An ‘unforgettable experience’ | Steubenville STL Mid-America has rock-concert feel mixed with silence

SPRINGFIELD, Mo. — The Steubenville STL Mid-America conference had the look and feel of a rock concert on this day; in fact, JQH Arena on the Missouri State University campus was set up as such — with a stage, three big video screens and a roof-to-floor curtain in front of seats in the west section.

At that evening session July 16, teens counted down — five, four, three, two, one — for the gates to open, then rushed through the concourse so quickly that their wake blew phamplets off a vocations table.

Once in the seating area, it was concert city. A beach ball flew about the arena floor, cell phones stood in for flickering Bics from back in the day and the teens danced and sang along to, also from back in the day, Lynyrd Skynyrd's "Sweet Home Alabama" and Jon Bon Jovi's "Livin' on a Prayer."

Whoa, we're half way there

Whoa, livin' on a prayer

That lyric perfectly describes SteubyStL — livin' on a prayer, as in to God Himself and His son, Jesus Christ. 

Jesus actually made appearances throughout the two weekends — in picture form, hanging upon the cross at the Crucifixion, on the gigantic stage backdrop and in the True Presence in Eucharistic adoration, a Eucharistic procession and Masses.

Second-time Steubenville attendee Michael Wessel of St. Joseph Parish in Josephville called adoration, simply, "amazing."

In each Eucharistic procession, on Saturday night of each weekend, Jesus strolled through the arena, in the form of a simple host inside a monstrance. But this was no rowdy, rock-n-roll-Jesus moment similar to the scene for the opening numbers; rather, about 3,500 teens were in reverent silence as the procession snaked through the seating area, hitting sections on the floor, in the first deck and the upper deck. Whether floor seats or nosebleeds, Jesus came by.

Being the guy holding the monstrance ... off the charts.

"Taking the Lord through the congregation is a beautiful thing; it really is," said Springfield-Cape Girardeau Bishop Edward M. Rice, who has led processions in the past but not this year. Father Chris Martin, St. Louis' vocations director, and Father Mike Schmitz, a priest from the Diocese of Duluth, Minn., and a keynote speaker, had the honors this time. 

The silence of adoration struck Katelyn Bishop of Stillwater, Okla. "I learned how silence helps," she said. "You have to wait and listen for God to talk — sitting in complete silence waiting for God to approach me rather than I approach Him."

For Bishop Rice, who has attended 18 consecutive SteubyStL's and 20 overall, adoration and a eucharistic procession are second behind Masses in terms of the "wow" factor.

"Masses are the coolest," said Bishop Rice, who celebrated six over the two weekends. He celebrated Mass for volunteers before teens arrived on both weekends. He celebrated both Saturday Masses, though Father Schmitz preached the homily in Week 2, and he concelebrated the closing Mass of the first weekend with Archbishop Robert J. Carlson. He went solo for the finale, celebrating Mass and delivering a passionate homily.

In it, he told the teens to make a resolution after the weekend, then offered suggestions — never miss Sunday Mass, attend an extra Mass each week, go to adoration or pray the Rosary in honor of the Blessed Mother. Also, he advised "put down that Pokeman 'Go,' and put your face in a book ... a good Catholic book to feed your mind and soul."

"Without a resolution, you'll go back to the same old, same old, and this weekend will be for naught," he said, adding that the teens need to be "all-in" when it comes to Jesus Christ. "You're either in or you're not. ... If you strive to be an intentional disciple and follow Jesus daily, if you're responding to the call to holiness, then you've got to be in all the way." 

Later, after an army of priests — 101 over the two weekends — distributed Communion, the silence in the arena was, well, deafening. Bishop Rice joked it was something of a miracle that "3,500 teens could be in the same space and have total silence," but there was a reason for the "long, long silence."

"I think the Lord is just working in their hearts," he said.

Many in attendance seconded that notion.

Emily Fennewald of Sacred Heart Parish in Troy called this edition of Steubenville an "unforgettable experience," with friend Kenzie Krieger adding, "Underline 'unforgettable.'" 

"It's such a good refresher," said Krieger, a rising junior at St. Rose Philippine Duchesne High School and a first-time Steuby. "If anyone's like, 'I haven't been to Church in a while,' this is where you need to go. If your life is crowded or bad, no matter where you go, God is with you. ... Even if you've fallen off the trail of your faith, this is such a great experience."

Fennewald, a rising senior at Troy Buchanan High School, attended SteubyStL for the fourth consecutive year. About 70 teens from Sacred Heart attended the three-day conference; they wore red T-shirts with the phrase "cross training" on the front. Get it? "Cross" training.

"I've had really good experiences here," Fennewald said. "I look forward to it every summer. ... It's something I don't want to miss. Summer is not the same if I don't go to Steubenville." 

SteubyStL is co-sponsored through the Archdiocese of St. Louis' Office of Youth Ministry and Franciscan University of Stuebenville, Ohio. This is the 40th year of Steubenville conferences, which are nationwide.

The first weekend set a SteubyStL attendance record of 4,294, with another 3,452 the second weekend for total attendance of 7,746, representing 15 states. About 4,700 — 60.6 percent — went to confession. Priests heard confessions in the Plaster Student Union through each weekend.

The theme of the conferences was "Thirst," based on Romans 5:8: "But God proves His love for us in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us." "Thirst" also appears in the Gospel of John 21:28. Just before His death on the Cross, Jesus said, "I thirst." Thus, He became, as one T-shirt noted, the "Eternal thirst-quencher." 

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