Published January 1, 2004
Under the retractable roof of Reliant Stadium, home of the NFL Houston Texans, and beneath the beer and cell phone advertisements, a remarkable thing happened.
Over 20,000 teens from across the country, including 60 teens from seven parishes in the Archdiocese of Atlanta, came together to praise God and celebrate their faith at the biennial National Catholic Youth Conference. And the fire was undeniable.
The Nov. 13-16 event was spread across Reliant Park, which includes the Reliant Astrodome, Arena, Center and Stadium, where the main sessions were held.
Inside the stadium, a rainbow of T-shirts colored the landscape.
At the opening session, teens from the Archdiocese of Atlanta parked themselves directly in front of the stage. As bishops from around the country processed into the stadium, they passed the Atlanta teens who eagerly raised their hands for high-fives.
The keynote speaker was Bud Welch, whose daughter Julie died in the Oklahoma City bombing.
“All my life I had opposed the death penalty,” he said. “People always told me that ‘if it happened to your family, you’d change your mind.’”
Welch found out firsthand on April 19, 1995, when Julie and 168 others died at the Murrah Federal Building in downtown Oklahoma City.
“At first, I didn’t want any trials. I wanted them fried. I struggled for nine months,” he said. “I went to the bomb site each day. But then I realized that revenge and hate was the same reason Julie and the others died.”
Welch shared stories of his only daughter, an ambitious 23-year-old and daily Mass-goer, with laughter and emotion.
He then spoke of the meeting he had with the man whose son was responsible for her death. Not long after Timothy McVeigh was convicted of the bombing, Welch went to McVeigh’s father’s house and realized that they were feeling the same emotions. They had each lost a child.
McVeigh was executed on June 11, 2001.
“Nothing about that process brought any peace,” Welch said. “And since then, many have come up to me and said, ‘It did not do what I thought it would do. It was too easy. He just fell asleep.’”
Welch spends his time traveling around the country and speaking against the death penalty. His talk was greeted by a standing ovation.
After Welch’s talk, the bishops made their way throughout the stadium, blessing the crowd.
It was just the beginning of a jam-packed weekend that featured dynamic speakers, charismatic performers and life-changing new friendships.
That evening Dove Award-winning Christian musician Rachael Lampa wowed the crowd with her powerful voice.
Lampa, a senior in high school and a Catholic, told the crowd that performing at NCYC was close to her heart. It was a few years earlier that she was attending a Steubenville youth conference.
“We were given quiet time with God, and I decided to tell him I was bored. I wanted to be bigger for him and louder for him,” she said. “It was just a few days later, I got my record deal.”
Throughout the weekend, teens attended concurrent sessions on topics ranging from chastity to family. They also spent time in the Bayou Village, a thematic park, which featured exhibitors and games.
Father Roberto Orellana, parochial vicar at Transfiguration Church in Marietta, attended the conference with teens from his parish. On Saturday morning, teens, exhausted from the previous day’s activities, but ready for the experience of the new day, gathered in the conference room as Father Orellana celebrated Mass.
“This has been an awesome experience for me to be here. I have seen the Spirit of God at work. I have witnessed God’s love at work and I have seen the face of God in each of you,” he told the teens during his homily.
Saturday night’s keynote speaker was Craig Kielburger, a 20-year-old who started an organization called Free the Children, when he was just 12.
Free the Children has built more than 375 primary schools providing education to over 30,000 children; shipped more than 175,000 school and health kits around the world; and sent more than $6 million worth of medical supplies to health clinics in developing countries.
It all started with a newspaper article. While getting ready for school, Kielburger reached for the comics section of the Toronto Star. Instead, he was greeted with a headline that read, “Boy, 12, murdered for speaking out against child labor.”
Shocked by what he read, Kielburger gathered his friends, most of them also 12 years old, and began Free the Children.
Since he began the organization, he has traveled to over 40 countries. And heeding the call of God is something teens can do in their own backyards, he said.
“How many of us close our hearts when there is someone in our classroom so obviously in need of a friend,” he said. “Every day we receive a call from God, encouraging us to reach out to others.”
He encouraged teens to change the world.
“I believe that each and every one of us has an issue, something burning deep down inside that you want to change in our world,” he said. “Take what you love to do—take your God-given gift and use it for your issue.”
The conference ended with a Sunday morning closing Mass.
Youth animators from the Diocese of Galveston-Houston, Texas, and surrounding dioceses performed throughout the weekend in skits, music and dance.
For Barb Garvin, senior director of children and youth ministry for the Archdiocese of Atlanta, the youth animators were a highlight of NCYC.
“It was so great to be able to watch those 150 or so kids participate. So much of this conference was done not only for youth, but by youth, and I think that’s just a step in the right direction in showing that kids really are the church of today,” she said.
Garvin paid close attention to conference logistics in Houston. Atlanta has been given the bid to host the 2005 National Catholic Youth Conference, and she’s already starting to prepare.
But the biggest impact of the conference was on the teens themselves.
Bridget Layng, a junior from St. Oliver Plunkett Church in Snellville, said that she had looked forward to NCYC for months.
“I thought it was a good opportunity to strengthen my faith and to meet people from all over,” she said.
But she said she was amazed by the sheer number of teens.
“I wasn’t expecting that many people,” she said. “I had no idea. It’s like I can’t really describe it. It was awesome.”
She left Houston, she said, with a new perspective on herself, her faith and her friends.
“I strengthened my relationship with my friends who were here with me and I met a lot of new people,” she said. “Through the sessions, I gained a stronger faith and I learned things about myself, how to accept myself and love myself as God made me.”
Fellow St. Oliver Plunkett parishioner Paul Hedges wasn’t planning on attending NCYC. But he ended up taking the spot of a football player who couldn’t go because his team made the playoffs.
“It was really a boost to my faith,” he said. “The group of people who came here really wanted to go so there was a great spirit.”
Hedges, a senior, who plays the drums for St. Oliver Plunkett’s band, said he especially enjoyed the music.
“Everything definitely exceeded my expectations. Everyone was so willing to say hi to you or give you high-fives,” he said. “It is amazing to be surrounded by 20,000 other teens that are all there for the same reason. It really opens you up and gives you the courage to live out your faith and really speak out for what you believe.”
Transfiguration Church has sent a group to the last several NCYCs. Colleen Breslin, a senior, attended the 2001 conference in Indianapolis.
“It’s an amazing experience,” she said. “You have 20,000 kids who believe the same thing you do. It’s very inspirational.”
Breslin said that being older at this conference, she “got more out of it.”
“Being older, you take more in, I think,” she said. “I’m more mature and I think this time I heard the things I needed to hear. I loved this conference.”
Michael Finnegan, also a senior from Transfiguration, attended the Indianapolis conference as well as the one in Houston. He said living in the South, it’s good to meet other Catholics.
“I’m in Georgia, and hardly anyone else at my school is Catholic,” he said. “The conferences are great because you get to meet all these people who share your beliefs.”
Finnegan’s favorite aspect of the NCYC is trading objects. Many churches and dioceses bring pins, stickers and other memorabilia to trade with other conference participants.
“I think I ended up with something from like 25 states,” he said.