by Nancy Schwerin
CHARLESTON — They came; they believed; they were “Set Free.”
The first-ever Steubenville Charleston drew 1,000 youth from Florida to Delaware. For three days, July 21-23, high school teens filled the Charleston Area Convention Center. This summer thousands of teens across the country will take part in 11 other Steubenville conferences.
The Franciscan University of Steubenville in Ohio held its first youth conference in 1976 on the Ohio campus with more than 1,000 teens nationwide. Over the years attendance grew, and the conference eventually branched out. In the second half of the ’90s, the meeting reached across the United States from Louisiana, to Massachusetts, to Arizona, until Charleston made number 12 on the list.The Steubenville conferences now serve more than 26,000 teens across the country.
Steve Angrisano and Bob Rice hosted the Charleston weekend. Angrisano is a well-known musician and host. Rice is a youth minister at St. Ambrose Church in Lathem, N.Y., and northeastern area director of Life Teen. The pair kept the weekend rolling from workshops to skits to entertainment segments by the juggling duo APeX. Each section of the conference built on the theme Set Free. Workshops and speakers sought to help the teens give up their troubles, so that they may released to embrace the Lord’s love.
Friday night, Father Stan Fortuna told the kids they were not only saved, but ransomed.
“Brothers and sisters, we’ve been delivered from sin, redeemed,” said the Franciscan Friar of the Renewal.
Father Stan brought his Bronx accent to the stage as he described his take on PRIDE — “pathetic reasons interrupting the divine experience.”
“Pride will keep you incarcerated. The divine experience is supposed to be free,” he said.
Father Stan is a popular attraction at youth conferences. He doesn’t mince words and he raps. He raps about the injustices he’s seen in his own neighborhood and how pride can tear people down. The passionate Franciscan projects a strength that tells the teens they can overcome their troubles and prevail.
Other speakers included Father Dave Pivonka, who shared practical ways of applying the faith; Ralph Poyo; Lisa Weible Militello; and Jared Haselbarth. These last three speakers focused on the teens discovering their roles as men and women of God and respecting themselves and each other as men and women.
Each session built on the strength of the real presence of the Lord in the Eucharist. Reconciliation was offered throughout the weekend as the youth learned the importance of preparing for the Eucharist. Lines wrapped around staircases as the teens waited to give their sins and troubles up to God. Priests, many from other dioceses, made themselves available to the hundreds of teens who sought freedom.
The Young Apostles, a group of young adults who volunteered to participate in Steubenville, were an ongoing source of energy for the teens during the activity-filled weekend. They, too, represented the various states and communities who traveled to Steubenville Charleston.
Between speakers, youth ministers gathered their groups to discuss what they were hearing. What does it mean to a woman/man of God, how does the Lord fit into your life, what can you do to live life more fully in Christ? The kids, from all types of high school social groups, shared their stories of peer pressure. They discussed their struggles and how they are rising above them with the Lord at their side.
A chapel for adoration of the Eucharist was set up throughout the weekend, but on Saturday about 10:30 p.m., adoration was held for the entire conference. For an hour participants knelt before the Lord. After two days and two long nights, many of the teens were struck by their emotions and the real presence of the Lord.
The climax of the weekend was the Sunday morning liturgy, according to Tim Forbes, youth minister at Christ Our King in Mount Pleasant.
The Eucharist was the focus, he said, and everything they did during the weekend led up to this point.
Bishop Robert Baker, who said he was honored to participate, celebrated the Mass. The bishop brought his family with him to share in the event — his mother, his sister and brother-in-law, and four nephews — Matthew, Mark, Luke and Sean.
During the liturgy, the teens were asked to come forward if they might be considering a vocation. About 250 men and women stood up.
“It was a great sign for our young people,” said Forbes. “They can look beyond this crisis and see where their true hope lies.”
The spirituality that wove around each event and each person at the conference pulled everything together.
Forbes observed the spirit working within his youth group.
“They realized that they didn’t have to give up who they are to live in Christ.”