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At Steubenville youth conference, teens fearlessly discover their identity in Christ

Steubenville youth conference shows teenagers that Jesus is calling them to live their faith with courage.

Today’s young generation is being formed in a culture of fear.

Luke Gunderson, right, and Michael Johansen particpated in the second week of the Steubenville St. Louis Mid-America Youth Conference on July 15 at the Great Southern Bank Arena in Springfield.
Photo Credits: Jacob Wiegand
One of the greatest fears teens face is what others think of them, said Xander Johnson, who attended the Steubenville youth conference with his youth group at St. Patrick Parish in Wentzville. Finding your identity as a beloved of Christ, he said, is the first step in understanding the purpose God created us for.

“Finding your identity in Christ, the fear starts to go away,” Xander said. “If (God) is who He truly says He is, then I am who He truly says I am, and I am to have no fear.”

The senior at Christian Brothers College High School is involved in Brothers In Prayer, a student-run prayer group that helps lead students closer to Christ and grow in faith. The community, Xander said, helps him to sustain his faith beyond his participation at Steubenville.

Steubenville STL Mid-America, or SteubySTL as it’s nicknamed, is a three-day youth conference held annually on two weekends in July on the campus of Missouri State University in Springfield. It’s organized through a partnership among the archdiocesan Office of Youth Ministry, Steubenville Conferences and Franciscan University of Steubenville in Ohio. The event is one of several Steubenville youth conferences held in the summer across the United States.

From its inception as a weekend event hosted at Marquette High School in Chesterfield in 1999, just a few months after St. John Paul II’s visit to St. Louis, the conference has grown in its 23-year history. This year more than 2,600 teens, volunteers, staff and clergy attended the first weekend, July 8-10. About 3,300 attended the second weekend, July 15-17.

Throughout the weekends, the teens heard from speakers on a variety of topics. The sacraments are key elements of the weekends, including Mass, confessions and eucharistic adoration. For many

Idele Durandisse, right, and Saniya Bryant with a group from Notre Dame High School clapped along during week two of the Steubenville STL Mid-America youth conference.
Photo Credits: Jacob Wiegand
teens, the conference is a life-changing experience, shaping how they practice their faith.

Reflecting on this year’s theme, “Fearless” (John 16:33), host Chris Stefanick said that the current generation of young people, Generation Z, has been shaped by a culture of fear. “We have a generation that is plagued with fear, because when there is no faith, there is reason to fear,” he said. “Jesus is not calling you to live in fear.”

Faith “enables you to look death in the eye and say I win,” Stefanick said. “In Jesus Christ, I win.”

Friday night’s keynote speaker, David Calavitta, expanded upon the theme by telling the teens that they are fearlessly created in the image and likeness of God.

Samuel Huelsing prayed during eucharistic adoration July 16. The theme of this year’s conferences was “Fearless,” and included talks on living fearlessly in relationship with God.
Photo Credits: Jacob Wiegand
Humans often run and hide in fear of poor decisions. The first humans, Adam and Eve, sinned because they were afraid, believing the lie that God is not who he says He is, Calavitta said. When they sinned and hid from God in the Garden of Eden, God sought them out, asking: “Where are you?”

When God asks that question, He already knows the answer, Calavitta said. Rather, He wants us to consider our answer — why are we hiding and where are we in relationship with the loving God who created us?

Whatever the rubble of our lives looks like — suffering, brokenness, confusion or depression — God “will dig through it to get to you,” he said.

Saturday evening’s keynoter Rachel Leininger said being totally fearless is not possible. Because of the fall of man, it’s part of our human nature to experience fears.

But Jesus said, “take courage, I have conquered the world” (John 16:33). Courage, a virtue, is not the absence of fear, but bravery in the face of things that scare us, Leininger said.

Jesus went through an agonizing death through His crucifixion, dying on the cross in just three hours. “His heart was so full that it just burst — so full of love for you and me that He just couldn’t take it anymore,” she said. Through His sacrifice on the cross, He gave us His Body, Blood, soul and divinity — the gift of the Eucharist.

And yet, Jesus was afraid, even before the moment of death. In the garden, He asked His Father for another way out. “But not what He willed, but what the Father willed,” Leininger said. “He was able to conquer death and fear and sin for us.”

Addison Arens traveled to the conference with her youth group from All Saints Parish in Le Mars, Iowa. The high school senior described the conference as her “check-in” with God, adding that her

Conference attendees held up their phones with flashlights on during a session of the second week of the Steubenville STL Mid-America youth conference on July 15. The conference included speakers, opportunities for the sacraments, praise and worship music and prayer.
Photo Credits: Jacob Wiegand
relationship with Him is constantly a work in progress.

As a senior, Addison is making college visits and thinking about the next chapter in her life. “Coming into this weekend, what I want to focus on is learning to trust in God … and I just have to trust in God’s plan day by day and live in the moment.”

Assumption Parish in O’Fallon sends teens from its Life Teen program to Steubenville every year. Youth minister Becky Whitaker said the weekend is meant to help them develop a relationship with the Lord that they are able to sustain well beyond the conference.

“We don’t want a bunch of retreat addicts,” she said. “We want to encourage them to make new friends and take the time to develop relationships with each other.”

That momentum is built through the parish’s youth ministry program, which Whitaker described as an intentional community — “places where the teens know that if they fall they can come back and be welcomed with open arms,” she said.

It also means developing a plan for prayer once they leave the conference and go back to everyday life. “We’re going to encourage them to come up with a plan and start with small increments and not over commit themselves, in order to set themselves up for success,” Whitaker said, “and then building on that.”

About two dozen students from Notre Dame High School in St. Louis attended the conference. The group was a mixture of return attendees and first-timers. Senior Saniya Bryant’s only experience with the Church has been through her Catholic high school.

Steubenville has been a good experience, Saniya said, as it’s allowed her to talk about the faith in a more open way with her peers. “I’m not Catholic, but I am very open to it and learning more about it,” she said. “It’s good to see how others are with their faith.”

For more highlights from the Steubenville STL Mid-America youth conference, visit steubystl365.com.

Highlights from Steubenville speakers

>> David Calavitta on “The Family of God”

The value of a human person is based upon the fact that God made us. Therefore, we must recognize the value of others when it comes to being in community with them. When we recognize that value, it’s called dignity.

People are made to be in relationship with each other, he said. Focusing on Scripture from the story of Creation (“Let us make human beings in our image, after our likeness,” (Genesis 1:26) and “it is not good for the man to be alone,” (Genesis 2:18)) Calavitta said, “We are not meant to be isolated people. We are made to be a part of each others’ lives.”

When we don’t see others’ God-given dignity, we treat them as less than human. And ultimately, our society becomes divided when we cannot see God in others. Jesus pursued the sinners of the world and showed them they have value and dignity, despite the sins of their lives, he said. But Jesus came to restore them. Similarly, all of us are called to love the sinner — and the challenge is to do that without losing the truth of God, the faith and the person’s dignity.

>> Father Christopher Martin on “My Messy Family”

Fr. Martin
Families are meant to be a reflection of God’s love, he said. But many families experience fracture. There’s too much focus on individuality (developing the “scholar athlete,” he said) that we are sacrificing family.

Families also are meant to be domestic churches. “Your home is a Church,” he said. “It’s a gathering and a place of community where God makes Himself present. The first place God is supposed to be with us is in the home.”

St. John Paul II in “Familiaris Consortio” wrote that the family’s essence and role is to “guard, reveal and communicate love.” The family is the first place where we experience life, which is communion. If we want to save society, we need to reinvest in the family.

>> Cooper Ray on “Living Fearlessly”

Speaker Cooper Ray prepared the teens for their departure from the conference, encouraging them to hold on to what they experienced during the weekend.

Returning home, there will be choices: between good and bad, the truth and lies and fearlessness and fear. “The devil hates any transformation that has gone on in your life this weekend,” he said. “There’s going to be a battle.”

The Church is there to help fortify us, Ray said. Turning to prayer and Scripture are important parts of continuing to develop in faith. And finding people to hold ourselves accountable is essential, he added.

“We don’t expect you to do everything, but we encourage you to start,” he said, “to walk through those doors and not leave your spiritual self here. The Lord who has begun a good work in you is not finished … let’s live a life emboldened by the Spirit, a life of fearlessness.”

“Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us rid ourselves of every burden and sin that clings to us and persevere in running the race that lies before us” (Hebrews 12:1).

Archbishop Rozanski’s Sunday morning homily

Archbishop Mitchell T. Rozanski celebrated Mass during week two of the Steubenville STL Mid-America youth conference on July 17. Read more about the conference on pages 13-17.
Photo Credits: Jacob Wiegand
To show hospitality to others, we must be fearless, Archbishop Mitchell T. Rozanski said in his homily at the closing Mass July 17.

“We cannot fear that others may reject us. We cannot fear that others won’t take our message to heart,” he said. “The best way we share hospitality is to share the greatest gift were ever given, and that is the gift of the Lord Jesus.”

Reflecting on the Gospel of Martha, Mary and Lazarus who received Jesus, and Abraham and Sarah from the first reading who welcomed the strangers into their home, the archbishop said they share important lessons on our vocation as followers of Jesus.

“They all felt they had something to share with their visitors,” he said. “It also means welcoming them into their hearts.”

We are called to welcome others to believe in Jesus and to see what a difference He makes in our lives, through our examples, the Archbishop told the teens.

“Be fearless in living out the faith,” he said. “It’s the greatest example we can give.”

Steubenville STL Mid-America by the numbers

23 years (started in 1999 as a weekend conference in St. Louis, just a few months after St. John Paul II’s visit to St. Louis; moved to the campus of Missouri State University in 2002.)

39 weekend conferences have been held (A virtual conference was hosted by Franciscan University​ of Steubenville in 2020; a scaled-back in-person Steubenville STL Mid-America conference took place in 2021.)

3,364 groups have attended

108,709 attendees

Visit steubystl365.com for photos, blog posts, videos and other highlights from both weekends.

Organizers: Office of Youth Ministry of the Archdiocese of St. Louis in partnership with Steubenville Conferences and Franciscan University of Steubenville

>> Altar Call
Teens interested in the next step in discerning a vocation are invited to participate in Altar Call at 7 p.m. Tuesday, Aug. 2, at Kenrick-Glennon Seminary, 5200 Glennon Drive in Shrewsbury. For more information, contact Father Brian Fallon with the archdiocesan Office of Vocations at [email protected] or visit www.stlvocations.org.

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