Random hugs and torn trousers.
Praise & Worship bands and a Latin schola.
Adorers, confessors, penitents, discerners, seekers and a few who were initially just along for the ride.
These all helped make the 2019 National Catholic Youth Conference (NCYC) in Indianapolis an unforgettable experience for the approximately 22,000 teens, adult chaperones and clergy who attended.
“We’re talking about God and growing in faith and creating a stronger bond between us and Him,” said Paul Wilson, 17, of Holy Spirit parish in Centralia.
“It’s like having a whole family of 22,000 people you’ve never met before, who are willing to listen to your story and share their faith with you and encourage you and love you,” said Hannah England, 17, of Sacred Heart parish in Eldon.
They were two of the 480 people from 25 parishes in the Jefferson City diocese who rode 10 buses to Indy for the Nov. 21-23 event.
Bishop W. Shawn McKnight took part in the second and third days’ activities, offered Mass for the people of this diocese and joined them for dinner.
“I return to my post, filled with awe, gratitude and a renewed sense of hope,” he said. “I can see that God is hard at work forming a new generation of enthused and faithful Catholics to help carry His message of salvation to the ends of the earth.”
NCYC, held every other year, consists of three days of inspiration, prayer, fellowship and fun.
This year’s theme was “Blessed, Broken and Given” — from the story of two disciples who met Jesus on the Road to Emmaus the day He rose from the dead (Luke 24:13-35).
He set their hearts on fire with His preaching from Scripture, but they did not recognize Him until He sat down to eat with them, blessed the bread, broke it and gave it to them.
“These young people entered into that story fully throughout the week,” said John DeLaporte, diocesan director of youth ministry and religious education.
For many teens from this diocese, it was a sacred pilgrimage, a moment of encounter and a new beginning.
“I feel like I’m being changed,” said Taylor Carrico, 15, a sophomore from Holy Spirit in Centralia. “I know I’ve learned and grown so much in my faith.
“I hope to spend more time praying and spreading the word and helping others find God and honoring Him,” she said.
“I will remember these experiences for years and years to come,” said Halle Jenkins, 15, a member of Sacred Heart parish in Eldon and a sophomore at Helias Catholic High School in Jefferson City.
“It’s so neat and interesting and fun to be around so many people who believe what I do,” she said.
Her friend, Hannah England, took to heart the advice often repeated at NCYC to turn her gaze outward and focus less on herself.
“You have to read Scripture and have a strong prayer life,” she said. “And when you’re having doubts, turn to God in prayer and rely on the Blessed Mother’s intercession.”
Hannah Pendergast, 17, of Holy Spirit in Centralia, was on her second NCYC. This time, she felt the effects of the grace she received in confirmation three weeks previously.
“I feel like I’ve really connected with my faith, and I want to do more,” she said. “Getting confirmed and then going here, it really makes me want to read the Bible more and pray more and help other people more.”
Father Paul Clark, associate pastor of Our Lady of Lourdes parish and a chaplain at Fr. Tolton Regional Catholic High School in Columbia, offered Mass for the people from the diocese after all the buses arrived.
He recalled first attending NCYC when he was a freshman in high school.
“One thing I remember is being from a small town in Missouri and getting to meet up with so many Catholic young people,” he said.
“It’s a reminder that the Church is bigger than me, bigger than my parish, bigger than our diocese,” he said. “We are members of a universal body and a universal Church.”
He urged everyone to choose one piece of “baggage” to let go of in order to be freer to enter into the NCYC experience.
“Let go of the distractions that hold you back,” he said. “Whatever we let go of at this conference, God will accept that gift, sanctify it and use it to help us enter more fully into a relationship with Him.”
The throngs in the concourses of the Lucas Oil Stadium and the exhibit halls of the Indianapolis Convention Center did not disappoint the teens from Missouri.
“It’s impressive that we’re surrounded by so many people who share our beliefs,” said Paul Wilson. “It really warms my heart.”
“We got to meet people from all over the country,” said Payton Kirchoff, 16, a sophomore at Helias Catholic High School and member of Cathedral of St. Joseph parish in Jefferson City.
The teens followed an ambitious itinerary of keynote presentations, thought-provoking breakout sessions, service projects and Masses with beautiful, inspiring music and preaching.
“It’s like everyone is on Cloud 9 every day,” said Bradley Werkmeister, 15, of Holy Spirit in Centralia. “It’s a place where everyone can be open. Not a single person in the group had to worry about standing up for what they believe in.”
Young people spent time milling through the acres-large exposition area filled with music, booths, experiences and service opportunities, making friends and exchanging hugs with strangers.
Some attended a traditional sung High Mass in Latin in the church across the street.
Payton Kirchoff, having served at Mass with Bishop McKnight back home, was chosen to introduce him to 20,000 people during one of the assemblies in the stadium.
“The lights were shining in our eyes so you really couldn’t see that far into the crowd,” he said. “It was like looking out and nobody was there.”
But he could hear them cheer.
Bradley Werkmeister tore his jeans on a slide in the exhibit area right before the closing Mass. He bought a pair of NCYC pajamas at a nearby booth and put them on.
“I’ve never felt so under-dressed for Mass in my entire life!” he said.
Many of the teens found joy and inspiration in adoring Christ fully present in the Most Blessed Sacrament and in going to confession on Friday night.
“I felt my faith grow through confession,” said Anna Million, 15, of Holy Spirit in Centralia. “It’s amazing how you feel when you have that weight lifted from your shoulders.”
“One of the priests told us it’s like you’re reborn whenever you go to confession,” said Hannah Pendergast. “That’s pretty much how I felt afterward.”
“It touched my heart and changed me forever,” said Taylor Carrico. “I felt so free, and so much was lifted off my chest. I could tell that God was there with me.”
“I did not expect to cry, but I did,” said Halle Jenkins. “I was so happy to be forgiven and to be with all of my friends and just be here in Indianapolis.”
Bradley Werkmeister’s confessor told him to place himself in God’s presence and then offer up five prayers that start with, “Lord, show me the way... .”
That opened the door to one of the most intimate prayer experiences he’s ever had.
“Just sitting there in the stadium, surrounded by 20,000 kids around my age in front of the Eucharist in Adoration, it just felt incredible,” he said. “I was talking to God more personally than I ever had.”
Icing on the cake
Mr. DeLaporte said there’s much more to NCYC than the crowds and spectacle.
“The event’s organizers put some of the very best ministry practices to use for all of us to see,” he said. “They’re very intentional about integrating the traditional Catholic prayer and spirituality with contemporary worship, and they did it really well.
“That really resonates with the young people,” he added.
He said teens often return home from events such as NCYC with a desire to go deeper in their faith.
“When parish life and ministry respond, NCYC can truly compel discipleship,” he said. “In that way, NCYC is the icing and the ministry of the parish is the cake. When both are present faith is both ignited, deepened and sustained.”
Young people at NCYC 2019 emphasized that they don’t want to leave what they experienced behind.
They want to be different and help make the world different.
“The way to keep the passion burning and the light burning bright would be through an increase in prayer and going to Mass and confession regularly and just trying to get more out of every day on this planet with our God,” said Bradley Werkmeister.
“Just one more kind act, or committing to go to Mass more, or being more attentive to who you’re hanging out with — these small things can add up to big changes,” said Payton Kirchoff.
Anna Million said she plans on praying more, reading the Bible more and spending more time with people who know she’s Catholic and expect the best from her.
“Everyone needs to continue growing and learning and working to put your vices and struggles behind you,” she said.
Helping to plan
Bishop McKnight said he was proud of the teens from this diocese at NCYC.
“The youth are not merely the Church of tomorrow, but they are very much part of the Church today,” he stated.
At a gathering of NCYC participants, he urged the teens to participate in the development of a new diocesan pastoral plan by attending a youth summit with him next May.
“We will look at how to improve cooperation between clergy and laity; fostering the spirituality of stewardship and individual discipleship; and transforming parishes into centers of charity and mercy,” he told them.