Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Living Faith: A Special Report from the Steubenville West Youth Conference

"The Catholic Church is dying. All her ancient rules and outdated traditions drive the young away. It's a faith of old, out-of-touch people who aren't enlightened like modern youth."

Chances are, we've all heard these words, or words very like them. It's become popular in the Culture of Death today to see religion, especially a religion as ancient and venerable as Roman Catholicism, as disconnected from the young and therefore disconnected from the future. The faith is dying, on its last legs, the culture says with glee, and in another generation, it will be gone entirely.

Or will it?

This past weekend, I had an amazing opportunity to attend a Steubenville Conference with my youth group in my hometown of Tucson, Arizona. The conference is one of about twenty put on across North America by the Franciscan University of Steubenville, and they serve some 50,000 high-school age teens every summer. At the behest of our beloved Editor-in-Chief [And don't you forget it! —Ed.] Damian, I decided to write about the experience. I had a notebook, a pen, and a sparkly hat to draw people in, and I interviewed five people about their faith and their experiences at the conference. In addition, I will also attempt to put down my own feelings about the conference.

The noise is deafening as the crowd files in and finds their seats. People wave flags, shout cheer routines, and even blow vuvuzelas between sessions!
Interview One: Kiersten R, St. Mark the Evangelist Parish. Her first conference.
Tani: What are you looking forward to, or what are your expectations, for this conference?
Kiersten: Um… Getting closer to God?

T: Are you excited to be here?
K: Yeah!
T: Why did you come?
K: Um… because it sounded interesting, and I wanted to see what it was all about.

T: O.K., last question… Why are you a Catholic?
K: Because it's a good faith — it's interesting!
This is a pretty common reaction for a first time conference-goer. They aren't sure quite what to expect, but the excitement in the air is palpable. This particular conference, Steubenville West, was the weekend home of 2,300 attendees from Arizona, California, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah, Texas, Oklahoma, and even Missouri! It's an awesome experience, walking onto the University of Arizona campus and suddenly being surrounded by passionately Catholic teens, your peers. At school and in the workplace, and sometimes even at home, we orthodox Catholics are the odd ones out, the black sheep, the lonely and different ones. But here? You're not weird. You can relax, pray rosaries in public, sing Christian music at the top of your lungs, rock out with your cross out. There's a crush of people, of all different shapes, sizes, colors, genders, backgrounds… but you're all suddenly connected, part of a huge family, united by a bond of shared faith stronger than the sum of all our differences.

Praise and Worship is a big part of the Steubie Experience.
Interview Two: Marco R, St. John the Baptist Parish. His first conference.
Tani: Why did you come?
Marco: Um… it's odd; since I've started at this parish, it's been the big thing to go to. It's showing me other teens who live their faith, and that strengthens my faith. I know I'm not alone.

T: What are you looking forward to, or what are your expectations for, this weekend?

M: No expectations — I have no expectations! I say, let it come the way God wants it to be.

T: Are you excited to be here?
M: I'm joyful to be here! I wouldn't be any other place if I had the chance!
T: Awesome! Now… Why are you a Catholic?
M: First, I was born Catholic, to a Catholic family. I believe, though, that we all have a choice whether or not to continue, and I choose this. God was crucified for us, and I want to live like He did, live to serve others. I'm a Catholic to go to Heaven.
That last answer was almost a theme in the conference, that no matter where you come from, being Catholic is a choice. It's a silly argument that says that we're only Catholic because our parents were (the answer to that is, "So what??"), because anyone who actually knew Catholicism would know that the Church encourages us to know and understand our faith, to read and write and question and answer, to earnestly seek out the pure and total truth, because we believe that God Himself is the ultimate Truth. The speakers, some of whom were Converts and some of whom were Cradles, were really dynamic and believed whole-heartedly. And guess what? They were young, strong, confident, humorous… everything the world says Christians can't be.

Speakers Brian Kissinger, Tammy Evevard, Matt Fradd, and Jimmy Mitchell; presiding priest Fr. Louis Merosne; and worship leaders Ike Ndolo and Emily Wilson showed passion and faith with every word they spoke. Yeah, they had all had trouble in life. Fr. Louis, a Haitian, had lost family members in the huge earthquake that rocked his country several years ago. Tammy had tried to find meaning in life as a young woman in the world of parties and alcohol. Matt had thought he looked cool in short shorts and Rollerblades. But all of them were full of such joy and hope, which colored everything they said over the weekend.

Fr. Louis' talk on suffering was jam-packed!
Interview Three: Jared G (just call him Jared, he says!), St. Mark the Evangelist Parish. His fourth and final conference.
Tani: Why did you come?
Jared: I came to Steubenville [West] because I've been three times already, and each time, I find new places in my faith and grow closer to my friends in Life Teen.

T: Are you excited to be here?
J: *laughs* Yes! Yes, I am!

(Quincy, another girl in the group, interrupts with, "YES! Oh, wait, you weren't talking to me. Oops." )
T: What are you looking forward to, or what are your expectations for, this weekend?

J: Honestly, I'm looking forward to it being my last one, just putting it all on the line before I go off to college.

T: Why are you Catholic?

J: I'm a Catholic by choice, because, um… Well, I was raised Catholic, but I also because I've had experiences of the Lord that led me to believe in Him.
Notice that I haven't asked what people's favorite part of the conference was. That's because there's only one answer I've ever gotten, and that's the Saturday Night Adoration. Yeah, the talks are fantastic, and the confessions are beautiful, but adoration is the centerpiece of the weekend. The focus of the Catholic life is on the Eucharist, and this Catholic conference is no different in its focus. The worship starts with Mass, with receiving Christ's body, blood, soul, and divinity into our very selves, and immediately afterwards, the Eucharist was put out to adore. Then, Fr. Louis began a Eucharistic procession, and there's a feelings explosion among the teens.

There, in the tangible presence of God, all of our hurts and our shames and our longing for God suddenly become so real and burst to the surface. There's a lot of crying, and sometimes laughing. The sound of 2,300 teens singing the Tantum Ergo (in Latin!) is almost as beautiful as what comes immediately afterwards: absolute silence. You look around, see the love and hope on every face turned toward the monstrance in worship, the adoring silence occasionally punctuated with soft sounds of crying. People are slain in the Spirit, some have visions, or even speak in tongues. Hearts and lives are forever changed.

Adoration is also a big part of the Steubie Experience. (Picture c/o: David Leininger)
Interview Four: Michael R, Sts. Peter and Paul Parish. His fifth and final conference.
Tani: Why are you here?
Michael: I'm here because I want to learn more about my faith and be a better Catholic.

T: What are you looking forward to, or what are your expectations for, this weekend?
M: I'm looking forward to receiving God's grace and Him giving me courage.

T: Are you excited to be here?
M: Always!!
T: Why are you a Catholic?
M: I'm a Catholic because there's nothing better that I know than being Catholic!
Michael's last sentiment is one I definitely share, and Steubenville West really drives that point home. This was my third and final conference, closing out four years in St. Mark the Evangelist Parish's Life Teen program. Life Teen is aimed at Catholic high school teens who want to learn about their faith in community. I heard an interesting statistic last year, that 22 percent of current seminarians in the U.S. cite their experiences in Life Teen as integral to them realizing their vocation. However, Life Teen is only implemented in 10 percent of parishes in the United States!

Steubenville West is put on in tandem by Franciscan University and Life Teen, and many of the speakers are Life Teen alumni. They are definitely what the Church needs: institutions to teach young Catholics the beauty, joy, and peace of orthodox Catholicism, with none of the silly infantilizing and shameless culture-pandering that many youth groups do in the name of ministering to teens. You want your teens to hear the authentic, charitable truth of what the Church teaches about hot topics like same-sex attraction, liturgy, and moral relativism? Send them to Life Teen and send them to a Steubenville Conference, because we heard about every one of those topics over the course of this weekend.

At the close of the conference, our speakers prayed for us as we prayed for each other.
(Picture c/o: Marisa H. of St. Mark the Evangelist Parish)
Interview Five: Nathaniel K (a.k.a. N8, a.k.a. my best friend, a.k.a. one of the coolest people ever. Love him, minions.), St. Mark the Evangelist Parish. His fifth and final conference.
Tani: Why are you here?
Nathaniel: To spend one last time with my true friends and with God. Well, not last time with God… *laughs*
T: Are you happy to be here?

N: Yes!

T: What are your expectations for this weekend?
N: My expectations are whatever the stereotypical expectations are for your last conference, your last hurrah with Life Teen.

T: Lastly, why are you Catholic?

N: Well, I started with being raised that way, but I choose to remain thanks to its success with intellectual consistency.
And there you have it: consistency. The Catholic Faith never changes. Styles of worship may come and go, but the doctrine, the solid truth of Catholicism, always stays the same. And that solidity is something that I think teens today crave. We are tired of relativism, tired of the selfish worship of pleasure, the religion that the culture espouses. Here, united at this conference, we had intellectuals and sensitive feelers, we had new Catholics and people who have always been Catholic, we had introverts and extroverts, the depressed and the joyful, the hopeful and the despairing, the confident and the scared, the one, united Body of Christ.

The Culture of Death tells us we must all be the same, we must all be good-looking and faithless, with no real direction or meaning beyond the vague satisfaction of our depressingly mortal bodies. But we instinctively reject that, which is why many teens who don't have the support of faith wander aimlessly through life with no purpose. But Catholicism gives us our answer. It tells us who we are and what we were made for, lets us dream and aspire, lets us fall and fail and then reminds us that we can always get back up again. The Church tells us that God loves us for exactly who we are but also loves us too much to want us to be anything less than what we are made to be. The Church is not dying. Like her divine Spouse, she rises from the empty, black tomb of a broken world, shining with hope and freedom. And we teens, her youngest soldiers, learned this weekend that our Church is alive.

Love to all!



  1. All that was old is new again! Thank God for our youth!

  2. So sad that your leaving. I'm going to miss you Tatiana! You are such an inspiration to me and a true woman of faith. Love you♥

    1. I'm going to miss you too, Mini-Mona! You are so sweet and lovely, like the little sister I never had. :P <3 Love you too!