November 29, 2019

National Catholic Youth Conference 2019

Soulful symphony of young Catholic joy soars at NCYC

Youths from the Diocese of Des Moines, Iowa, have a good time together performing karaoke in the thematic village in the Indiana Convention Center at the National Catholic Youth Conference in Indianapolis on Nov. 21. (Photo by John Shaughnessy)

Youths from the Diocese of Des Moines, Iowa, have a good time together performing karaoke in the thematic village in the Indiana Convention Center at the National Catholic Youth Conference in Indianapolis on Nov. 21. (Photo by John Shaughnessy)

By John Shaughnessy

The opening session of the National Catholic Youth Conference began with a blast of music, but not from the expected source of For King & Country, the high-energy, power-rock Christian band from Australia.

Instead, the first musical strains came from thousands of teenagers outside Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis on the night of Nov. 21, as they waited in a damp drizzle for the security-checkpoint entrances on one side of the stadium to open.

The singing began with a growing serenade of “Happy Birthday” for two people in the crowd, followed by several uninhibited choruses of the lyrics, “We love Jesus deep down in my heart!”

And so the soulful symphony of young Catholic joy that always soars when 20,000 youths come together at NCYC was in full swing once again.

High notes had already been sounded earlier in the day in the conference’s thematic village in the Indiana Convention Center, a multi-sensory scene of music, games and activities for the teens from 145 dioceses across the United States and also from Australia, Canada and England.

Elle Scarborough, Morgan and Lauren Stanislav, and Abby, Ava and Kate Hughes from the Diocese of Des Moines, Iowa, drew smiles and rave reviews in the karaoke area, especially when they ended their performance with an exuberant “Woo, woo!”

At 17, Hannah Renslow of the Diocese of Saint Cloud, Minn., struck a softer note as she stood with several friends and said, “If you had told me two years ago that I’d be here, I wouldn’t have believed you. I feel the friends I’ve been given have led me into the faith life I have today. Now, my faith is almost over the roof. I just want to keep it going.”

And 17-year-old Angel Rizo of the Diocese of Nashville provided a sacred chord when he shared the difference that eucharistic adoration has made in his life, “I feel blessed when I’m sitting down and talking to God, and he’s there to help me.”

‘I’m really shocked by this’

That blending of spirituality and high spirits continued into the evening when the stadium doors finally opened and the 20,000 youths came together for the first time.

Almost immediately, the teens flowed to the floor of the stadium, forming an ever‑growing conga line as they anticipated For King & Country to take the stage. Adding his own moves to the music being piped through the stadium, 16-year-old Brendan Fix of the Archdiocese of Detroit used his phone to capture the scene on video for posterity.

“I’m really shocked by this,” he said. “They always tell you there are going to be a lot of people here, but I never imagined seeing this many Catholics in one place. This gives me hope for the world that there are still so many people who care about their faith all over the country.”

Up in the stadium seats, adults Laura Zapanta and Christine Colcombe also joined in the festivities—after riding on a bus for nearly seven hours from Greensburg, a Pennsylvania community near Pittsburgh.

They were among the chaperones for the 150 youths from Greensburg who filled four buses for the trip to Indianapolis. Getting into the spirit of the evening, Zapanta and Colcombe wore glow-in-the-dark tubes of green, blue and pink in their hair. Their smiles also glowed as the two friends watched the youths on the stadium floor.

“It’s just amazing to see this many young people excited and happy,” said Zapanta.

Colcombe nodded and added, “It’s energizing and encouraging to see so many young people involved in the Catholic Church.”

Soon, For King & Country took the stage, performing a 45-minute, high-energy, power-rock set of Christian music marked by strobe lights, a burst of confetti and singer Luke Smallbone leaving the stage and going into one section of the seats, high-fiving his way through the stunned, delighted, amped crowd.

A message from the pope and a soul-stirring scene

Another surprise came from Pope Francis—a video message from him displayed on the stadium’s huge overhead screens, marking the first time that a pope has shared his wishes with the youths at NCYC. Among his brief remarks, the pope said about the youths and the conference, “May it be an opportunity to deepen your faith and communion. May it light your missionary hearts with the courage and strength to live in, and with, the Lord—always as a Church sent forth.”

The pope’s message set the stage for the praise-and-worship part of the evening—and one soul-stirring scene that left the crowd in reverent silence.

In that moment, youths from across the country ringed the stadium floor holding lit candles. At the same time, a procession—with a crucifix held high at the forefront—led a Bible to the stage for a reading from St. Luke’s Gospel, the one about Jesus’ encounter with two disciples on the road to Emmaus.

From the stage, Cleveland Bishop Nelson J. Perez reflected on the reading.

As he spoke at one point, all the lights in the stadium were on the stage, leaving the seating sections in a shroud of darkness. Bishop Perez asked everyone there to take out their cell phones and turn on its flashlight. The rest of the stadium suddenly became like a night sky pierced by thousands of points of light.

“Everybody look around at all these lights,” he said. “Remember what Jesus said: You are the light of the world. Do not, do not, do not let anybody put your light under a bushel basket. Do not let anybody extinguish your light. Do not let anybody rob you of the gift and the treasure of your faith and your dignity and your love.”

‘He restores our hope’

The theme of that gospel also became a focal point for Mary Quirk as she took the stage alone to talk with her fellow teenagers, knowing the challenges they often face.

“When we walk our hardest paths in life, God is still with us,” said Mary, a youth from the Archdiocese of Louisville, Ky. “On the road to Emmaus, the two disciples were battling with mourning, with disappointment, with fear. And still, they encountered Jesus. And he spoke God’s word to them directly, and they had their hope restored.

“Similarly, we walk long roads, hard roads, roads where we feel broken, we feel lost, we feel nervous, we feel guilty, we feel that maybe we can’t go on. But we do. Because it’s in these times that God comes to us. He speaks his word, and he restores our hope.”

As the opening session of NCYC neared its end, the house band led the crowd in the repeated singing of the musical verse, “Thy word is a lamp unto my feet and a light unto my path.”

The impact of music even continued for many of the youths as they left the stadium to head to their hotels in a cold rain.

On one street near the stadium, a group of youths walked and sang, “I’ve got that joy, joy, joy, joy down in my heart!”

On another corner in front of the stadium, a street musician blew his trumpet to the tune of “When the Saints Come Marching In,” leading the passing youths to clap and sing along.

The soulful symphony of Catholic youths sharing their joy for their faith echoed into the night and continued throughout the conference, sounding a hopeful note for the future.

(Natalie Hoefer contributed to this story.)


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