Nearly 50,000 Catholic youth attend Steubenville Youth Conferences every year. Should your teen go? Get the take of a parent chaperone.
by Susan Windley-Daoust
If you have a Catholic teen, you’ve probably heard about the Catholic youth conferences sponsored by the Franciscan University of Steubenville. In fact, your youth group may be planning a trip to a Steubenville Youth Conference. If you’re wondering what these conferences are all about and whether your child should attend, read on.
I just got back from one (Steubenville Rochester, chaperoning two of my kids, and other kids from the town), and I would very much encourage it. I was impressed! Here is a list of what I liked best:
- The focus on choosing Christianity as a joyful decision. Get two thousand teens in a room and it is high energy already. Add Jesus, and boom! But the prevailing attitude of the conference (and I assume all of them, because they share similar models, speakers, etc.) is joy and gratitude. There is no question—it’s infectious.
- The oasis language. OK, this is specific to this year’s conference, but at the beginning, there is a short high-energy video that welcomes everyone to this place and declares it an oasis. That’s smart, because first of all, it is. Everyone is encouraged and invited to drink deeply from the well of God—through prayer, song, dance, adoration, and sacraments (reconciliation and Eucharist). But there is almost a strong message that an oasis is there to help you continue on the journey—and you were made for the journey as much as the oasis. So refresh, rest, enjoy, and then GO.
- Breaking open what it means to give God permission to enter your life. Teens are good at understanding rules—following them, breaking them, etc. Many of them (and adults too) think that Christianity can be reduced to rules. This conference is extremely good at communicating that your birthright is a relationship with the Trinitarian God. And the focus is truly on invitation.
- Oh my goodness, this conference was funny. It’s not meant to be a concert or a stand-up routine, but a lot of humor is used to accentuate the message of the gospel—not replace it. (Kudos to Fr. Leo Patalinghug for an especially funny and inspiring talk!)
- At the same time, this conference was serious. Speakers did not shy away from talking about some very hard realities teens face: All kinds of peer pressure, rape, casual sex, cutting, depression, difficult family relationships, and harassment. They didn’t dwell on them, but the conference was good at “keeping it real”—and encouraging teens to turn to God, through the sacrament of Reconciliation if necessary. (One thousand teens received Reconciliation that weekend in the “down times” between talks—thank you to the priests there!) The organizers also had prayer teams as well as counselors on site, in the wings, if needed, and all the group leaders and chaperones knew this.
- Teaching teens how to pray. Lots of this—through word and (mostly) through action. I was impressed, again, with the emphasis on the invitation to pray and warning people not to compare themselves to others—God acts in people in different ways, and that’s good. Some people get emotional. Some don’t. It’s all good.
- This probably goes without saying, but this conference was joyfully orthodox. It wasn’t really aimed at teaching doctrine—but what was taught was all spot-on.
So, there’s a lot to like about these conferences, and I could probably list even more. I was especially moved at the end of the conference when one of the speakers asked if women willing to discern the religious life, and then men, would come to the front of the auditorium for a prayer. The number of young people willing to make that move was impressive, especially since the focus of the conference was not on vocations but on presenting the Christian life more generally.
There are a few things parents should know, not to prevent them from going (generally), but as an FYI:
- The worship style is not what you’ll find at most Catholic churches. It is Catholic, for sure (a huge focus on the Mass and the Eucharist), but the whole weekend is underscored by live Christian rock music and a very charismatic way of praying. The speakers are great at reminding the teens that the music and swirly lights are not the heart of worship; Christ is. And God helps people pray as they need to pray, so leave that matter to God. Conference speakers encourage openness more than specific practices. But if your teen has sensory issues with loud sounds, lights, and crowds, this is not his or her weekend, because you cannot avoid these things. And that’s OK.
- A teen cannot attend alone. All participants must register with a youth group. This makes sense, because a large part of this conference is the small group discussions after the talks, and you talk with the group you came with. There is also a lot that happens in the conference that needs to be unpacked later with a youth minister and friends who also attended, and that’s a wise move: clearly many participants felt it to be a turning point in their faith life. But that does make it difficult for kids to attend in places where there are no youth groups. And if your church sends a chaperoned group without a standing youth group in the parish (as a one-time event, for example), it would be wise for the parish to do some kind of follow-up, to process and talk about next steps. (This is the sort of conference that can get a youth group started!)
- The Saturday night adoration and procession of the Blessed Sacrament is kind of intense. It is also moving and beautiful. But it’s not like the silent adoration you probably experience at your parish: some teens break down crying, a few shout, most are singing loud, etc. But it is reverent in a high-energy kind of way.
- Finally, these conferences are an outreach of Franciscan University of Steubenville, and partially sponsored by them. There are “commercials” and an admission counselor teens can talk to about attending. Even as someone who teaches and recruits for another university, I didn’t find it too annoying. They have poured a lot into these conferences and have earned their promotional time (and there is no strong-arming at all).
If your kids want to go, I would encourage them. If you want to see what it is about, volunteer to chaperone a group. There are lots of Catholic conferences and retreats (please share your experiences in the comments!), but this one can be a great formative experience.
For more information, you can check out the Steubenville Conferences YouTube channel.