Catholic youths put their faith on display during the first Steubenville NYC conference, held on the campus of St. John’s University in Queens earlier this month, and many were rewarded with a transformative experience that brought them much closer to God.
The three-day retreat, Aug. 7 to 9, attracted an estimated 1,800 youths. Teens from parish youth groups, from as far away as San Antonio, Texas, and Atlanta, Ga., flocked to the celebration of prayer and fellowship.
Steubenville NYC was a collaborative effort between Franciscan University in Steubenville, Ohio, and the Catholic youth ministry organization LifeTeen. Local planning was undertaken by the Archdiocese of New York, and the Dioceses of Brooklyn and Rockville Centre.
LifeTeen is known primarily for its program for high school teens used by Catholic parishes in 31 countries. LifeTeen believes Eucharist-based ministry has the power to transform teens, parishes and the culture at large.
“We want them (youths) to have an encounter with Christ,” said Randy Raus, the president of LifeTeen for the past eight years.
“We want them to know the true presence of Jesus in the Eucharist not only through Mass but in Adoration, and we want them to have an experience so that they can transform their lives and then go out and make the world a better place.”
One of the highlights of the weekend of prayer and fellowship, which featured engaging liturgies, inspirational music and informative workshops, was a Saturday morning Mass celebrated by Cardinal Dolan, who also delivered the homily.
“This is what Pope John Paul II spoke about regarding the New Evangelization in the Church bringing young people back,” Cardinal Dolan told the teens.
The cardinal cited St. Dominic, the founder of the Dominican Order whose feast was marked that day, as a source of inspiration for the teens.
He called for those attending to bring their faith to life through their daily actions.
The event was presented in a contemporary manner, yet organizers were equally mindful of encouraging reverence during sacred moments, such as the Adoration of the Eucharist at the conclusion of Mass.
Erin Herbstritt, a 16-year-old from St. Lawrence O’Toole parish in Brewster, told CNY that taking part in the conference gave her faith a jumpstart.
“Things just felt different this week,” she said. “I finally started to understand the Word of God. I actually started hearing him in my life. Instead of just praying and asking him for things, I was praying and actually hearing what he had to say to me.
“I am so deep into my Catholic faith that I just feel amazing.”
John Noce, 17, another youth group member from St. Lawrence O’Toole, told CNY that he had been to other retreats but the Steubenville Conference was a unique experience.
“I always try to find or make time for God but being here it made God the center of my day,” he said. “Everything we did put God and his word as the focal point. Now I realize that having that strong relationship with God and making him a priority in my life, everything else will fall into place.”
A common feeling was shared by many of the teens at the conference in attendance, namely that it broke through the monotony of their previous religious experiences to reveal a personal connection with God.
“I felt like every part of the day was personal,” said Sherquan Sumra, 18, a youth group member at St. Matthew’s parish in Brooklyn. “Before I would go to Mass and I was just going through the motions. Since I’ve been here, the messages talked about what I needed to hear and we talked about dealing with things that me and many other teens go through daily.”
Cynthia Martinez, the associate director of the archdiocesan Office of Youth Ministry, told CNY that the conference was an endeavor two years in the planning. “From the moment it started last night, I observed how the teens were reacting to the structure of the conference. You could see they were engaging and open.
“It’s one of the main reasons you have events like this, to allow them the opportunity to open up to God and to see them begin opening up to God. It was a feeling of ‘Thank you, God, for allowing me to be here and experience how you open up to people,’” Ms. Martinez explained.