By ERIKA ANDERSON, Special to the Bulletin | Published July 24, 2014
DULUTH—A full rock-star quality band, an incredible light show, high definition screens: The atmosphere at Steubenville Atlanta was electric. But in the midst of it all was the real reason nearly 3,000 teens had flocked to the Gwinnett Center—there was Jesus.
Colorful T-shirts peppered the giant room where nationally known Catholic speakers spoke to teens from parishes across the archdiocese—as well as several surrounding states—who attended the conference for high school age teens July 11 to 13. It was one of 20 held around the country this summer with the theme “God Is.”
Stephen Lenahan, director of events for Life Teen International, which sponsors the conferences with Franciscan University of Steubenville, Ohio, first began attending the conferences in 2002 as a teen.
“I’ve seen this event from all sides. I’ve seen how they impact young Catholics firsthand. This conference led me to where I went to college,” he said.
As a graduate of Franciscan University, Lenahan got further involved as a student and said he has attended conferences all across the country. Their mission is to bring teens to a life-changing encounter with Jesus through the sacraments and the power of the Holy Spirit.
“I see them as a wake-up call or a booster shot for our faith. It’s easy to get caught up in the mundane, but our faith is dynamic. Our Church wouldn’t have survived for 2,000 years if it wasn’t dynamic,” he said.
The conferences are high-energy, but the focus is on the Christ, Lenahan said.
“Our teens are used to the bells and whistles. They have HD screens in every room in their house. This gets them pumped up,” he said. “But then last night, we had 2,700 kids silent in adoration. They didn’t need lights when they had the Eucharist. That’s what this is all about. For years, the Protestants had the music and the lights and the excitement, and we were losing young Catholics. I think we’ve caught up to them. Now we have all of that, plus we have the fullness of the faith. You just can’t beat that.”
Both Friday and Saturday evenings featured intense sessions of Eucharistic adoration. Praise and worship songs led by Ike Ndolo, Emily Wilson and their band filled the air as teens wept, sang and raised their hands in praise as the monstrance holding the Blessed Sacrament was carried in procession throughout the room.
On Saturday evening, prior to adoration, Bishop David P. Talley, Atlanta auxiliary bishop, celebrated Mass and told teens of their importance to the faith.
“You are the heart of this church as you take upon Jesus’ love for you, as you become his love by becoming strengthened by his holy Eucharist,” he said.
Referring to the Mass readings of the parable of the sower of the seeds, Bishop Talley told the teens that they must become the sowers.
“When you leave here tomorrow and go back to wherever you’re going, you can’t just sit with your Life Teen group. You have to say, ‘Does anyone want to know about life and love? Does anyone want to know about truth?’ And you have to spread God’s word with abandon,” he said. “You also have to become the seed. You have to become the living word of God—and this church becomes the sower. If you allow yourselves to be spread wherever you’re going, then life will begin to grow wherever you give witness to your faith.”
Bishop Talley’s Mass capped off a full day of speakers, music and fellowship with teens who traveled from as far away as Texas and Louisiana. Father Dan Beeman, who made the journey to Atlanta with 250 teens from Norfolk, Virginia, has been attending Steubenville conferences for 10 years. He first attended as a seminarian.
“For many of our teens, this is their initial encounter with a personal relationship with Jesus Christ in the Eucharist,” he said. “Most of our teens would call themselves committed Christians, but this gives them a reminder of the power of our Catholic Church. We can teach them apologetics all day long, but this roots them not only in the answers, but in the experience.”
Teens who attend Steubenville Atlanta walk away with “the mercy of Jesus,” he said.
“The confession lines are crazy,” he said. “Teenagers are not as superficial as people like to think they are. The liturgy here is done well and done reverently. And they respond to that with a profound reverence and great depth. This is where they have a chance to really have a chance to make their faith personal.”
For many teens, Steubenville Atlanta is intensely personal. Mary Clarke Carter, 17, was attending her second conference with her youth group from St. Edward Church in Nashville, Tennessee.
“Every time I come here, I gain something new. I feel so happy and so close to Christ here,” she said. “When you’re in high school, it’s so hard to do that—really hard. But this makes it a little easier.”
Fellow parishioner Phillip Brunner, 18, said the conference has inspired him to live his faith in a new way.
“When I came here last year, I had attended several retreats, so my faith was already strengthened. But this was probably the closest I ever felt to God,” he said. “This pushed me into making sure I was at church every Sunday, and I really felt called to serve God in every way I could.”
Carlos Hernandez, 13, and Juan Campos, 14, both parishioners from St. Joseph Church in Newton, North Carolina, were attending Steubenville Atlanta for the first time. Carlos said he was especially moved by Eucharistic adoration.
“When the priest came by with the Blessed Sacrament, I just started crying because of my love for Jesus,” he said. “I didn’t think that would happen to me.”
Juan called his first Steubenville experience “amazing.”
“It’s been life-changing,” he said. “There are so many other Catholics here, and it’s so easy to relate to other kids. You feel right at home and you realize you don’t have to be ashamed of your faith.”