By LINDA BEHRENS
“It was an awesome weekend.” Uplifting. Powerful. Motivational. Inspiring. An amazing weekend.
These adjectives and many more were shared by two faith formation leaders and several teenagers from the Diocese of Belleville who attended the Steubenville STL Mid-America Conferences.
The Steubenville Youth Conferences are a series of 25 conferences across North America that help teens encounter the love of Christ.
Steubenville STL Mid-America Conferences (also called SteubySTL) are two of the conferences that are held every year in July on the campus of Missouri State University in Springfield, Mo.
Approximately 5,900 teens, volunteers, staff and clergy attended these two sessions, with 120 youth and adults from the Diocese of Belleville.
Rising freshmen in high school through rising freshmen in college are invited to attend.
The events are a high-energy youth conference where thousands of teens are invited to encounter Jesus Christ through dynamic speakers, engaging music, the Sacraments, small group discussions and fellowship with other teens.
The theme this year was “Fearless” (John 16:33).
The conferences in Springfield are an outreach of Franciscan University of Steubenville, Ohio, in partnership with Steubenville Youth Conferences and the St. Louis Archdiocesan Office of Youth Ministry.
The mission is to build the Church by evangelizing, equipping and empowering God’s children to become radical and joyful disciples.
Faith formation perspective
This was the second time Catherine Burkart, pastoral associate of youth faith formation and the PSR coordinator at Ss. Peter and Paul in Waterloo, attended a Steubenville Youth Conference. The group of 27 youth and two young adult leaders she coordinated also included youth from St. Teresa and St. Augustine in Belleville.
“We were in a huge arena, like a concert, but you are hearing praise and worship songs,” Burkart says. “It is energizing to see so many young people worshiping their faith.”
She describes seeing the line for reconciliation wrapped around the second floor of the student center.
“It was amazing to watch students completely embody this entire experience, which is an important commitment to live out their faith,” she says.
At one point, non-Catholic attendees who wanted to becoming Catholic were asked to come to the front of the arena. “They rushed to the stage,” she says.
They then asked if anyone wanted to become a priest or if any women were interested in religious life to come to the stage. Several hundred students went to the stage, she says.
“As a former vocations director, this is huge, amazing,” Burkart says.
There were many highlights over the weekend, such as seeing the procession of clergy coming to Mass both mornings. Or when the priests blessed the attendees and sent them forth.
“It made an impression,” she adds.
Burkart says she will be listening to her Spotify list of the music from the conference, and sharing it with her two young daughters, until she gets a new list of music next year.
Angela Lees, coordinator of youth faith formation for St. Joseph in Marion, took 11 youth from St. Joseph and St. Paul in Johnston City to the conference.
“Jesus is at the center of everything they do at the conference,” she says. “It is focused to Christ to lead youth to Christ.”
Lees also was impressed with the scale of the event and the Masses that were held in the arena.
“During eucharistic adoration, the monstrance was taken to each section and brought close to the youth,” she says. “It’s not something they see all the time. At that point, it was so quiet. With so many people there, you could hear a pin drop.”
She adds, “The Holy Spirit was palpable, reverenced.”
Lees explains the last few years, with the COVID-19 pandemic, have been difficult for this group of high school students.
“They haven’t been together a lot. They have been feeling that something was missing,” she says.
“From a leader’s perspective, to see them bond together at this conference, to make these memories, is special,” she says. “My hope is that they will look back at this time and something from the weekend stays with them forever.”
She also hopes they take what they learned home with them and back to their parishes.
“This event instills excitement for the Lord.”
She says as a leader, taking a group to a conference like this is a lot of work. It’s a long weekend and long hours.
“But it is worth every minute, to sit back and watch them be filled. It’s worth every breath of every second.”
Lees hopes more parishes will take their youth to future Steubenville conferences.
Youth attendees’ perspective
Five cousins from one family attended the conference with the group from Ss. Peter and Paul – Sarah Toth, Oliva Toth and Elayna Hermanns of Waterloo; Austin Stern of Red Bud; and Bayleigh Russell of Gardner, Kansas. They are the great grandchildren of Herman and Florence Hess of Red Bud.
This was the second conference for Sarah Toth, 16. She says adoration was her favorite part, and the music and speakers were amazing.
“When I am there, I feel like I am talking to God one-on-one,” Toth says. “The music helps me focus. I pray with the music and words, like meditation. I feel closer to God, seeing everybody else praying and singing.”
Toth says attending the conference is a way to “recharge her batteries.” She says that it recharges your faith.
“We all get caught up in regular life stuff,” she says. “It’s a weekend to be free and be with the Lord.”
Jack Wightman, 17, from Waterloo, liked the times when everyone would be standing, the Christian music was playing, people were singing and dancing, and beach balls were being tossed through the air.
“I was surprised to see how many people were there,” he says. “I really liked the energy, attitude and atmosphere during those times.”
Wightman also liked the talk for just male attendees where they discussed why maintaining faith as a man is important. “It gave me some things to think about.”
He encourages anyone who has an interest in the Steubenville conference to attend next year. “They should experience this as well. It is worth it.”
Adelynn McCarthy, 17, of Marion, says the weekend was eye-opening, rewarding and made her feel more connected to her faith, especially after the past two years during the pandemic.
“It was good to see so many other people who are Catholic,” McCarthy says. “I loved it. The talks, the Masses, everyone taking communion together in the huge arena.”
Adoration was her personal favorite, “to see everyone singing and feeling it. It was very moving.”
McCarthy says it is hard to put the experience into words.
“Everyone was so into it. Watching everyone live their faith. It is something you need to experience,” she says.
Gracie Behnke, 18, of Harrisburg, says she was awe-struck with how many Catholic teens were there, since she grew up in a small town with a small Catholic community.
“The atmosphere at the conference is incredible,” Behnke says. “It is welcoming, inspiring and a sense of community.”
Her favorite part was adoration, when the priests walked around the arena with the monstrance.
“It was a beautiful moment, an unreal experience. It felt like Jesus was walking around the room with you,” Behnke says.
She also says it’s difficult to describe, and the pictures don’t do it justice.
Behnke brought back home with her the theme of the event – fearless.
“They focused on the sense that no matter what situation you are in, you can turn to God,” she explains.
“We were made to belong to a community,” she adds. “Remember, you can always turn to your church, your youth group. You can turn to God.”
For more information about the Steubenville STL Mid-America Conferences, visit steubystl.com.