DENVER-For many of the 2,000 participants at a youth conference here, memories of the massacre at Columbine High School still stung painfully.
In the wake of the April 20 tragedy, they, like the rest of the country, had heard the gloomy diagnoses about “today's youth.”
But at a three-day get-together, they didn't come to lament the dark alternative culture that was spotlighted after the killings in nearby Littleton, Colo. They came for words of hope. And they found them.
“God, from time to time anoints certain segments of the population, and right now he is anointing youth, particularly Catholic youth, all over the world,” said Franciscan Father David Pivonka. “We're seeing it everywhere, but there's something special about Denver. There is just an incredible, almost unexplainable depth among the youth here.”
Father Pivonka of Franciscan University of Steubenville was here for Steubenville of the Rockies, a July 30-Aug. 1 event that was the ninth in the series of conferences the university hosts annually throughout the country. The event also attracted Denver Archbishop Charles Chaput for a special Mass.
Father Pivonka said it was the climax of a year that has confirmed to him the fact youth are turning to God in droves. He said the by Denver conference was even more powerful this year because of the Columbine massacre.
“Students are looking for something worth dying for,” Father Pivonka said.
About 40 of the 2,000 students at the Denver conference are students or recent graduates of Columbine High.
“Youth are fed up with the mainstream culture,” Father Pivonka asserted. “They see the lies in it. They see that our generation has sold them short. They see a culture that has offered them a bill of good — a culture that says fulfillment is found in success, or drugs, or sex, or fame, or popularity, or power. They see by looking at adults that all those things leave you hungry. They are hungry for something more, and they are very open to God.”
The priest has been working with Steubenville youth conferences for five years, and said he's watched the sincerity of youth participants intensify every year. Jim Beckman, director of Steubenville's youth conferences for 15 years, also said youth have become more focused on God in the past few years.
“One thing I've really noticed is a lot more silence among the youth,” Father Pivonka said. “Teen-agers are accustomed to noise. They need noise or they aren't comfortable. But we're starting to realize that holy hour is getting more calm and peaceful. And I think that's because the youth are realizing that the hyper-experience doesn't last long, but silence, with the Lord, is a lasting experience.”
A teen-age girl witnessed to the crowd the first night, saying she spent her first three years of high school drinking and partying. The summer after her junior year, the girl said, she felt the need to convert during adoration at Steubenville of the Rockies in 1998.
The girl told her peers she decided that summer to give up the drinking and partying and committed herself to live a sober, chaste life walking with Jesus. It meant giving up most of her friends and the party life she had planned for her senior year. It meant persecution from a secular crowd of popular students who once were her friends. But it also meant the first fulfillment she'd ever known.
Priests were available throughout the three-day conference for confession. The second night, after a day full of speeches and conferences, students gathered in a large coliseum at the University of Denver for exposition of the Blessed Sacrament.
Father Pivonka told the teens about the mystery of transubstantiation, the change of bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ that occurs during Mass. He told them Christ was truly present with them in the Blessed Sacrament and asked them to reverently focus their attention on the Lord.
As the monstrance processed through the crowds, teens fell to their knees. Most prayed. Many cried. Later, the teens lined up until after midnight for the sacrament of reconciliation.
“The best part of the weekend was adoration — seeing the reality of Jesus' life, death and resurrection,” said Cyndi Llorens of Houston. “I am just so blessed. I am broken, yet I am whole.”
The following morning, before Sunday Mass was celebrated by Archbishop Chaput, several students took to the microphone to testify about healings of mind, body and spirit they had received the night before.
“When I came here on Friday, I was lost,” one teen-age boy said. He told the audience how his father had left the family when he was 6, leading the entire family to lose faith in God. This summer, the boy was involved in a car accident which left a friend of his dead.
“I thought my life was over,” he said. “Afriend invited me here and I am so glad I came. I am lucky to be here.”
Beckman, who also works as youth minister of St. Frances Cabrini, a Littleton parish that lost four young parishioners at Columbine, approached the young man, put his arm around him and said, “I know a lot of people here are struggling with the death of friends. You have to understand that you are here for a reason. You are alive for a reason and God has a plan for your life.”
A teen-age girl who said she had once been raped took to the stage and announced she had found peace during exposition of the Blessed Sacrament.
“I came here hoping that the burden would be lifted from me,” the girl said. “Instead, when I looked upon the Blessed Sacrament, I was given the gift of forgiveness. I forgave him [the attacker] and forgive myself.”
During his homily, Archbishop Chaput told the youth that everyone has a hunger that longs to be satisfied. Quoting from St. Augustine, he told them, “Our hearts will not be at rest until they are at rest in God.”
He told the students to stop seeking fulfillment in material goods of the world, which fail to satisfy. Video games, pickup trucks, cosmetics — and all other goods teen-agers are told to spend money on — fail to satisfy, he said.
“Why spend your money on that which is not bread?” Archbishop Chaput asked. “We adults know how much of our lives we've wasted, and we hope you won't do the same things.”
Wayne Laugesen writes from Boulder, Colorado.