Imagine 2,300 teenagers in an auditorium, jumping up and down to the pulsating rhythm of a loud rock band, singing and shouting along with the music. Now imagine the words they’re singing are giving glory to God. Wishful thinking or reality?
This was the scene recently at Franciscan University in Steubenville, Ohio, as students from around the U.S. and Canada gathered for the annual High School Youth Conference. This was one of 18 summer conferences nationwide, reaching more than 35,000 youth.
Representing the South were 46 students and adults from Baton Rouge and the New Orleans area, who traveled on a bus sponsored by the Catholic Charismatic Renewal of New Orleans, and 52 participants from St. Rita Church in Harahan.
Strong roots in Christ
Emcee Paul George, a nationally known youth speaker from Alexandria, La., introduced the weekend theme, “Rooted,” taken from Col 2:6-7, “As you therefore have received Christ Jesus the Lord, continue to live your lives in him, rooted and built up in him.” George held up a potted plant, which he proceeded to pull out of the pot, showing the roots.
“Sometimes this is like us. We feel like we’re popped out of the soil by the things of life, and our roots are exposed,” he said, shaking dirt all over the ground. “This weekend I pray you will be rooted in him, so any growth will be growth in him,” said George.
Participants experienced inspiring talks, Mass, adoration, reconciliation, small group discussions, entertainment by the two-man musical group Popple, and music led by singer-songwriter Bob Rice and his worship band.
Keynote speaker Leah Darrow told her conversion story, explaining how her beauty and love of fashion led to modeling jobs and eventually on the TV show “America’s Next Hot Model.” However, she was unhappy in the midst of her extravagant lifestyle. One day she walked out on a photo shoot, determined to change her life.
She was able to start this process through the sacrament of confession. “It’s never a question of if he’ll love you and give you mercy, it’s when. When will we let him show us love, when will we be ready to receive his mercy?” Darrow asked.
Total commitment to God
John Beaulieu, director of Youth Outreach at Franciscan University, encouraged the crowd to “let God love us passionately and completely. Let God be God in our lives. Commit to let God love you every day. This is what prayer is. This will change our lives.”
Third Order Regular of St. Francis Father Dave Pivonka spoke before leading a eucharistic procession.
“Until God is what we want the most, we will never be happy,” he said.
During the procession, Pivonka walked slowly around the auditorium carrying the monstrance, which was shrouded in incense. As people knelt in adoration, many reached to touch Jesus as he came near them; many cried, touched by his presence.
“Adoration was the closest I ever got to heaven,” said Robert Frank, 17, of St. Ann Parish in Metairie.
Bridget Price, 16, of Mary Queen of Peace Parish in Mandeville, said what impressed her most was “how evident it was that Jesus was truly in our presence.”
Father Pivonka ended the conference by celebrating Mass. Everyone in the room linked arms, including the 30 priests on stage, and said, “We are not in this alone. We need to support and help each other as we walk as Catholics.”
Speaking about her weekend experience on the bus home, Jessica Hebert, 15, of St. Anselm Parish in Madisonville, said, “Picturing Jesus on the cross turned my world upside-down, but in a good way. I realize he’s always going to love me no matter what I do.”
Austin Breazeale, 15, of St. Clement of Rome Parish in Metairie said, “It was the best weekend of my life! God hugged me. I’ve been smiling for two days straight!”
Leslie Bertucci is director of the youth choir at Mary Queen of Peace Parish in Mandeville and a volunteer leader with the Sanctify youth group at St. Anselm Parish in Madisonville.