Finding God in song (and breakdancing) at the Steubenville Youth Conferences

Photo by Cheryl Dowling

Maybe you heard about the breakdancing priests. A video of an impromptu dance off between Father Leo Patalinghug and Father Kyle Manno at last weekend’s Steubenville Youth Conference in Kenosha, Wis. went viral on Twitter, inviting the expected condemnations and outrage over their supposedly “undignified,” even blasphemous, behavior. Most watchers, however, clearly enjoyed the spectacle.

Seeing the video sparked memories of my own experiences at Steubenville. I attended my first youth conference in the summer of 2011. Three of my friends and our campus minister piled into a blue minivan and drove 12 hours from North Kingstown, R.I. to Steubenville, Ohio. That summer I experienced everything the conference was known for—the music, talks and Eucharistic adoration (unfortunately, no breakdancing). It was a weekend of awakening and renewal of my Catholic faith. The speakers spoke like they really understood me, and for the first time I was no longer going through the motions of Mass—I was alive.

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Thousands of young Catholics have shared in this experience in the 30 years since the conference first began with 500 teens in Steubenville, Ohio. This summer over 54,000 Catholic teenagers flocked to 25 locations around North America for the Steubenville Youth Conferences hosted by LifeTeen. (The final gatherings of 2017 will take place this weekend in California, Minnesota and Toronto.) Teens take part in two Eucharistic liturgies, are encouraged to participate in the sacrament of reconciliation and witness a Eucharistic exposition and adoration.

It is hard to choose my favorite part of the conference, but the thing that resonated with me the most was the music. Before going to Steubenville, I had never heard of Christian music outside of the hymns we sang in church. I have always struggled with prayer, but when I sang along to these songs, I felt like I was truly praying. Seven years later, I still listen to songs I heard for the first time at the Steubenville Conference.

As a young, naïve teenager, Steubenville answered questions I had about my religion that the “grown-up” church back at home failed to address.

I continued to go to the conferences for the remainder of my high school years. As a young, naïve teenager, it answered questions I had about my religion that the “grown-up” church back at home failed to address. It also helped with my personal struggles with depression and anxiety. At the conference, I was surrounded by teenagers going through similar difficulties.

Because attending these conferences meant so much to me, I wanted to hear more about the experiences of other young Catholics. I sent a short survey to my former campus minister, who shared the questions with people from St. Francis de Sales who had attended the conference. I heard via email from a few people who had attended this year and others who had gone in the past, as well as a couple chaperones.

Steubenville Youth
Photo by Cheryl Dowling

Stephanie Dowling, 20, is one of my friends who attended the conference with me in 2011. When asked which aspects of her faith are the most difficult, Stephanie replied, “The struggle is talking with God daily.” She said she still remembers the advice from a speaker at the third conference she attended: “Pray to God as if you were sitting at a cafe talking to him—he wants to hear all that you have to say or [are] concerned about.” This advice has helped her because “no one really teaches you how to pray, so before I heard that, I was always a little confused as to how I should approach prayer.”

Because the conference contains many forms of worship and a diversity of speakers, everyone takes away different bits and pieces from the experience. For 21-year-old Kayla Oleson, it was the music. “I could read into many of the songs, and many of them still hold meaning to me today when I listen to them. The music is just a different way of being told about your faith.”

Teens are signing up for Steubenville Conferences to feel the same sense of connectedness that I felt. Caroline McAndrew, 16, attended for the first time this year. She said she wanted to “grow my faith amongst fellow teenagers of my own age who relate to, and deal with, the same struggles I do.” Samuel Crawford, 15, attended because “I wanted to have a more intimate relationship with God.”

Chaperones play an important role in that faith journey. “I hoped to help the teens of my parish draw closer to God from the conference,” said Cheryl Dowling, a campus minister and alumni of Franciscan University of Steubenville. “My goal is that the conference will have a positive impact on their lives, and that as the years go by, they will gain extra strength and remember God is always with them as they go through challenges in their life.”

Dowling has been chaperoning the conferences for over six years. She said, “I always feel rejuvenated and recharged in my faith after attending the conference. It is a reminder about what is most important and that God is always there working in my life and the lives of others drawing us closer to him.” First-time chaperone Mickey Dolan said, “Without a doubt, my favorite part of the conference was Eucharistic Adoration! Every youth and adult in the arena experienced the presence of God, the maker of the world, just feet from where they were!”

The Steubenville conferences challenge Catholic teens to be resolute with their faith and rely on God as a friend and a beacon. Hearing about other people’s experiences at the conference several years after my last visit confirmed that the Steubenville Youth Conferences are still changing lives by helping teens with their faith.

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