By Mary DeTurris Poust
This weekend I saw the future of the Catholic Church up close and personal, and I'm here to tell you that there is reason to hope -- at least 23,000 reasons. As I sat on the 50-yard line of Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis, I watched teenagers from all over this country dance and sing and scream till their voices gave out in an effort to express their faith and celebrate their love of Jesus and the Church. It really was a sight to behold, and a goosebump-inducing sound.
The kids attending the National Catholic Youth Conference weren't hung up on changes to the liturgy or surveys that say Mass attendance is down or any of the negative stuff we hear about our faith in the news. These kids were on fire for the Lord, clapping their hands and stomping their feet, wearing crazy hats and bright T-shirts emblazoned with everything from parish names and towns to the words, "And with your spirit."
I couldn't help but look out at so many young faces and feel a deep sense of hope. Many of these teens have spent two years fundraising to get to NCYC (I know our parish kids did), so coming to the biennial event isn't all fun and games. It's hard work, followed by exhausting schedules, and spiritually challenging sessions and workshops. You know you're witnessing something powerful, when 23,000 teenagers can disconnect from the Internet and from everything else and sit in total silence in a stadium and pray lectio divina. I found it hard to enter into silent prayer myself because I was so awed by the fact that a packed stadium could be so silent and feel so sacred.
And my awe didn't end with the kids. Thirty bishops attended the conference, coming out in baseball caps for the opening session, sitting in Victory Park (the exhibitors' hall) signing autographs on bishop trading cards for hours, going to pizza parties with their respective dioceses at 11:30 at night, and holding roundtable discussions during the day with the kids.
I have such deep respect for those bishops who attended NCYC because it shows their commitment to the future of our Church. These kids don't have money to donate, they don't have the power to change laws or do anything else to benefit the bishops or dioceses directly. All they have is their enthusiasm and their willingness to walk this faith journey. I was so grateful to the bishops and to the nearly 300 priests and deacons and 175 seminarians who thought these kids and this event were important enough to take time out of their own busy schedules.
The kids were clearly dumbfounded as they watched the procession into the closing Mass, an endless river of white vestments stretching on for so long it took two or three songs to get everyone inside. I saw the gratitude and excitement among the group of 20 kids we brought from our parish. They just kept watching wide-eyed, saying they'd never seen so many priests in one place. Trust me, it made an impression.
If you work with youth in your parish and have never been to NCYC, get them to the next event, scheduled for 2013 in Indianapolis. It will be worth all the effort, all the lost sleep, all the long hours it takes to get there.
So often we adults scratch our heads and wonder how to get kids excited about their faith, how to get kids to want to go to Mass or confession or adoration. When you stand on line for more than 45 minutes to get to confession because there are 50 kids in front of you and hundreds more behind, you can't help but feel hopeful for the future. How do we get kids excited about the faith? We have to get excited about the faith, which is exactly what the bishops and priests and presenters and youth ministers did at NCYC.
We adults could learn a lot from our Catholic teens. They're not squabbling over words and other details; they're celebrating the big picture, that we are all "called to glory," which was the theme of this year's event.
During the closing Mass, Bishop Christopher Coyne, apostolic administrator of the Archdiocese of Indianapolis, told everyone in the packed stadium to take out their cells phones, power them up, and text the words "Called to Glory" to everyone on their contact list, Twitter accounts and Facebook. The kids jumped at the chance to spread the Word in a way that's second nature to them. They happily tweeted and texted their messages, unfraid of what their friends back home might think.
As the kids chanted throughout the weekend in a seemingly endless call and response -- on street corners, in restaurants, at the stadium, even in the airport when other groups of NCYC teens passed by -- "God is good all the time. All the time God is good."