KENOSHA — More than 2,200 teens, chaperones and volunteers packed Carthage College in Kenosha, July 22 to July 24, to celebrate Christian faith and fellowship at the Steubenville Conference on the Lake.
The conference began more than 40 years ago at Franciscan College (now University) in Steubenville, Ohio, and has grown to numerous conferences across North America. According to steubenvilleconferences.com, this summer more than 54,000 teens will attend 23 Steubenville conferences.
“It’s really about evangelization,” Amy Cummings, executive director of Partnership for Youth said of the Steubenville conferences. Partnership for Youth is a Midwest organization dedicated to spreading the word of God to young people and helping them delve into a deeper relationship with God through the church. The organization helped run the Kenosha event.
It marked the first time a Steubenville youth conference was held in Wisconsin, although several conferences for young adults have been held.
“The welcome that we received from Archbishop (Jerome E.) Listecki to have the event in his archdiocese was a huge blessing to us,” Cummings said. The archbishop could not attend because he was traveling to Krakow, Poland for World Youth Day.
Many chaperones and group leaders were grateful to see the well-known Catholic youth event being held so close by.
“For Steubenville to occur in the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, my home, is a great joy for me because I love this archdiocese and I want it to grow,” said Stephen Buting, a member of St. Dominic Parish, Brookfield. Buting, a seminarian who just completed his first year at the North American College in Rome, was a chaperone for a group from West Bend.
Kollin Petrie, director of youth ministry at St. Frances Cabrini Parish, West Bend, led a group of 21 teens to the conference.
“From a purely practical perspective, it was very convenient for us to be able to send our teens to a conference that was held within our own archdiocese,” Petrie said. “On a deeper level, I think it is imperative to offer our teenagers these kinds of opportunities within our archdiocese. The solid catechesis and exposure to traditional devotional practices like eucharistic adoration are very attractive to the younger generations.”
The three-day event included Catholic speakers, praise and worship music, daily Mass, eucharistic adoration and reconciliation.
“These conferences present Jesus and the Catholic Church in an incredibly compelling way,” said Emily Burds, director of evangelization for St. Josaphat Basilica who led a group of 65 teens. “Authentic prayer is taught, church teaching is celebrated and real issues are addressed — all in the context of a high-energy and engaging weekend full of great music, orthodox liturgy and fun games.”
The Steubenville Conference provides high school attendees with a variety of ways to encounter Christ through music, prayer and engaging speakers. Fr. Mike Schmitz, a priest from the Diocese of Duluth, Minnesota, known across the country for his presentations to young people, was a favorite of many attendees.
“He talked a lot about a lot of things that go on in your life,” said Jamie Markel from Westphalia, Michigan. “Like confession. Everyone is afraid of that at some point.”
Another inspirational part of the conference was the women’s talk, “Thirsting for Love,” on Saturday with well-known Catholic youth speaker Sr. Miriam Heidland, a member of the Society of Our Lady of the Most Holy Trinity (SOLT). Continuing with the conference’s theme, “I Thirst,” Sr. Miriam shared her experience of growing up in suffering and discovering Christ’s love.
Through stories of buying salad for 300 nuns in a Sam’s Club in South Texas to comparing the Virgin Mary to pop singer Ariana Grande (and she said of Mary, “This is a dangerous woman. Ariana Grande got nothing on her.”), Sr. Miriam proclaimed her message of “being so broken and yet so fiercely loved by God.”
These speakers, according to Cummings, are “people who live their faith. They want to witness to young people and have a love for young people and want them to have a deeper relationship with Christ.”
Eucharistic adoration was another focus of the conference.
Pete Burds, director of college campus ministry for the archdiocese and director of Arise Missions, described the beauty of 2,200 teenagers praying and worshiping God together.
“Eucharistic adoration on Saturday evening was exceptionally powerful,” he said. “Seeing the teens praying and singing together in worship of Christ, present in the monstrance, is very moving.”
During Saturday’s eucharistic adoration, Fr. Schmitz processed around Carthage College’s arena with the monstrance to, as Brian Magliocco, a chaperone for St. Dominic Parish in Brookfield and director of the Wisconsin Youth Rally, said, “give participants a chance to get up close and personal with Christ.”
Buting described its ability to draw teenagers into the church through the sacraments as a central part of the Steubenville Conference.
“Whether you’re having fun or singing crazy songs or just enjoying the company of others, there’s always the centrality of prayer and the sacraments,” he said.
“Teenagers can gain a sense of unity as they see other teens worshipping the Lord and trying to make sense of who they are in this world,” Emily Burds said.
While the conference was designed to fortify participants’ faith, it also provided them with inspiration and tools to take back into their parishes, schools and to their friends.
It was also a time for discernment — a time to consider God’s plan for them, including whether or not that plan might include a religious vocation.
On Sunday after Mass, attendees could stand up and declare their willingness to consider a religious vocation. According to a U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ survey of priests ordained in 2016, 14 percent of them and 10 percent of religious women attended a Steubenville Youth Conference, Cummings said.
“Our teens were excited to see a young sister like Sr. Miriam in her full religious habit. They learned from the engaging and honest stories of faith presented by her, Fr. Mike Schmitz and the other speakers,” Petrie said. “It was also exciting to see more than 100 young men and 100 young women stand up and say that they have at least thought about pursuing a religious vocation.”
The conference also helps teens prepare for the next stage of their lives – beginning college. For many, college is not only a big change in their living situations, daily routines and personal freedoms, but also a change in their faith. The Steubenville Conference included a session for incoming college freshmen to learn how to stay active Catholics as they transition to a new stage in life.
Taylor Schuelke, a recent high school graduate from Manawa, in the Green Bay Diocese, said she hopes “to gain insight into what’s going to happen after we graduate.”
Steubenville on the Lake was Magliocco’s 19th Steubenville Conference. He urged anyone with high school children or anyone in high school to consider attending a Steubenville conference. His conversion story was a result of being forced by his parents to attend a Steubenville Conference while he was in high school.
“It opened my heart just a little bit for God to enter in,” he said.
Throughout the conferences, attendees were repeatedly told, “Jesus thirsts for you.” As Pete Burds said, “Every teen that attends comes to a deeper understanding of God’s love for them. It’s something most of them have heard their entire lives through confirmation, religious ed, etc., but his love becomes very real and tangible for them through the sacraments, prayer and community at these Steubenville conferences.”