STEUBENVILLE, OH — Musician Bob Rice officially kicked off the July 11-13 High School Youth Conference with the song "Not Waiting for the Afterlife," but the 1,800 teens freshly arrived at Franciscan University of Steubenville didn't wait for the live music to start their weekend. They spilled out into the aisles to line-dance to "The Cupid Shuffle," form conga lines, and act out the songs from the hit film Frozen.
By the time host Chris Padgett stepped onstage, nothing could dampen their spirits.
"Maybe you're doing it great, and this year is your best year with God ever. Maybe some of you were invited to come here under false pretenses. Maybe some of you don't even know where you are right now." As the teens laughed, he continued, "No matter your situation, I believe that God has something major in store for you. God has a special message for you and your heart."
As the talks began, the enthusiasm transformed into quiet meditation. Many of the youth lifted up their hands or fell to their knees in worship, reflecting on this year's theme—"God Is."
Youth minister David Calavitta said during the opening, "We all have a different idea, perspective, thought of who God is. And the even greater reality is that God is not who we think he is. He is more. Our thought of God is the single most important thought you will ever have, because your thought of God determines who you let him be in your life."
Padgett encouraged the teens to make themselves comfortable, assuring them that they could stand with their hands raised while singing or stay seated. "You get to be you. You don't have to be like us."
The guest speakers were themselves examples of honesty and sincerity, incorporating their own difficult life experiences—divorce and forgiveness, dating and raising children, agnosticism, miscarriage, even suicide—into their talks.
Matt Fradd, a Catholic speaker from Australia who converted from agnosticism after going to a World Youth Day, examined many of the arguments he once used against God's existence in his talk, "God Is Real."
"When someone says 'There's no scientific proof for God,'" he explained, "the first thing you have to ask is, 'What is science?' People have this deified idea of science, like it's some quasi-deity. Science is an inductive process of investigation that we invented to discover truths about the natural world. So it's right that there is no scientific proof for God because science is concerned with the natural, not the supernatural. It can neither prove nor disprove the supernatural."
This was the third Steubenville youth conference for high school senior Emily Judd from St. Mary's Church in Lowell, Michigan.
"I hope to change myself, and then to lead by example in my parish, so that they want to get closer to the Holy Spirit and God, like I do," she said.
Chris Davis, a junior from Millington, Michigan, who attends St. Francis Xavier Church in Otisville, was one of the teens attending for the first time. He appreciated the environment of the campus. "It's beautiful and serene, and the hilly landscape gives me a sense of peace."
Natalie Robertson, D'Angelo Laaz, and Trinity Travis, all freshmen, traveled six hours from Corydon, Indiana, at the suggestion of their teachers and youth minister at St. Joseph Catholic Church. They were excited at the availability of the sacraments.
"I want to be closer to the fellow kids from church," said Travis, who often works with younger children at the parish. "And develop a more comfortable attitude toward confession."
Many of the other participants were in agreement with this and even waited for two hours for the sacrament of reconciliation.
"I want to have the ability to confess everything, not hide something," Laaz said, standing with his two friends in front of the growing line of teens outside Christ the King Chapel. "As the speakers said last night, there's nothing that the priest wouldn't expect."
Robertson appreciated the dynamism of Father John Parks, who celebrated daily Mass and presided over eucharistic adoration. "He really spoke to me. It applied to my life. That's never happened to me before in a homily."
The high schoolers all proved they could balance their enthusiasm for spontaneous conga lines with a joy-filled reverence in the eucharistic presence of Jesus. Some fell to their knees and many shed tears as Father Parks processed through the fieldhouse with the Eucharist. Youth leaders noted how teens they had known for years, who would normally never be caught crying, showed their vulnerability as they reached toward the monstrance.
"Eucharistic adoration is my favorite part for sure," said Elizabeth Hanna, a junior who attends St. Mary of the Falls Church in Olmstead Falls, Ohio. "You get to be face to face with God. With the music, and everyone around you so emotional, you can feel the Holy Spirit in you."
Father Parks also gave a talk on how to find God in the midst of suffering. He called to mind the story of Simon of Cyrene being forced to carry Jesus' cross for a stretch of the road to Cavalry.
"Is Simon carrying Jesus' cross, or his own cross? Or is Jesus letting Simon carry his cross for a moment to see what it is like to suffer out of love?" he asked as he held up a crucifix for the youth to see. "Jesus made all of your crosses his cross. God has gone into the depths of our suffering, and he's deeper than that. God died in the Nazi camps of Auschwitz. God has been cut up millions of times in the wombs of mothers. God has been assaulted, abused, raped, gone to bed hungry or cold. He's been forgotten, bullied, slandered, maligned, misunderstood. Any suffering you've ever had, God is there with you."
In her talk, "God Is Savior," author Katie Hartfiel said that accepting Jesus should be seen not as merely saying no to sin, but as saying yes to everything that God offers. "It is time for 'No More No's.' When we say yes to God, we receive a love that is beyond our expectations, that is defies death. We are saved for something. We are saved for eternity. For eternal life. For heaven."
Father Parks held a vocations call after Mass, inviting all men and women considering the priesthood or religious life to stand in front of the stage. Approximately two hundred teens came forward to receive a blessing.
"As a priest I perform the public ministry of the Church," he said. "I'm like the hands of the Church, but a lot of the religious life can be hidden. They're like the heart of the Church."
Calavitta reassured all of the youth that their encounter with God would not end once they left the conference. "You shape culture. A lot of the world has used teens your age in a very destructive way, harnessing the power you have to shape and destroy societies. But you can give that power to show others the Kingdom of Heaven. Do not underestimate your power. The very hinge of salvation, the Incarnation, once depended on a 13-year-old girl. All of us are called to say 'we are not too young.'"
Five youth conferences sponsored by Franciscan University of Steubenville were offered simultaneously on July 11-13—Atlanta, Georgia; Springfield, Missouri; Rochester, Minnesota; Orlando, Florida; and Steubenville, Ohio. Twenty youth conferences in total will be held this year, alongside five adult conferences and two new conferences for young adults.
Information on future adult and youth conferences, as well as talks from past events can be found at the Steubenville conferences website.