(Editor's note: Staff writer Angela Cave attended the National Catholic Youth Conference Nov. 21-23 in Indianapolis with 280 youth and adults from the Albany Diocese.)
RELIVING THE EXPERIENCE
The closing liturgy of the National Catholic Youth Conference in Indianapolis was over. Event banners were already stripped from the convention center and young people were beginning to board buses back to the Capital Region around midnight.
Two girls from Immaculate Conception parish in Glenville relaxed in the hotel and reflected on their experiences during the weekend.
"It was absolutely exhilarating," said Madison Hawkins, 17, who goes to Scotia-Glenville High School. "I've never felt so close to God, ever. Just being surrounded by other Catholics warms your heart to the point where you're at a loss for words.
"Because we're teenagers," she explained, "we're literally more dramatic than every other age out there. Feelings of togetherness are multiplied by 100."
Madison and her friend Anna Foster, a 16-year-old from Burnt Hills-Ballston Lake High, laughed about trading pins and hats with teens they met - Madison was draped in a cow print scarf; Anna, in a flowered hat - and lessons they learned in workshops.
A workshop on discovering gifts helped Anna "realize that I was special and God made me that way for a reason," she said. Another, about Catholics being disconnected from the Church, encouraged her to "help people feel the presence of God in church more, and not just be going through the motions."
Another takeaway for Anna came from a workshop about shedding the belief that you must be perfect: "The things we think are tragedies are really just inconveniences," she mused. "Life can get so much worse. You have to put your life into perspective."
The girls said a session with vocalist and beatboxer Paul J. Kim titled, "Set the World on Fire...Without Getting Arrested," made them cry.
"A lot of teens carry baggage and they feel like they're not gonna be accepted," Madison said, but Mr. Kim proved otherwise: "His words are going to affect me for the rest of my life."
Madison made friends from other states and felt inspired by a peer who was "so into her faith.
"She was singing all the songs with as much heart as you could possibly give," she recalled. "Some things that she said made me feel better about myself and my faith - [that] God is with you every day. I can be as close to God as she is."
Madison was determined to keep that spark alive back home and "tell people how close you can get to God. Here, you're pretty much walking hand in hand with [God]. He's a part of you.
"I think I can make others see that as well," she said. "I've learned enough for a lifetime. Why fizzle out when you can just stay so close to Him?"
Several workshops at NCYC centered on chastity and understanding the meaning of true love. One speaker, Crystalina Evert, described her promiscuous teen years: "Sin will take you further than you ever want it to go or ever expect it to go," she said.
When she made the decision to repent and be celibate, her friends made it difficult. But she learned that "no one will make fun of you when you're standing on the altar" on your wedding day.
It's never too late to start over, she added: God "wanted me exactly where I was. He wanted me in my brokenness."
Maddy Proper, a 17-year-old from St. Mary's parish in Coxsackie, heard that and realized "it's never too late [to change]. We've heard it a million times, but I feel like the way they delivered it was really special."
Another speaker, former "America's Next Top Model" contestant Leah Darrow, told a similar tale of compromising her morals with sexual behavior and risqué modeling.
Emma Lenz, 15, of St. Clement's parish in Saratoga Springs, was inspired by Mrs. Darrow's turnaround: "We can be like her. People around you don't always support that view.
"I learned a lot of new things," she said of NCYC. "God is love and He loves all of us. I can go out into the world knowing that there are people who love God like I do. I'll take my new energy in my faith to go out and spread the Word of God to other people. I hope we increase the amount of people our age that are following God."
SECOND TIME AROUND
NCYC participants Ben Reda and Maddy Proper of St. Mary's parish in Coxsackie, who experienced their second conference this year, said they regret taking the event too lightly the first time around.
They told The Evangelist they focused more on socializing than attending workshops two years ago - and were also distracted by the enormity of the event.
"The first year, we didn't have any clue what to expect," Ben said.
This year, they enjoyed the incorporation of social media like Instagram and Twitter into the conference and said they got a lot out of the workshops.
"I feel great now," Ben said. "I learned that God will always forgive you, no matter what you do."
Maddy said she sometimes feels alone in the Catholic faith, especially as a teenager - but NCYC proved otherwise.
Tess Guarino, a senior at the Academy of the Holy Names in Albany and parishioner of St. Clement's in Saratoga Springs, also commented on attending different workshops this year.
"I definitely feel a lot more spiritually open," she said. "I kind of dug deeper this time into myself. I found out a lot more about my relationship with God. I'm closer than I thought I was."