by Joe Bollig
EASTON — Nothing against Tucson, Ariz., but 13-year-old Georgia Lynn Dean just didn’t want to go there.
The fact that Arizona in July is a rather warm place had nothing to do with it. Rather, Georgia Lynn, a member of St. Joseph of the Valley Parish in rural Leavenworth, didn’t want to go to the Steubenville West youth conference, held July 24 to 26 at Arizona University.
Her mother and parish youth group leader Dawn Dean, and her older sister Elizabeth, however, were going. That meant Georgia Lynn had to go, too.
And for Georgia Lynn, the whole experience was very, very . . . fantastic.
“I didn’t want to go at first, but now I’m glad I went,” said Georgia Lynn. “It was just a lot of fun, and I felt so much closer to God than before I went.”
St. Joseph of the Valley and St. Lawrence Parish in Easton sent nine youths, two parents and pastor Father Neal Stull, SOLT, of the Army of Christ youth group to the Tucson conference.
Steubenville West was one of 19 youth conferences held across the nation, offered by the Franciscan University of Steubenville, Ohio, and the Life Teen ministry.
Thousands of Catholic youngsters attend these events, which are a combination pep rally, seminar, concert and liturgy. It’s a supercharged mix, meant to set the teens’ faith on fire.
Exactly what Father Neal was hoping for.
“I desperately wanted this for my kids,” he said. “This is an incredible youth conference. It has life-changing experiences for these kids. Most of all, I wanted them to have that kind of opportunity for a new-found relationship with Jesus Christ.
“I saw that happen. I saw my kids change.”
Before he came to St. Joseph of the Valley and St. Lawrence, Father Neal was a pastor for six years at a Houston parish. There, he had the privilege of leading the parish youth group to two Steubenville conferences. His kids had great experiences each time.
When Father Neal got settled in Kansas, he wanted the same for the teens of his new parish, but it almost didn’t happen.
He tried last year, but couldn’t do it. When the teens applied to attend the St. Louis conference this year, they learned it was booked — and there were 299 groups ahead of them on the waiting list. But Father Neal checked out conferences scheduled for other states, and found some room in Tucson.
The Steubenville conference featured opportunities for the sacrament of reconciliation, Mass, and eucharistic adoration. It also featured small group sessions on topics ranging from living chastely in an unchaste culture, dressing modestly, and Mary and the saints, to Christ’s presence in the Mass, and vocations. Entertainment was provided by musical groups, including a rapping priest and a Catholic rapper called “Righteous D.”
It was a chance to be outrageously Catholic and have outrageous fun. It was a chance for small-town and rural Catholic youths to be around a couple of thousand kids who felt the same way they did. It was a chance to deepen relationships with Christ.
“I know all you guys believe that [Jesus is real],” Father Neal told his teens, “and your CCD teachers have told you that. Hopefully, I’ve presented in homilies that Jesus Christ is real, and a person. I know you know that, but I want you guys to experience it.”
“And they did!” he concluded.
“It really helped me to become closer to God, and it gave me a sense of peace and deepened my faith a lot,” said Elizabeth Dean. “I didn’t know you could be that close to God, and I felt him in a whole new way. I could just feel him there. It was amazing.”
For both Elizabeth and Georgia Lynn, the highlight of the three-day event was not the bands or the talks, but eucharistic adoration.
Father Neal himself was an inspiration to the youths. The rural Leavenworth pastor is being treated for cancer, and for a while it seemed he might not be well enough to attend. Rather than exhausting him, however, the conference wound up exhilarating him.
“Part of the reason the kids were so motivated was because [Father Neal] was so fully behind it,” said Dawn Dean. “He’s such a great spiritual leader. He got as much out of it or more than the kids.”
Now, only one thing remains — to prepare for next year. The kids who made the trip have brought enthusiasm back to their parishes, and Father Neal would like to keep it burning for the next year.
“A lot of kids didn’t go, and I think now they regret it,” he said. “They’ve talked to the kids who went, and it’s just exciting to see how Jesus touched their hearts.
“Now, our job is to keep this fire going.”