by Marc and Julie Anderson
TOPEKA — Fans of J.R.R. Tolkien are notoriously capable of quoting his many famous lines.
But the organizers of the first Rural Youth Conference in the archdiocese chose one not so familiar to most: “I put before you the one great thing to love on earth: the Blessed Sacrament.”
Yes, Tolkien was Catholic, and believed in the Real Presence — that you can experience God’s presence face to face.
“Face to face” served as the theme for the first conference, held Nov. 19-20 at the Capitol Plaza Hotel in Topeka. Sponsored by the Northeast Kansas Rural Youth Council, the conference drew 150 participants and another 50 in staff and chaperones from 16 different parishes.
Tolkien’s quote appeared on the back of staff T-shirts, and the idea of what it means to meet Christ face to face was discussed all weekend.
Father Bruce Ansems, pastor of St. Theresa Parish in Perry and St. Aloysius Parish in Meriden, served as co-master of ceremonies along with Andrew Gaffney, a fourth-year college student at Conception Seminary in Conception, Missouri.
In his remarks, Father Ansems told participants that while Facebook and other forms of social media can be effective, face-to-face communication is still the best. He asked them to consider what the world would be like if, instead of posting things online, everyone said things face to face.
Saying things in person can definitely change how people would handle situations, he said. People might choose their words differently.
The conference included a eucharistic procession led by Father Scott Wallisch, the archdiocese’s vocation director, then adoration, praise and worship music, and Benediction. Adoration, said 15-year-old Henry Glynn, a member of Sacred Heart Parish in Sabetha, was probably one of his favorite parts.
“Adoration provided a tangible way to put things on my heart next to Jesus,” he said.
The conference also included a Mass celebrated by Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann and breakout sessions on issues facing teenagers today, including chastity, gender identity issues and the role God should have in daily life.
After dinner, Catholic artist Mike Debus completed a performance painting of Christ while the Mikey Needleman Band provided music for reflection.
In the keynote, Bob Rice, a professor at Franciscan University of Steubenville, Ohio, discussed his own faith journey and encouraged the teens to seek God above all else.
Sharing the two Gospel stories about the rich young man who asked Jesus what he must do to inherit eternal life and the one about Bartimaeus, the blind man healed by Jesus, Rice said the stories provided two different responses to Jesus.
Bartimaeus, Rice said, had never seen anything in his life until Jesus healed him. The first thing he saw was Jesus’ face.
Having met Jesus, what did Bartimaeus do? Rice said the answer was simple. Bartimaeus followed Jesus.
And that’s what we’re called to do in our daily lives.
The conference was the idea of Angie Bittner, archdiocesan rural outreach youth coordinator. In her duties, she has accompanied teenagers to the National Catholic Youth Conference, a biennial event where more than 23,000 from across the country come together for prayer, community and empowerment.
While it is often powerful for many teenagers, she said some can feel overwhelmed in such numbers. Bittner wanted to provide a more intimate setting for all Catholic teenagers of the archdiocese to experience God face to face.
In fact, registration materials read, “More than anything, we pray this weekend will connect you, face to face, with Jesus in the Eucharist during Mass, adoration, various prayer experiences, and inspirational speakers and music. We also want you to connect face to face with other incredible teens.”
Sixteen-year-old Adrianna Pedrow of St. Boniface Parish in Scipio said the whole weekend provided her an amazing experience, one she’d recommend to others.
“It’s a really good experience. You sometimes don’t realize how much God is a part of your daily life, and this provides you a chance to reflect upon that.”