps After High School,” drew a standing-room only crowd.
“It was eye-opening to see what happens to people after high school and to hear about the best ways to react,” Noah said. The advice he’ll remember most from speaker Nora Bradbury-Haehl: “Be generous with friendships and stingy with trust.” Grace appreciated the speaker’s advice about moving into a new phase in life. “She assured us we will be able to succeed.” Advice that resonated with Marijke: “shed your skin, not your skeleton.” What is inside is what matters most. Marijke feels fortified, knowing that “God will be with you forever.”
Grooming Hispanic youths to be leaders
Six Hispanic youths and two chaperones attended NCYC free of charge. Because Hispanic youths are often underrepresented at events like NCYC, Miguel Moreno, coordinator of the diocesan Office of Multicultural Ministry, reached out to parishes that did not have a Hispanic youth scheduled to attend and asked pastors for recommendations.
One youth from St. Mary Parish-Davenport, two from St. Joseph Parish-Columbus Junction, two from St. Joseph Parish-West Liberty and one from St. Mary Parish-Oskaloosa received the NCYC scholarships.
Moreno hoped NCYC would be an opportunity for the youths to grow as leaders. In total, about 30 Hispanic youths attended NCYC.
“I loved it,” said Adelin Villafana of St. Mary Parish in Davenport, an NCYC scholarship recipient. “It was really inspiring to me. I want to go home and tell everybody about what I learned,” she added, while hanging out with other teens in the diocesan social hall after the closing Mass. “I want to make a difference when I go back. I’m excited to tell my mom everything.” Prayer was her favorite part of NCYC. She especially enjoyed a session titled “XLT,” which refers to a format of eucharistic adoration that includes praise and worship music, catechesis, prayer and silence. “There are so many things you can do to encounter God,” she said. “You can pray, sing, dance. He’ll love every single one of these.”
Highlights for diocesan chaperones
“For me as a priest, the best part (of NCYC) is to hear confessions and to be Christ for these young people,” said Father Tim Sheedy, pastor of St. Mary Parish, Solon. “It’s so powerful for me as a priest, in the name of Christ and the church to absolve them of their sins.” In addition, “I’ve always been impressed by the Saturday night liturgy, where there are sometimes 500 priests concelebrating Mass, and the presence of the young church celebrating Christ’s gift of his precious body and blood.”
NCYC “strengthens young people’s love and faith and lets them know they are the future of the church,” observed Father Hai Dinh, parochial vicar of the Muscatine parish. NCYC helps the youths to know “that they can lean on one another and that they are called to bring Jesus Christ to the world.”
Pam and Eric Petersen served as chaperones for St. Joseph Parish-DeWitt. Their daughter Hope was an NCYC participant. “It’s my first year of chaperoning and his second,” Pam said, pointing to her husband as they waited for the Matt Maher concert to begin. “It’s an amazing experience, a lot of energy,” she added as she watched teens bouncing around near the stage, energized by the antics of DJ Bill before the concert. “We never got to do this when I was a kid,” Eric quipped.
“It’s been a great experience, chaperoning these kids,” added Dan O’Connor of the DeWitt parish. His daughter, Carly, asked him to join her at NCYC. O’Connor had a chance to talk with Bishop Zinkula before the concert. “He talked about how great of an experience this is for youth and how they connect with Catholics around the country and know they are part of the broader Catholic world.”
Summer Knight, a chaperone with St. Thomas More Parish whose son, Spencer, was participating in NCYC, said she told Michelle Montgomery, the group’s leader: “‘I wish I had this opportunity when I was younger. But I’m having this experience as an adult.’ I’ve grown in my faith and enjoy watching my son and his friends grow in their faith.”
Michelle could have accompanied her husband, Deacon David Montgomery, and other diocesan leaders to and from NCYC. She chose to take the bus with the kids. “I like to be with the kids. I get to hear their ‘aha’ moments on the bus on the way home.” She also treasures how the teens share with one another.
“Christ is so alive,” Michelle said. “These kids come in not knowing one another or what to expect. They walk into the stadium and see how many other people are there and they can feel the love of Christ. It’s like the Lord embodies them.” Phenomenal speakers and music set the mood, she added.
“They’re strangers coming into this together. There’s something that happens in here,” she said at the closing Mass in the stadium. “It’s the Holy Spirit working.”
She tells the teens that when they walk into the stadium they should allow God to work in them. “Focus on what happens. You will feel the Spirit,” she advises the teens. But the adults have an obligation, as well. “You’ve got to keep feeding them. Try to come up with what they want to do. Listen to what they want; what their needs are. Ask, ‘What can I get you to keep the fire burning? What service do you want to give to the church?’”
Michelle, the Coralville parish’s youth minister, gives the teens a list of ministries to choose from and then shares their contact information with the appropriate leader in that ministry: Eucharistic minister, lector, teen leaders, catechist assistants and more.
The teens “get to experience and see how many more youths are out there, like them, who share the Catholic faith,” observed Chuck Brock, music director and youth minister for St. Mary Parish in Solon, a small town of around 2,000. The youths from his parish may be the only Catholics in their public high school. “They have Christian friends, but to be in a place like this with all Catholics emphasizes the unity of the Catholic faith and how universal it is.”
(Lindsay Steele contributed to this story.)