This past weekend, I had the honor of bringing ten incredible teens to one of this summer’s Steubenville Youth Conferences. We had been planning and preparing for months as we prayed and took part in countless fundraisers at the parish. We sold candles and baked goods, hosted a Christmas party for the children of the parish, and assisted with an annual bike race. After months of waiting, I finally found myself on a bus headed to Ohio for the weekend. I was distraught at the idea of leaving my husband and son for an entire weekend, but I was also ridiculously excited to be returning to Steubenville. The last time that I had attended this conference, I had been a teenager myself, and now here I was, bringing my own teens. Whereas once I had been the participant, now I was the youth minister. As I sat with my students, I was shocked to realize that it had been ten years since I had been in these exact seats, crying my eyes out, silently making a commitment to return to the Catholic faith.
Ten years ago, my friends convinced me to attend this conference, and so, like so many of the students who attended the Steubenville Youth Conference this past weekend, I arrived in Steubenville with expectations to have some fun, meet some boys, and listen to some very boring talks. In some ways, I was not disappointed. I did have fun, and I did meet some boys, but there were no boring talks. In some ways, it exceeded even my wildest dreams. When I arrived at the conference, I had no idea what the charismatic movement or the gifts of the Holy Spirit were. I was not at all prepared for what I witnessed during Eucharistic adoration, and I certainly was not prepared to have a major conversion experience. But that’s exactly what happened, and when I returned to school that fall, I became even more involved in campus ministry, leading retreats, giving witness talks, and attending vocation events. I went on to major in Theology, discern the religious life, discover my call to religious education and youth ministry, and receive my Master’s degree in Theological Studies. And so, as the result of that decision ten years ago, I returned to the Franciscan University of Steubenville, this time with my own group of teens.
It was incredible to watch as some of my students experienced a revelation so similar to what I felt ten years ago. I watched in awe as they broke down, opened up, and fell to their knees before the Lord. Their willingness to be open to these new experiences, to step outside their comfort zones as they opened their hands and lifted up their arms in prayer, accepted the invitation to pray with their classmates, or went to confession for the first time since they were in second grade was humbling to witness. I consider myself blessed to have been given the opportunity to accompany these teens on this journey, and now I understand something about my own youth ministers all those years ago.
Youth ministers are not born and raised in a vacuum. They do not come out of the womb ready to preach and serve. They have not all been faithful Catholics their entire lives. Many of them have their own conversion stories, their own dark places that needed to be invaded by the light of Christ, their own wounds in need of healing. They are not perfect.
Ten years ago, I assumed all of these things about my youth ministers. I assumed that they had always been devout Catholics who had never experienced a bit of doubt. I assumed that they had always aspired to be youth ministers, desiring to share their faith with others. I assumed that they were all perfect. Now I know the truth. Now that I am a youth minister myself, I understand something that I didn’t before. I know that I am none of these things, and yet, God has called me to minister to His children. I was not born and raised in a Catholic vacuum. I did not come out of the womb ready to preach and serve. I have not been a faithful Catholic my entire life. I have my own conversion story, my own dark places, my own wounds. I am not perfect. But I have encountered the light of Christ. I have felt His love and mercy. I have experienced His healing in my life. And now here I am, a youth minister bringing my own teens to the Steubenville Youth Conference. Which makes me wonder, in ten years, which one of my teens will be bringing their own group to Steubenville?
Mary Help of Christians, pray for us!