November 26, 2021

National Catholic Youth Conference 2021

Teens reflect on challenges to faith caused by pandemic

Youths from Holy Family Parish in New Albany take in the sights and sounds of the Saturday morning general session of the National Catholic Youth Conference on Nov. 20 at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis. (Photo by Sean Gallagher)

Youths from Holy Family Parish in New Albany take in the sights and sounds of the Saturday morning general session of the National Catholic Youth Conference on Nov. 20 at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis. (Photo by Sean Gallagher)

By Sean Gallagher

Tessa Junk first experienced the National Catholic Youth Conference (NCYC) in Indianapolis in 2019.

Less than four months after the conference, the emergence of the coronavirus pandemic in the U.S. changed her life of faith, especially with the suspension of the public celebration of the sacraments during the first months of the pandemic.

“I definitely distanced myself from my faith, with not being able to go to church,” said Tessa, a student at Sacred Heart Jr./Sr. High School in Salina, Kan. “And I wasn’t able to be with Catholic teenagers at my school that I can share my faith with and talk to.”

So, returning to NCYC this year was a moving experience for her.

“Yesterday, I was bawling my eyes out all day long,” Tessa said of her experience of the first full day of the conference on Nov. 19.

“So, with all of that distancing, coming back here just makes me feel like the Spirit is back in my heart,” she said. “I feel like God is holding onto me. I feel loved way more than I have ever felt love before.”

Many other youths at NCYC this year who attended the conference in Indianapolis in 2019 echoed Tessa’s experience.

“I won’t lie,” said Kellie Simon of Abingdon, Md. “Going through the pandemic put a strain on my faith, especially with not being able to go to Mass every weekend, having to [watch] it online. I thought about why God put us through all of this.”

“The most challenging thing was when we had to watch Mass on TV,” agreed Emma Donovan of Hazel Green, Wis. “It was easy to get distracted and not pay attention as much when we were in the comfort of our own home rather than in a church.”

For some, the challenge to their faith during the pandemic ran even deeper.

Shelby Mai of Salina, Kan., said she didn’t go to Mass as often after parishes started reopening.

“I lost touch with my faith, even though I go to a Catholic school,” she said.

Coming to NCYC this year with many friends from her parish and Catholic high school, though, made a difference for Shelby.

“This has helped me grow in my faith,” she said.

Matthew Heidenreich of the Columbus, Ohio, Diocese said that he may have been in the minority among NCYC participants in noting that his faith grew stronger during the pandemic.

He and about 20 friends met daily on the online video conference platform Zoom during the height of the pandemic to talk about their faith and have one of the group members give a presentation.

“It gave me a chance to root myself more in prayer, because there wasn’t much else to do,” Matthew said. “I re-centered myself because I had been losing my focus on my faith. So, it was a really good time for me.”

Coming to NCYC this year has only increased his positive experience of his faith.

“It’s reassuring to see that the community is still here,” he said. “Everyone’s willing to come back and bear with the confusion and chaos. But we’re all still here and united in faith, which is really cool.”

Seeing enthusiasm in nearly 11,000 Catholic teenagers at NCYC this year gave hope to Ava Glemming of Epiphany Parish in Oklahoma City, Okla.

“It’s rejuvenating,” she said. “The Church was in such a quiet, stagnate place in the middle of the pandemic. It was hard on all of us. So, to see this life again is really magnificent. It’s a testament to God’s glory and all that he can do for us.”

The public suspension of the sacraments, including the Eucharist, helped Jailynn Rowe of Salina, Kan., appreciate the Mass more consciously since parishes reopened.

This was strengthened by her participation in NCYC this year, especially in her experience of eucharistic adoration on the evening of Nov. 19 at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis.

“After this, I’ll definitely see going to church and the Eucharist a lot differently. During adoration last night, seeing the priest hold the [monstrance], I was like, ‘That’s Jesus Christ right there,’ ” Jailynn said. “So, when I go home, when the priest holds up the host at church, I’m just going to see Jesus.”

Whether the pandemic challenged the faith of some, strengthened it in others or has helped them to appreciate it anew, Matthew said that God has brought good out of the hardships of COVID-19.

“A lot of times, all God needs is an occasion,” he said. “He needs that door being opened. And the pandemic was that door being kicked open with a sledgehammer.” †


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