Steubenville Youth Conference - San Diego

Br. Andrew Dominic Yang, O.P.'s picture
Filed under: 

It seems as though many of us student brothers had positive experiences at youth conferences this past summer. Whereas Br. Michael James and Br. Peter attended "Ignite Your Torch" in the Pacific Northwest, my classmate Br. Thomas Aquinas and I, along with 5500 teens and volunteers, were fortunate enough to participate in the Steubenville San Diego Youth Conference on the University of San Diego campus. Named after the Franciscan University at Steubenville, which organizes the conferences nationwide, these conferences (more information can be found here) are designed to bring high school youth together to experience the love of Jesus Christ found within the Catholic Church. I attended as a youth chaperone to my home parish, St. Thomas Korean Catholic Center, while Br. Thomas Aquinas and our Province Vocation Director Fr. Steve Maekawa, O.P. staffed a Dominican vocation booth for young men interested in religious life and the priesthood. 

The Steubenville Conference utilizes a certain style of “evangelical” preaching and music, but combined with a fervent devotion to the sacraments, particularly Christ in the Eucharist and Reconciliation. I’m sure that Fr. Steve, one of 30 or so priests in attendance, alone must have heard hundreds of confessions over many lengthy hours. I know this because I entered his confessional on Friday night past 11 pm to see if he might need any water, only to find a determined grin and bleary eyes. I was moved to see thousands of teens lined up to declare their sins to the priest, receive absolution from Christ Himself, and experience the powerful mercy of God in the sacrament. 

The band, which played on stage throughout the conference, could not have performed any better. Likewise, each of the conference speakers, all of whom fearlessly proclaimed the infinite love of God, exuded a “cool factor” that was undeniably attractive to the thousands of youth present. At certain points, even I found myself steadying my own emotions while blinking back tears of my own. I’m fairly familiar with the intense “praise and worship” style of the Steubenville conference, having attended it before as a layman. Though I can certainly admit, as a Dominican friar, I’m more accustomed to a solemn liturgy that fosters quiet prayer and meditation. But I don’t believe that a charismatic approach to worship, such as was employed at the conference, need be in conflict with the Church’s venerable liturgical tradition; rather, it can complement it when balanced by other elements.

Today, “praise and worship”--drums, electric guitars, and all--seems to be the dominant popular mode of devotion among teens in the United States. Steubenville’s music ministry is remarkably effective at engaging young people through these means, and stirring them to the praise and adoration of the Triune God. A truly Catholic approach, it seems to me, might use and employ such methods—as Steubenville’s ministry does—in extra-liturgical settings to great effect. But in order for faith to last, it must be grounded in a consistent prayer life, and an intellectual understanding of the truths of the faith. Both of these, but especially one’s prayer life, require silence and space for quiet reflection. I think the reason why the Mass developed over the centuries with musical forms like chant and polyphony, was precisely that the Church had a strong instinct that the ordinary and enduring way to approach the Triune God required solemnity, reverence, and a contemplative posture.  At the same time, one of the geniuses of the Catholic Church through the ages has been precisely its ability to adopt and shape dominant cultural forms into itself, purifying them and making them serve the message of Christ and his Church.  There seems to me nothing against, and much to speak for, Catholics adopting this “praise and worship” devotional mode as a means of evangelizing people; while retaining the primary liturgical posture as one of more traditional solemnity.

In all of this, the most important thing that the Steubenville conference does is that it gives teens a chance to powerfully encounter Christ in a way they might not have before. Over and over, the speakers reminded the teens that they are "chosen" by the God of the Universe who calls them by name. Profound healing and conversion happens there; I’ve seen it with my own eyes. However, the Steubenville conference is just one event, one institution that cannot supply all of the Church’s needs. The Church is still in dire need of many things, including good catechesis, a powerful witness to Christ, and the renewal of the contemplative life. That part is up to us, you and me. Archbishop Di Noia, O.P. has insightfully called this period in history a “Dominican moment.” I experienced an aspect of this firsthand, as teens peppered me with theological questions in the common room at 3:00 in the morning. 

Lastly, it’s become known that many young people receive their vocations at Steubenville Youth Conferences. It was most edifying to see hundreds of young men and women respond courageously to a “Vocations Altar Call,” with a blessing given by Bishop Cirilo Flores of San Diego. It prompted me to reflect upon my own vocation, and why I chose to enter the Dominican Order. The answer in my heart was simple: because I love God, and I want to give my life entirely to Him. In the end, I’m not sure who got more out of the Conference, me or the teens I chaperoned. I find myself already looking forward to next year’s conference. Please keep in your prayers all the young people who attended this year's event – that they might always respond generously to God's call.