STEUBENVILLE, OHIO—It was the last day of the June 14-16 summer youth conference at Franciscan University of Steubenville, and Father Chris Martin had something important to say to the 1,863 teenagers packed into Finnegan Fieldhouse.
“All of us are called to heroic love, we’re all called to be saints, we’re all called to transform the world,” he began, speaking to the young men in the crowd. “But we also know that in every age, as part of his response to sin and to darkness, that God has called some men to be conformed in his image in a very specific and real way.”
Sister Miriam James, SOLT, had some similar words to share with the young women.
“The religious life of the beautiful sisters that you see before you—what you see in their beauty and joy, is a sign of eternity in their life given to Christ as brides,” she said. “This beauty is what transforms the world.” “Are you willing to be open to discerning the priesthood or religious life?” they asked.
The response was greater than anyone had ever seen at a Franciscan University youth conference vocations call before as about 100 young men and 200 young women walked up to the front of the fieldhouse to signal their willingness to discern a religious vocation.
“I was a teen at this conference in 1996. It was one of those moments that butterflies came into my stomach because I knew that I might be one of those guys,” revealed Father Martin with a gentle smile. “The funny part was that I was there with my girlfriend, and when they asked about the ladies she stood up. And in God’s providence, about 10 years later I was ordained, and that same day she married another guy from our youth group.”
The now-vocation director of the Archdiocese of St. Louis added that he wanted the teens to continue to pray about their vocation: “Speak to a priest, talk to your vocation director.”
Discerning God’s will for one’s life was an underlying theme at this year’s first summer youth conference for the 2013 season, as numerous speakers addressed the idea of the calling. Throughout the stirring weekend of talks, Mass, praise and worship, opportunities for confession, and eucharistic adoration, the question arose: How is God calling us to carry on his mission?
Host for the weekend, Paul George, pointed out the latest statistic that five years after graduation, 75 percent of high school graduates, “no longer go to Mass.”
To help reverse this trend, George encouraged the conference-goers to stay active in their parishes, youth groups, and communities.
“So when your youth leader says they’re having a follow-up night from Steubenville—go! When your youth leader tells you to get involved, start inviting people, and be more of a leader, do it! When your school asks for leadership, do it,” he said. “Be involved, be part of a community, and stay strong.”
Tying this issue into a new talk for students who had just graduated from high school, Chris Stefanick, chastity speaker and author, challenged the youth to stay true to Christ in college.
“Right now your parents keep you in line. You’re going to keep yourself in line in college,” he said, explaining that they can also work to change their college, rather than letting college change them. “It might take some effort. Call the churches within a half-hour of the college. Call the diocese to find out what young adult ministries are going on. You need to stay faithful.”
At the Saturday morning Mass homily, Bishop Jeffery Monforton of the Diocese of Steubenville encouraged the teens never to underestimate who they are.
“You are heroes,” he said. “I’m part of a generation in which we have dropped the ball at times. You can do the Lord’s work, and undo what has been done by many. Remember: It may be that you and I are the only Bible that our brothers and sisters read.”
Chris Padgett, catechetics professor at Franciscan University and longtime youth speaker, encouraged the teens to never doubt themselves in God’s eyes.
“The story of Zacchaeus is a great reminder that no matter how messy and how hurtful you have been, no matter how many times you have forgotten what you were made for, Jesus comes along and sees you—notices you,” he said. “What do you want? Because what you want, is what you will go after.”
Katie Dowdy, a native of Gill, Massachusetts, and member of the conference’s Leadership, Evangelization, And Discipleship program, (LEAD), knew that God wanted her to consider a religious vocation several years ago—but she was afraid to acknowledge it.
“I felt the urge to go up when they had the vocations call, but I was so scared,” she said in her testimony at the end of the weekend.
She said she had been worried that her youth group members would judge her, and that no one on the bus ride home would talk to her, but “God gave me the grace to overcome those fears.”
Dowdy decided to go up last year, and despite her nervousness, she saw the smiling faces of the other young women around her, and was overwhelmed with acceptance and support.
“Suddenly, what I had been dreading for an entire year became my favorite part of the weekend,” she said. “Since then, what’s changed is that I’ve felt the prayers of all the other people at the conference. Right now, I could still be a mom, or I could be a nun, or I could do anything.
“I don’t know what God’s calling me to, but I’m trying to stay open and to trust God. And what this really showed me was that I had an idea in my head of what would happen if I went up. But as soon as I let go of that idea, and let God show me his idea, I was so surprised.”
For more information about Franciscan University of Steubenville’s Youth Conferences, visit www.steubenville.org.