Bishop Carl A. Kemme concelebrated a Mass Sunday, July 15, at a Mid-America Steubenville Conference in Springfield, Missouri. About 5,000 youth and adults, including hundreds from the Diocese of Wichita, attended the annual event. (Courtesy photo)

Diocesan youth participate in annual Steubenville Conferences in the U.S.
Car and busloads of youth from the Diocese of Wichita traveled to the Ozarks last month – but not for a vacation.
The hundreds of youth and their sponsors participated in Steubenville Youth Conferences July 13-15 or July 20-22 at the JQH Arena in Springfield, Missouri.
Other groups from the diocese have attended conferences in Denver and Atlanta.
Mark Joseph, executive director of Christian Outreach for Franciscan University of Steubenville, Ohio, said the school has been conducting the conferences since 1975 when Father Michael Scanlon, who was then president of the university, adapted the idea from a priests’ conference attended by hundreds of clergy.
“One of the priests stood up on closing day and said, ‘You need to do this for the kids, for our kids.’ Father Mike said, ‘Who is going to bring them?’ And another priest stood up and said, ‘We will!”
And they did.
In 1976, the university hosted its first conference attended by about 1,000 youth.
The conferences continued on the campus for 20 years when in 1996 the Most Rev. Samuel Jacobs, now Bishop Emeritus of the Diocese of Houma-Thibodeau in Louisiana, made another request. He asked to have a conference in Louisiana, instead of taking busloads of youth to Ohio.
“That was our first off-site and we’ve grown from there,” Joseph said. “Now we do 25 youth conferences, five of them on our campus, 20 of them at different locations in the country including two in Canada. We serve about 53,000 youth and group leaders.”
Joseph said his office has 11 people dedicated to planning the annual conferences. “And we have partners around the country who work on the conferences who are not on our campus. For example, the conference in Springfield, Missouri, was actually sponsored by the Archdiocese of St. Louis.”
His workload is increasing. In 2012 about 37,000 youth attended Steubenville conferences. Last year about 53,000 participated.
“The primary purpose of the conference is to share the love of Christ with our participants and share the gospel message in a way that is relevant to the teens who attend,” he said.
“And we do that through relevant talks and engaging praise and worship. Our conferences are all sacramentally-based, so they always include the Liturgy, Eucharistic Adoration and the Sacrament of Confession.”
Each event has about 50 to 60 worship leaders, including priests, as well as team leader, Joseph said. “Although each speaker brings his own personality and flavor to the various talks, thematically each of the conferences is very similar across the country, across North America.”
The reason for the ministry’s success is four-fold, he said.
“One is the fact that we are speaking to the teenagers where they are, we are not afraid to tackle tough questions. The message that we are delivering from the stage is very, very relevant to them. As an example, over the last couple of years, we’ve attacked the issue of pornography and the issue of same-sex attraction. We speak to those things from a church, doctrinal standpoint and we speak truth to these kids.”
The energetic, evangelistic, and vibrant atmosphere at the events in addition to the fellowship and is attractive to those attending, he said.
The conference being sacramentally based is very appealing to them, Joseph said, adding that surveys always reflect that the favorite part of the weekend for attendees is Saturday night’s Eucharist Adoration.
“When you think of a bunch of teenagers, you kind of scratch your head and wonder, well, how is Eucharistic Adoration their favorite thing?”
Joseph said with what is going on around the world, including in some places within the church, the Steubenville Conferences are all the more important.
“We really need to provide our kids with hope and that hope is most explicitly shared, by sharing with them the love of Christ. That hope is critical to their health and wellbeing as they progress into being young adults.”
Gil Bergkamp, a youth ministry leader from St. Anthony Parish in Garden Plain, said he has witnessed amazing spiritual fruits from the conferences.
It isn’t coincidental, Bergkamp said, that the parish had never produced a priest before 2004 when youth from the region began attending the Steubenville Conferences. Today the parish claims Father Andy Bergkamp, Father Michael Kerschen, Immaculate Heart of Mary Sister Mary Lucia (Annie Stuhlsatz), and the late Brian Bergkamp, who heroically died in an accident before his ordination. In addition, Deacon Kurt Pauly, a member of St. Anthony of Padua Parish in Garden Plain, is a fourth-year theology seminarian at Kenrick-Glennon Seminary in St. Louis.
He said he wouldn’t be in youth ministry had he not attended one of the conferences in 2004. “It is transforming the entire west side of the diocese.”
Susie Marshall, a chaperone at the event, said the conference enlivened her faith and touched her heart.
“I felt profoundly close to my Lord as he passed by me in the monstrance during adoration with 5,000 Catholics singing praise and worship,” the St. Thomas Aquinas parishioner said via email.
“I witnessed how this powerful experience of the sacraments impacted thousands of our youth to embrace their faith and am therefore convinced of the importance of finding opportunities for our teens to pursue an emotional faith experience.”

Technology enhanced the worship at the convention center in Springfield, Missouri. (Photo by Lisa Masek and the Office of Youth Ministry-Archdiocese of St. Louis.)
A group of men pray together at the Steubenville Conference in Springfield, Missouri. (Photo by Lisa Masek and the Office of Youth Ministry-Archdiocese of St. Louis.)