Youth evangelization in the Archdiocese of Milwaukee concentrates on connecting young people to Jesus Christ, said Associate Director of Youth Evangelization Doug Ulaszek. Most young people experience this in peer groups of 20-30 through religious education classes or parish youth groups.

The National Catholic Youth Conference (NCYC) 2019 November event gave “teens an opportunity to really experience the universal nature of the Church,” Ulaszek said.

“Living one’s faith vibrantly is not popular or common in high school,” for public or Catholic students. Exposing teenagers in the archdiocese to 23,000 of their peers in the faith created a rare opportunity to encounter the Lord in an unconventional setting, and spark deeper relationships of faith.

Hosting adoration of the Blessed Sacrament in Lucas Oil Stadium, with a student choir chanting the Salve Regina as incense absorbed the altar, created an environment that a typical parish “cannot create on its own, or even a cluster of parishes or a deanery,” said Ulaszek.

With thousands of people attending one event, the planning committee is able to “pour so many more resources in, so you have these national speakers who are clearly very good at what they do and love the Lord and you are able to bring 100 of them together, where a parish would be lucky to hire one of them.”

Observing talks and gathering workshop topics gave Ulaszek an insight into what national youth leaders identify as needs among the youth, inspiring ideas for the future of youth evangelization in the Archdiocese of Milwaukee.

One breakout session featured a presentation on the Netflix show “13 Reasons Why,” a series about teen suicide. The NCYC talk gave students an understanding of how to support friends dealing with anxiety, depression and hopelessness, in a culture where seven out of 10 teenagers cite those as major problems among people their age.

The workshop topics showed Ulaszek “these are real needs that we can meet in our archdiocese.”

Beyond ministry inspiration, NCYC spiritually impacted students and chaperones alike.

“To see Latin and chant incorporated into the different aspects of the weekend was really powerful because it showed our youth that we can have talks that are relevant to them … but at the core of what we do in our prayer, we are united to this 2,000-year history of being Roman Catholics,” he said.

Additionally, “they had a Mass in the extraordinary form and the church had over 600 people in it. It was filled with teens who wanted to experience the liturgy as our ancestors did and that was really powerful to see,” Ulaszek said.

Yet with mountaintop faith experiences like NCYC, “there is another side of the mountain and it’s somewhat of a risk when we bring teens to these great encounter moments,” Ulaszek explained.

Youth leaders must ask, Ulaszek said, “Are we ready to walk with them and support them when they come home? Or do we facilitate them becoming what I would call retreat junkies, where their faith is just supported by sporadic mountaintop experiences every six months or every year or quarter?”

Accompanying youth is a “huge need that we have in our parishes,” he added. To address that need, the Office for Youth Evangelization seeks to “support our parish leaders in building those support systems for their youth evangelization teams, so that these conferences don’t just become a wild ride down the cliff after the mountaintop,” Ulaszek said.

The direction of youth evangelization going forward mirrors NCYC: “Focus on the sacraments and our relationship with Jesus as paramount; it confirms that direction that we were already moving,” Ulaszek said.

NCYC requires a lot of preparatory work, “I would encourage parishes, families, and high schools to start thinking ahead for 2021, because it is going to come up very quickly and conversations of if you are going to do it start now,” he said.