The last of the annual Steubenville youth conferences is winding down. These are huge, popular, teen-oriented Catholic gatherings at Franciscan University of Steubenville in Ohio, here in the US. They offer sacraments and adoration, concerts, talks, and various kinds of worship rallies.
A few seconds of one of those was recently shared on Twitter by a priest who was there. It’s a stadium packed with thousands of young people, clapping along with some kind of modern worship song. Spotlights dance across the crowd and there are glowing blue and green sets behind the band, and the audience waves multi-coloured glow sticks back and forth in rhythm. The song seems to be something about God performing miracles.
This is not some place I, personally, would want to be. When I was of the age group this show is aimed at, I would have liked it even less. A lot of Twitter felt the same way, and heaped scorn and mockery and even dire warnings on the kind of thing that goes on at events like this. It’s not just that it’s kind of tacky. People spoke about emotional manipulation, about nonsense that will kill the faith of thousands of kids in attendance, and setting kids up for failure.
I understand what the critics mean. They mean that, when people who are just starting to learn who they are and who God is and what the relationship between the two of you could possibly be, it’s a bad idea to rush into that space and fill it with literal smoke and mirrors. We do not want to give kids, or anyone else, the impression that your spiritual life is always going to be a bombastic, ecstatic, emotionally overwhelming experience. That really does set people up for failure, because people’s spiritual lives are made up of, well, their lives.
Waking up in the morning, and doing the dishes, and going to work and doing a job you don’t like very much, and not yelling at other drivers, and being stuck in a hospital room where everything is beeping at you and you’re scared, and not being sure where to send your kids for school, and dealing with jealousy because your neighbour has a much nicer house than you. And Mass with music you don’t like, and adoration with people who won’t stop making snuffling noises and clacking their rosary beads. That’s what most people’s spiritual life is made up of, most of the time, and if you’re expecting the Holy Spirit to look like spotlights and fog machines, you’re a lot less likely to recognise the very real joy and glory of God’s mercy and goodness when it does come busting through.
I know one girl who simply left the Catholic Church altogether, when it couldn’t provide enough emotional charge to keep her lit up. She joined a protestant church literally next door that had a better sound system. It’s also pretty common for people to emerge from an emotionally heightened haze, look back on how they behaved while caught up in it, shudder with embarrassment, and decide that, if that’s what religion is like, they don’t want any part of it; and they chuck the whole thing.
These two responses are pretty clearly failures. But what kind of failures are they? Despite my personal distaste for the style of worship on display at Steubenville, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with it, in itself. There’s only something wrong with it if someone tells you that this is what a religious experience is always supposed to feel like; or if that’s the only religious experience a person ever has, with no follow-up; or if people are bullied into making any kind of pledges or vows while riding an emotional high.
But as far as I can tell, the Steubenville conferences do not make these particular mistakes. They do lay on the emotional and sensory experiences pretty thick, but they also have Mass and confession, and (I believe) quiet adoration, and they have talks that are aimed at young people (I have no idea if they’re any good). It’s not like some kind of protestant megachurch where the sermon and the spectacle are the whole point. At least in theory, the whole point is to point attendees to Jesus.
I have never been to one of these conferences, so I really don’t know how well they pull the balance off. I don’t know if the non-hullabaloo portions of the conferences feel just as compelling and important to attendees as the hullabloo parts. But I have interviewed maybe a dozen practicing Catholic teenagers and 20-somethings, in the course of the last few years, and I have lost track of how many of them spontaneously told me that a Steubenville Conference was a meaningful turning point in their spiritual life. Not because they liked the music so much, or because they wanted to feel that tingly feeling all the time, but because it suddenly clicked for them that this — meaning the Catholic faith—is important. It really meant something to them to see so many other people who looked like them excited and happy to talk about God. It made them think that they ought to do something about it when they got home, and many of them did.
These were all kids who had at least one other person around them, answering their questions and offering them opportunities to learn more about Jesus, and to do more in their actual lives with what they were learning. It wasn’t as if they went to Steubenville and then, poof, came home transformed into a magically excellent Catholic. But can it plant a good, healthy seed with potential to grow into a strong, thriving faith? I do believe it can.
We are certainly in an era where Catholics must be wise as serpents, and be alert for danger coming from inside the walls. I understand that. But we’re also supposed to be innocent as doves, and that means being open to the gifts of the Holy Spirit. Steubenville is not my cup of tea, but my friends, we are not in a position to look at a roomful of young Catholics happily proclaiming a love of God and to say, “You stop that!” Even if there are glow sticks involved!