A few months ago a friend of mine asked if I could help chaperone his youth group at the National Catholic Youth Conference (NCYC). He had five girls going and needed a female adult to tag along and deal with feminine mysteries like chocolate cravings and crying for no reason. Luckily for him, I said “yes” and gave him my name for plane tickets before realizing that it put me out of town for the midnight showing of the new Twilight movie. This caused an existential crisis-- which comes first, God or fictional vampire heartthrobs?
God won, which is how I found myself in a crowd of 21,000 of Team Catholic’s high school and college aged members this past weekend. As we like to say, “there ain’t no party like a Catholic party cause a Catholic party don’t stop”, and NCYC was no exception. As our group of about sixty from South Carolina joined thousands of others to enter the Sprint Center in Kansas City for the first night, beachballs were tossed from Californians, glowsticks were waved by New Yorkers and beads were thrown by the crowd from New Orleans. Kids were chugging red bull, facebooking pictures and chanting the Jesus Camp traditional, “we love Jesus, yes we do, we love Jesus, how ‘bout you?” while adding a Catholic spin of, “hold up, wait a minute, put a little Mary in it”.
It was, honestly, one of the craziest crowds I’ve been in. And I’ve seen Dave Matthews at an outdoor venue where bags were not checked thoroughly, if you know what I mean.
What was different about this crowd is that these kiddos were out-of-their minds excited to be with other Catholic teens, worshiping God together. For teens in South Carolina which boasts a population that is a whopping 4.37 3% Catholic, it was an incredible opportunity to see just how many share their beliefs. And, for some, learn how to use a crosswalk in a city for the first time… but that’s another story. For kids that often feel very alone in their faith, it was a reminder that they are part of a universal Church.
In the year 2000, Pope John Paul II spoke of the Church and youth, saying, “Jesus wants to enter into dialogue with them and, through his body which is the Church, to propose the possibility of a choice which will require a commitment of their lives… the Church must become today the traveling companion of young people”. I’m not naive enough to think that just because these kids all showed up for a conference, they’re going to be perfect Christians. However, seeing these teens reminded me how much they’re thirsting for a chance to make the “commitment of their lives” that Pope John Paul II described.
The climax of this was a holy hour and procession held the next morning. Catholics believe that Jesus is present body, blood, soul and divinity in the communion we receive at Mass (we don’t mess around when we read John 6:56, but again, that’s a lesson for another column). Therefore, when we worship we often take time to reflect on this and be in this very real presence of God. When this time of worship began, 21,000 teens simultaneously dropped to their knees (which is not as easy as it sounds in stadium style-seating) and total silent adoration ensued. The teens I was with shared that they left that time feeling touched by God and challenged to take their faith more seriously.
The rest of the weekend included more time of prayer and worship as well as talks on improving ones relationship with God, service to others and making moral choices. Amidst all the craziness that ensues when that many teens gather, the overall message was a challenge to recognize that Christ reigns in their lives, and sometimes that means making decisions that are not easy or popular. And, while it’s always cool to be in a crowd of 21,000 that share your beliefs, it’s what you do when you’re alone or surrounded by those who don’t share your faith and only God is watching that really matters.
When Christ encountered the disciples on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24:13-35) he walked with them, listened and then explained the scriptures to them. They were overjoyed at this encounter and ran to Jerusalem, explaining that Christ “was made known to them in the breaking of the bread” (Luke 24:35). Just like the teens at NCYC, we all need the opportunity to encounter Christ, to be given the opportunity to commit our lives to the one who is greater than ourselves. This commitment won’t solve all your problems, but it does give you a companion in Christ and the Church.