By Tanya Connor
“This experience has been amazing … I started crying. It was a realization, feeling whole, one with God, and feeling that he loved me.”
Carina Dillon, a 16-year-old from St. Patrick Parish in Rutland, was speaking about adoration.
She was one of more than 150 youth and adults from at least 15 parishes in the Worcester Diocese who joined nearly 3,000 people at the annual Steubenville East youth conference, leaders reported.
It was held last weekend at UMass Lowell for the first time. Organizers said the space, larger than what they had at the University of Rhode Island, allows for more participants. They said they draw from New England, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Bermuda.
“Our hope is that the teens would have an encounter with Christ; that’s why we do it all,” said Randy Raus, president and CEO of Life Teen, which hosts this conference and another three of the 21 Franciscan University of Steubenville offers around the country. “What Steubenville East offers is positive peer pressure,” he observed Saturday, watching youth. “They’re doing a Conga line for Jesus. And in an hour they’ll be on their knees in complete silence before the Blessed Sacrament for 45 minutes.”
That adoration is a highlight of the conferences, which also include lively music, talks and Masses, Sunday’s celebrated by Cardinal Seán P. O’Malley of Boston. During adoration, Father José Robles-Sanchez, a Louisiana pastor, carried the Host in a monstrance through the crowd, stopping frequently before awed adorers.
“Father Rob and I both thought that it was very powerful Saturday night at adoration,” Lauren Bjork, director of religious education at St. Joseph/St. Pius X Parish in Leicester, said of her reaction and that of the pastor, Father Robert A. Loftus.
It was powerful for the teenagers from their parish “because they were experiencing Christ in a new way, and because they were doing it with others in a community,” she said.
She said she’s not sure many youth in the Diocese recognize that religious education, liturgy, sacraments and service are all “rooted together in this radical love that Christ has for us.”
The Catholic faith is not just monotonous Mass attendance, “it’s really living your faith out loud,” which is really powerful, she said. Youth do not have to live it the same way their parents and grandparents do, she said; loud praising and dancing at church, such as happened at the conference, is acceptable.
“For me the whole experience has been enlightening,” Shannon Prouty, 16, of St. Joseph/St. Pius X, said Saturday after adoration. “It brought me closer to God.”
“The entire day has made me feel so loved – by people who don’t even know me,” added her fellow parishioner Samm Dubey, 16.
Some teenagers carried “free hugs” signs – and got what they asked for (or offered). Some displayed their exuberance by playing instruments – or football – while waiting for lunch.
“I’m just in awe of the number of teens that feel God’s love,” said Donna Gates, a chaperon from St. Patrick’s in Rutland.
Michael O’Connor, of St. Anne and St. Patrick Parish in Sturbridge, was among those called to help peers. He said this was his fourth year at Steubenville East, his first with Franciscan LEAD, a five-day training program in leadership, evangelization and discipleship for teenagers, who then join their youth group for the conference.
“It was … a real blessing because we had Mass and adoration every day,” he said of LEAD. “We got to discuss the faith and current issues. I think it really strengthened my confidence to evangelize and it really grounded my knowledge of the faith.”
“I liked the confessions,” said Casey Colón, a first-time conference attendee from St. Joan of Arc Parish in Worcester. Youth were told about sin and how Jesus identified with their suffering in his own death for their salvation. They were encouraged to go to confession through announcements about how many of their peers had already gone, more than 1,600 by the end of the conference, it was reported.
“It’s really good and I think that more kids should come,” Casey’s sister Tiaraliz Colón, a freshman, said of the conference.
Her twin, Kiaraliz, said she liked the talk that described the devil as a thief; it showed the need to watch out for him.
The conference’s theme was “Limitless,” reflecting God and his love.” It used Jesus’ message about his role as the Good Shepherd: “A thief comes only to steal and slaughter and destroy; I came so that they might have life and have it more abundantly.” (Jn 10:10)
Youth were given opportunities to publicly commit or recommit their lives to Christ and show interest in priestly or religious life. Several questions they asked Father Robles-Sanchez during a session focused on discerning a vocation.
They were encouraged to nourish their relationship with Christ through prayer, show it by what they say, post and wear, and share him with others. They were challenged to live chastely and avoid abortion and drug use.
The conference included talks for the whole group, workshop options, and special sessions for men, women, youth ministers and recent high school graduates.