By Marty Denzer
Catholic Key Reporter
KANSAS CITY — The National Catholic Youth Conference, usually referred to as NCYC, is a bi-annual three day event for Roman Catholic teenagers, usually juniors and senior in high school, held in one U.S. city each time. The conference is co-organized by the National Federation for Catholic Youth Ministry and by the Catholic diocese of the host city. Music, prayer, workshops, liturgy, and opportunities to participate in the sacrament of Reconciliation, as well as concerts, dances, and a comedy club fill the weekend. A thematic park is set up with interactive educational and recreational activities, as well as traditional exhibits and vendor booths.
NCYC began in 1983 as a regional conference, with one session for the east coast and one session for the west coast — a few thousand young people attended them. The regional sessions merged into a national conference in 1991, sparking interest in NCYC. The first national conference was held in Indianapolis. Now more than 20,000 teens and adults from across the country join for three days of worship, music, discussion and fun.
NCYC 2009, with the theme, Christ reigns, was held in Kansas City, Mo., and co-hosted by the Archdiocese of Kansas City in Kansas. The general sessions, discussions, concerts and Masses were held at the Sprint Center near downtown, with overflow seating, as well as the thematic park, held in the Grand Ballroom of the Kansas City Convention Center a few blocks away. The general sessions were streamed live to more than 5,000 people in the ballroom. About 21,000 teens and adults attended.
NCYC 2011, with the theme, Called to Glory, held at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis, Ind., attracted 23,000 teens, youth ministers and adult chaperones. The event’s main sessions were broadcasted around the world online. Participants flocked each day to the Indianapolis Convention Center for workshops and influential speakers.
About 500 teenagers and adult chaperones from more than 30 parishes in the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph traveled to Indianapolis for NCYC.
Tim Morgan, a high school senior and a member of St. Munchin’s Parish in Cameron, shared his impressions of NCYC. “I would like to start off by saying that it was a BLAST! I had a great time listening to all of the speakers and all of the music. I met a plethora of people all of which were also having a BLAST! We learned how to utilize things such as texting and facebook to spread the word of God. We also learned how to show God in the way we live. Attending Mass with 23,000 people was also an experience to remember!”
Ryan Ochs, a senior at Lee’s Summit West High School and a member of St. Bridget’s in Pleasant Hill, was impressed by the sheer number of young people attending NCYC in Indianapolis. “There were 23,000 kids in Indianapolis. How many went to NCYC in KC? 18,000? 21,000? Whatever, that’s a huge increase. We all gathered in Lucas Oil Stadium for grand sessions and really special prayer sessions. Musicians like Sarah Hart, Steve Angrisano, and Jesse Manibusan gave concerts in the stadium. And of course, on the last day, the Closing Mass.
“At our debriefing meeting when we got back home, we talked about Mark Hart in the general sessions; what he said made a lot of sense to me, and he was really funny. One thing he said that really hit me was ‘prayer is not part of your relationship with God; it is your relationship with God.’ That made a big impact on me and I’m sure on lots of other people there.”
Jon Schaffhausen, diocesan director of youth ministry, attended the conference. He explained that in his keynote address, Mark Hart, executive vice-president of Life Teen, talked about our search for Christ and Christ’s search for us. “Teens were asked to consider that while they searched for Christ,” Schaffhausen said, “Christ also is searching for them and are they letting themselves be found?” He said that some search for Jesus the healer, others for Jesus the philosopher, still others for apologetics and explanations. “Like the apostles, tossed about in a boat during a storm, cried out for a savior, until we look for Christ the Savior, we won’t truly know who He is,” Schaffhausen said.
Ryan spoke about the impact the conference had on him. “NCYC changed my life. I came home with ideas to bring people closer to the Church, and different ideas to bring young people closer to Christ. I have friends from other parishes, and I made it a priority to connect with them at the conference. It was great to know they are a still a part of my life and we are united as one young church. I want to help young people see the beauty and world of knowledge this Church has so we can build our relationship with God and Jesus Christ. When this generation is the generation, I mean when we’re adults, I hope we can defend our faith devoutly and knowledgeably.”
Four mega-session talks were scheduled during the weekend. One, led by Jason and Christina Evert of Catholic Answers, reintroduced the lifestyle of chastity, not just abstinence. In an age of media insistence that teenagers and many adults simply cannot, and so need not control their sexual impulses, their talk gave a challenging counter-cultural message.
The speakers wanted to give messages that the teens would take away with them, Schaffhausen said. So they challenged the kids, raising the bar for them to climb. But, he continued, “No matter how much of an impact NCYC makes, it may not last unless there is a solid relationship, friendship, with a parish youth minister, teacher or other adult who has a big investment in their faith life. That’s where sustainability happens. Without a nurturing environment, the seeds planted at NCYC won’t grow.”
Through NCYC, Catholic youth identity has grown stronger over the years, Schaffhausen said. “Teens want substance in their faith lives; they’re hungry for something to sink their teeth into. Like the Jason and Christina Evert talk on chastity. Kids speak with their feet. They flocked to hear them. They want to be held to a higher standard, a call to holiness.”
In this secular post-modern world, he said, “We are told that life means building the economy. That life is empty. Teens are looking for meaning, for answers. We adults have treasures we keep in our minds and hearts. We should share those treasures with our teenagers. We should share the truths of our faith, the call to be saints and the challenge to take up our cross every day. We need to share our faith with our teens, enable them to know it, because you can’t love what you don’t know.”
All wasn’t serious at NCYC. Lights flashed all over the stadium and Convention Center, crazy hats, costumes, beads and silliness played a prominent part in the weekend. Schaffhausen laughed and said “You know, freedom is a great thing about NCYC. It’s super-cool and joyful to be Catholic, and the kids know it’s alright to be bizarre for Jesus. Being with 23,000 people who believe the same things they do is very freeing.”
Kathy Rottinghaus, youth minister at St. Gregory Barbarigo Parish in Maryville, thoroughly enjoyed her first National Catholic Youth Conference. “It was a new experience for me,” she said. “It was very well done. To have 23,000 teens and adults in the same place and not have chaos was impressive. There was also a quiet room for the kids to take a break and maybe a nap; adult rooms for chaperones to get refreshments or take a breather. And the key note speakers and talks at Lucas Oil Stadium were so motivating. Mark Hart said something that really grabbed me: ‘You can be here for the party or you can be here for Christ!’”
Rottinghaus was still excited several weeks later that a seed was planted at NCYC. “We know not to give up hope. A seed was planted.”
She said that during the break out times at the end of each day, the teens would make personal goals to keep their faith going.
“We were changed by being around so many people who wanted to go further with their faith,” Rottinghaus said
High school senior Traci Shipps was part of the youth group from Maryville that attended NCYC. She said it was “amazing to be there with 20,000 plus people all celebrating the same faith.” She had attended NCYC 2009 in Kansas City, and thought the event in “Indianapolis was similar to Kansas City, just farther away from home.”
Jason and Christian Evert’s talk on chastity struck a chord in Traci. “Their talk was very open,” she said. “Usually the speakers act awkward when they talk about chastity, and teenagers feel awkward hearing it, but they didn’t make it awkward at all. Chastity is a real serious subject for teenagers our age.”
Social media, including facebook, twitter, and cell phone text messages, are as familiar to teens as breathing. The advantages of using social media as an evangelization tool is often discussed among youth ministers and others concerned about the best ways to get out their message to teenagers.
Traci recalled that one speaker, a priest, urged the teens to stop facebook and tweeting, and connect with God. But then Bishop Christopher J. Coyne, the Apostolic Administrator of the Archdiocese of Indianapolis, “told us to facebook or tweet that we are Called to Glory! There are a lot of inspirational quotes on Twitter. When I see them lots of times I retweet them,” she said. “There’s one that goes something like ‘God doesn’t have Twitter but I follow Him on facebook.’”
In her imagination she jumped ahead 25 years or so, imagining she had a teenage daughter who wanted to attend NCYC. “I would urge her to go. It’s an awesome faith experience — to attend the workshops, to be together with thousands of other people your age to celebrate your faith! I’d probably go along with her!”
The 2013 National Catholic Youth Conference will again be held in Indianapolis.