National Catholic Youth Conference Draws 23,000 to Indianapolis

'Young Church' makes some noise for God.

INDIANAPOLIS — One thing was clear right from the start of the National Catholic Youth Conference, held Nov. 17-19 in Indianapolis: Teens like — and like to make — noise.

In Lucas Oil Stadium, in the Indiana Convention Center and in the streets of downtown Indianapolis, the 23,000 youth who made the pilgrimage sang, danced, chanted, jumped, shouted and even blew vuvuzelas in praise of God.

Perhaps, though, the youth attending the “Called to Glory” conference made their strongest statement in silence. For more than two full minutes, teens went stone silent as they contemplated holy Scripture through lectio divina. Not a voice was heard — no snickers, catcalls or jokes. No funky cell-phone ringtones went off. There was no furious clickety-clack texting.

The only thing that could be heard was air rushing through duct work high in the stadium.

Perhaps it was the Holy Spirit.

“To be in a huge NFL stadium with thousands of people and not hear a single sound is extremely powerful and peaceful,” said Katie Miller, a 19-year-old sophomore at the University of Northern Iowa who was attending her third NCYC. “It was a moment where one couldn’t resist praying.”

The ‘Young Church’ Convenes

Last held in Kansas City in 2009, the 31st biennial conference attracted youth from dioceses across the country. Iowa’s Archdiocese of Dubuque brought more than 1,200 youth and adult chaperones.

Sophia DeFeo, who attends Our Lady of Lourdes Church in Raytown, Mo., wasn’t planning on attending NCYC but was a last-minute substitute for a cancellation.

“I said ‘Yes’ because it was a once-in-a-lifetime thing that could help me grow in my faith, meet new people and have a good time with other Catholics my age,” DeFeo said.

Robert McCarty, executive director of NCYC’s sponsor, the National Federation for Catholic Youth Ministry, told the crowd: “You’re a hopeful sign for the Catholic Church of tomorrow gathered here as the young Church of today.”

The young Church included 16-year-old Grant Sorrell, a member of St. Joan of Arc Parish in the Archdiocese of Omaha. He came, he said, “hoping to become a better Catholic and connect better with my faith.” Sorrell was among 400 youth attending from the Omaha Archdiocese.

Sorrell got more than he expected, he said. “The best part about NCYC was the family atmosphere, knowing that everyone shared the same beliefs as you,” Sorrell said. “And you didn’t feel weird for talking about faith.”

There was plenty of that. The conference included morning and evening gatherings of all attendees in the stadium and afternoon workshops in the convention center.

Stadium sessions were preceded by high-energy music that drew thousands of youth dancing around the stage and forming what might be called a holy mosh pit. Conference emcee ValLimar Jansen then would enter, engaging the audience with prayer, introduction of themes (searching for, connecting with and sharing Christ), song, dance, call-and-response chats and one-woman biblical re-enactments.

Keynote speakers were Mark Hart, executive vice president of Life Teen, and Mike Patin, a longtime youth minister from Lafayette, La. Both engaged the audience with humor.

So did host Bishop Christopher Coyne, auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of Indianapolis. A Boston native, he greeted the crowd in a thick Beantown accent saying, “This is wicked!”

Bishop Coyne was among more than a dozen bishops at the conference. They were introduced as an all-star team, each wearing colorful baseball hats in place of mitres while Take Me Out to the Ballgame played. They also signed trading cards personalized with their photos and which youth traded throughout the conference.

Atlanta Auxiliary Bishop Luis Rafael Zarama also impressed attendees, telling them how, when he was a teen, his life changed after attending a retreat at the insistence of his mother. He spoke of the importance of Jesus’ mother in their lives.

“I think it is hard for adults to imagine it happening, but the young people rose and gave a standing ovation,” said Father Damian Zuerlein, pastor of St. Columbkille Church in Papillion, Neb. “Isn’t that amazing? Bishop Zarama talking about Mary, and 23,000 kids give him a standing ovation. I know it was the young people in our section who jumped to their feet when he finished; the adults followed them. He spoke humbly and powerfully from his own experience, and they loved it.”

More than 120 workshops for youth and adults touched on subjects such as sexuality (led by Jason and Crystalina Evert), dating, the new Missal, justice, prayer, service, family, faith via social networking, and roundtable discussions with bishops. There were discernment sessions, Eucharistic adoration and more than 12 hours of reconciliation. As the conference neared its end the line of penitents stretched more than 200 people long.

Fun Times

But the young Church also knew how to have fun — by design and on their own. The conference featured a comedy club, a dance and talent show. Attendees sang along with contemporary Christian tunes and popular music with inspirational overtones (i.e., Journey’s Don’t Stop Believin’ and the Lion King’s Circle of Life). There were Glee-like performances staged by 82 “animators,” youth from dioceses across the country who sang, danced and even zipped around the stage on roller skates.

The stands at times resembled something like a European soccer game, with the vuvuzela noisemakers and bouncing beach balls. Above, high-def big screens showed youth wearing strobe-light mohawk wigs, sombreros, mitres, cowboy hats, donkey heads and face paint. One youth came dressed in a cow suit, another as a big banana.

By the conference’s end many youth began to wear “Free Hugs” signs around their necks, embracing strangers recognized as brothers and sisters in Christ. In downtown malls, restaurants and shops, throngs of youth could be heard shouting “NC!” to responses of “YC!”

“I was moved by the outward expression of faith and love for Jesus that was exhibited by the teens,” Father Zuerlein said. “Compared to the sullen faces often seen when teens come with their families to Sunday Mass, these faces were full of expectation and excitement. Many of them kept saying over and over again how cool it was that all these Catholic kids had come together in one place and that they shared this powerful bond simply by being Catholics together.”

Some of it could be seen live streaming on the Web — the site generating 23,000 visits from 93 countries (including the Vatican and China).

Solemn Finale

The fun, though, closed on a solemn note. On the eve of Christ the King Sunday in Lucas Oil Stadium — Peyton Manning’s playground and home to the upcoming 2012 Super Bowl — 30 deacons, 175 seminarians, 250 priests and eight bishops processed in for Mass.

“I was surprised that with 23,000 kids that I focused more on the Mass,” said Justine Finnegan, a 15-year-old who came to Indianapolis with Father Zuerlein’s contingent. “Normally I don’t really pay much attention when they are changing host to the Body and Blood of Jesus, but they made it such a point that the Mass was so special that I just ended up blocking out all the distractions and focused.”

At its close, Bishop Cloyne asked attendees to take out their phones and text the message “Called to Glory” to someone close to them. He brought up the rear of the recessional, getting the crowd to wave both arms to and fro as musicians played Send You Out on a Mission of Love.

Near the stage and altar stood a 16-foot cross covered with leaves on which youth wrote commitments for post-conference action. For some, that might include a return to Indianapolis for the next NCYC in 2013.

“I hope the experience will help our young people live their faith more openly when they return to their schools,” Father Zuerlein said. “They now know that they are not alone. In their school they may feel like a minority, but they can remember the powerful experience of faith they shared with thousands of other young people; and the memory, hopefully, will help them to remain strong. 

“Events like this give me hope for the future of the Church. The next generation is preparing to take our place.”

Register correspondent Anthony Flott writes from Papillion, Nebraska.