By STEPHEN O’KANE, Staff Writer | Published September 10, 2014
More than 2,000 youth from across the nation came to sing, pray and renew their relationship with God in a three-day celebration centered on eucharistic adoration known as Steubenville Atlanta.
Returning to the Arena at Gwinnett Center on June 27-29, the lively youth event has become for many Catholic teens a staple of their summer break from school.
The theme this year was “Witness,” encouraging teens to take the message of the Gospels back to their homes and communities. It was drawn from Acts 1:8: “But you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria and to the ends of the earth.” The same verse was chosen for World Youth Day 2008 in Sydney, Australia, where Pope Benedict XVI is meeting hundreds of thousands of youth.
“The Steubenville Atlanta conference was absolutely amazing. I felt it may have been better than last year,” said Meghan O’Donnell, a student at Northwest Cabarrus High in Concord, N.C. “The talks allowed for me to find ways in which I can live my life more for Jesus and as a witness in Jesus no matter where my surroundings were or the people who were around me.”
Each summer since 1976 Franciscan University of Steubenville, Ohio, puts on high school conferences with a common theme on its campus and throughout the country and beyond. In 2008, from June until August, Steubenville conferences are taking place in more than a dozen cities, from San Diego on the West Coast to Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada, on the Atlantic seaboard.
Steubenville Atlanta 2008 was co-sponsored by Life Teen. Speakers included Father Tim Hepburn, the new chaplain at the Catholic Center at Georgia Tech who has been a high school and college chaplain and a retreat and conference speaker for many youth and young adult events. The host, Paul George, has worked in youth ministry for 13 years, and other presenters included Mary Bielski, who works with high school and college students in South Bend, Ind., and Father John Gerth of Life Teen.
The teens began the weekend with praise and worship music led by Matt Maher and his band. The Friday evening session, called “Cross Examination,” focused on what in their lives was holding them back from God. Then time was spent in adoration of the Blessed Sacrament. Small group discussions afterward helped to break apart the message and let it resonate with the crowd.
St. Mark Church in Huntersville, N.C., brought several teens, including many repeat visitors to Steubenville Atlanta, which was first held in the summer of 1998. Traveling more than 200 miles from their hometown just north of Charlotte, several said this year’s event was one of the best they had experienced.
“The Holy Spirit was very alive and active through the people at the conference,” O’Donnell said. “For me, the Holy Spirit filled me with this overwhelming joy which I have longed to feel for such a long time.”
In his homily on Saturday morning, Father Hepburn summed up what the weekend was meant to be and encouraged the teens with his friendly, laid-back style.
“This weekend is about freeing you to witness to … the living Christ,” said Father Hepburn. “The Lord is offering a deeper freedom than we have ever known.”
Witnessing does not mean you have to stand on a street corner shouting Bible verses at people, he said. Simply asking a friend to pray or attend Mass with you is a powerful witness.
Following Mass, the teens attended separate sessions, with one for men led by Mark Hart, the author of teen Scripture study materials and podcasts who is also known as the “Bible Geek,” and one for women led by Bielski.
Hart, a Notre Dame graduate and national Life Teen leader, wove entertaining personal stories with challenging messages for the young men. Just because one wears a shirt that says “Catholic” or listens to Catholic music does not make you Catholic, he said.
“It is what you do and don’t do,” he continued.
Mike Griffith, a member of St. Mark Church who recently graduated from Lake Norman High School in Mooresville, N.C., said Hart was his favorite speaker.
“He knows so much about the Bible and his faith, and he is a great speaker,” Griffith said, adding that Hart knows how to include everyone in the story and keep your attention. “He’s a great influence on and off the stage. I even got to get a picture with him.”
Bielski also entertained the crowd of young women while providing a sound message. She encouraged the teens to live their Catholic faith fully instead of wavering between holiness and the secular world. Bielski connected with the girls, saying how easy it is to live in the “middle,” but asked them to rise above that and live a truly faith-filled life.
“It was like she was talking right to me, and it changed me so much,” said Sarah Fischer, a member of St. Mark Church.
Following lunch, the teens re-gathered for entertainment by APeX Ministries, a duo of self-proclaimed “Christian vaudeville evangelists,” who took to the stage to show off their amazing juggling skills, which they blended with meaningful storytelling.
Gene Monterastelli and Brad Farmer, who make up APeX, led the high-energy crowd through fits of laughter as they juggled pins and balls and even took it up a notch when Farmer used a sledge hammer to smash a cinderblock placed on Monterastelli, who was lying on a bed of nails.
Workshops Saturday afternoon focused on a variety of subjects from learning how prayer can be the heart of witness to the topics of religious vocations, marriage and different ways to witness to the Gospels.
The climax of the weekend came Saturday evening, with a talk given by Hart, followed by eucharistic adoration.
Hart explained to the crowd that they must understand that submitting to God’s will is difficult, but that it is the only way in which they will be happy. Energetic and dynamic, he moved all over the stage, making eye contact with many in the crowd. The teens were captivated as he told them that when God’s Spirit dwells in them, they are as close to him as when the apostles were walking side by side with Jesus.
Hart effectively set the mood for the moment of adoration, which many teens named as their favorite part of the weekend.
“Adoration was awesome,” said Brian Gomiz, a part of the group from Huntersville. “I was close to Jesus and I was very close to my brothers and sisters in Christ.”
The weekend ended with Mass on Sunday morning celebrated by Father Gerth. The priest, who serves the Diocese of St. Petersburg, Fla., again challenged the youth to truly live their faith and not to be afraid of witnessing to Christ.
“I would invite you to move beyond your fears and become a witness,” he said. “Be more than T-shirts. Be more than the Christian blogs. Be more than just enough.”
In a touching moment at the end of Mass, Father Gerth invited any young men and women who were considering a vocation to religious life to come forward and asked the crowd to extend their hands in a unified prayer over them.
Father Gerth affirmed that this did not mean they were becoming priests, brothers and sisters, but that “what is important for you right now is to be prayerful.”
“Focus on prayers for whatever the Lord is calling you to,” he added.
Following Mass, the teens gathered their things, said goodbye to their new friends and left with a revitalized faith, both newcomers and seasoned Steubenville attendees alike.
“I’ve been to a few retreats … with my parish, but this was by far the best,” said Bobby O’Brien, a first-timer to the Steubenville conference. “Adoration was powerful, the talks were motivating and everyone seemed to get into the music.”
“It was my third Steubenville retreat, but I still got so much out of it,” said Matt Werner, a student at Mallard Creek High School in Charlotte, N.C. “It gave me such an amazing boost in my faith, and it really refreshed my relationship with God, something I was really looking for.”
A large-scale event like Steubenville Atlanta does not come easy. More than a hundred volunteers came together to help the weekend run as smoothly as it did. The team provided prayer support, security and helped set up and break down the event.
“I have an amazing volunteer group,” said Martha Gaynoe, who helped plan the event. She added that the group was comprised of people of all ages and that “they are all totally committed,” with many returning year after year to be a part of the event.
For Gaynoe and the volunteers, assisting with a conference like this is important to the faith of the future church.
“For a lot of people, it is a life-changing experience,” she said. “They (teens) are given an opportunity to see teens from all around the country who are excited about their faith.”