Lucy Andrew said that the sense of community draws her to the Steubenville conference every year. But it’s going home and sharing the Good News of Christ with others that keeps her coming back.
“When everyone’s together, we’re most powerful,” said the 16-year-old rising junior at St. Joseph’s Academy. She attended with her youth group at Mary Queen of Peace Parish in Webster Groves. “It’s many disciples, spreading the Good News,” she added.
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, Mo. 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 in 1999 as a weekend event hosted at Marquette High School in Chesterfield — just a few months after St. John Paul II’s visit to St. Louis — the conference has grown to the largest attendance in its 20-year history, with about 4,700 teens, volunteers, staff and clergy at JQH Arena on the first weekend, July 12-14. About 4,800 were anticipated to attend the second weekend, July 19-21.
”It’s a good time to get closer to God and rejuvenate your faith life,” said Brendan Schoemehl, 16, an incoming junior at De Smet Jesuit High School, who also attended with the Mary Queen of Peace group. “Sometimes you get caught up in life, and this is a nice reminder to slow down and focus on God more.”
Throughout the weekend, the teens heard from speakers on topics including belonging and authentic relationships with others and God; the things that draw us toward God; loneliness and isolation; and the role of social media. The sacraments are key elements of the weekends, including Mass, confessions (the line wrapped through the student union on several occasions) and eucharistic adoration. For many teens, the weekend is a life-changing experience, shaping how they practice their faith.
“I pray they hold on to that encounter with Jesus they have this weekend, and know the love, joy, hope and the promise that He has for them,” said Tom Lancia, director of the archdiocesan Office of Youth Ministry. “When they have that, they shine. And they shine through the darkest times, they shine in the greatest times, and they bring people into that. They are the Church, and when I see the Church struggle, I am lifted up when I see them go through those doors. Because I see a Church alive in our youth.”
Lancia said the conference was a direct response to St. John Paul II’s call to minister to the young Church. “What was our response? OK, let’s start an Office of Youth Ministry, let’s do a youth conference. From a gym, to a theater, to an arena — this is bigger than any one person,” he said. “It’s truly the work of God. We can do anything with Him.”
On the first night of the first conference, Dan Harms fired up the crowd, calling out the states represented among the attendees: Illinois, Arkansas, Kansas, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas, Iowa, Minnesota, South Dakota, Mississippi, Wisconsin, Nebraska, Michigan and Missouri. When Harms called out to repeat attendees, the majority of the crowd rose to their feet in cheers.
Reflecting on this year’s theme, “Belong” (1 John 3:1), Friday night’s keynote speaker David Calavitta said there’s no sense of belonging in this world that will ever satisfy our hearts. Not because it’s bad, but because it’s not God, said the former youth minister and director of marketing and design for Life Teen International. When we long for acceptance, we’re really longing for the infinite God. He’s the only one who can truly satisfy our hearts, he continued.
“God gave you a hunger to belong, because He is a God who calls you to belong to Him,” he said.
God the Father wanted us to know His heart, Calavitta said. So what did He do? He wrapped His heart in human flesh and sent it to dwell among us. “You belong to Him; you are that valuable to Him that he chose to have His Son die on the cross for us,” he said.
Logan Lane from the Diocese of Jefferson City, Mo., took to the stage to tell others about his experience with the sacrament of reconciliation at his first Steubenville conference a few years ago. The 16-year-old said he was nervous at first, but felt this calling inside to go. He caught himself “saying what was on my heart. That’s never happened to me before.” As the priest absolved him of his sins and gave advice on what he could do to grow closer to God, Logan said he felt “a wave of love and grace, and mercy and forgiveness. I felt at peace.”
In the homily at Mass Saturday morning, Father Mike Schmitz of the Diocese of Duluth, Minn., continued the theme of “Belong” by saying that one of the keys to belonging is “to know when we’re known” by God. When we choose to say yes to belonging to God, “everything can change.” If we want to realize at the end of our lives that God truly has been our best friend, “it’s because I lived my life like He actually loves me. I lived my life like it actually matters. It’s actually true that I belonged to Him, and He belongs to me.”
Katie Prejean McGrady, a Catholic speaker and author, gave a Saturday afternoon keynote about family life. She described the complications of giving birth to her first child, Rosie, and how she remembered her mom arriving to the hospital, asking how she could help.
“Her first thought was, ‘What can I do to be present and help?’” Prejean McGrady recalled.
She shifted to saying that while life can be chaotic, God is present. “God sanctifies the mess of family life,” she said. “He comes into the chaos and sanctifies it.” This isn’t the only family that we have, she added. “We are part of God’s family. We belong in relationship with Him. Your family is an access point to God Himself.”
St. Cletus tradition
St. Cletus Parish in St. Charles sent 54 teens and adult chaperones to the first weekend. The parish youth group has been coming to the conference since its inception 20 years ago. Core team leaders said the boost of energy the teens get from the experience is worth it.
“They come back and they’re full of passion,” said core team member Jennie Wilson. “It’s like they’re infiltrating their schools and homes with the excitement they have. It’s neat to be able to watch them grab new friends as the school year goes on. This (conference) is the jump start every year to bring in more peers” to the youth group.
Gloria Farmer, an incoming sophomore at Truman State University in Kirksville, Mo., said it wasn’t until college that she realized the appreciation she had for her high school youth group at St. Cletus. Now a summer core team member, Farmer said, “coming back and seeing all of these people who are into their faith, it felt very special. I’ve noticed (in college) it’s not as common for people to go to church on Sunday and be into their faith.”
St. Cletus core team member Beth Del Rosario said it’s evident the youth group sees each other as a family, which is reinforced at events such as Steubenville. “The teens who come, it doesn’t matter what their background is or who their friends are at school,” she said. “When they come into youth group, they love each other unconditionally, and they’re there for each other and support each other. Seeing the smiles on their faces … this is the part that makes me happy, to see them have joy. Joy in a holy and pure way and in a way that supports and builds each other up.”
>> Steubenville STL Mid-America by the numbers
20 years (started in 1999 as a weekend conference in St. Louis; moved to the campus of Missouri State University in 2002)
33 weekend conferences completed
2,721 groups have attended
of Youth Ministry of the Archdiocese of St. Louis in partnership with
Steubenville Conferences and Franciscan University of Steubenville
“See what love the Father has bestowed on us that we may be called the children of God. Yet so we are.” (1 John 3:1)