On the last day of the National Catholic Youth Conference (NCYC) in late November, I was sitting on the floor of Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis with my co-emcee, Sister Miriam James Heidland. Throughout the three days of the conference, we assisted in guiding the participants in prayer between speakers. While we were preparing to go on stage and address everyone, I had a reflective moment. I leaned over to Sister Miriam and reminded her that it was two years ago, around the same time, that we were preparing to walk on stage at NCYC 2019, to be announced as the emcees for NCYC 2021. She sat up in her seat, looked around the stadium and said in an excited tone, “That is true, and we had no clue what was heading into the world.”
Sister was right. During the ensuing two years, we experienced a global pandemic, isolation, a massive division in our culture, and a society that lost hope and became driven by fear.
Amid all the confusion, division and fear, we were unable to gather as a Church. The voice of truth and the encouragement of a community became hard to find in a moment when it was needed the most. Mass became virtual. Conferences became virtual or were canceled. The dominant questions that people in ministry had were “What is God doing in this moment?” and “What does this mean for the future of the Church and the future of ministry?”
The Church had already been dealing with obstacles. We were experiencing the mass exodus of millennials and Gen-Z’ers, who had a growing aversion to many of the Church’s teachings and the Catholic lifestyle. There was also growing conflict within the Body of Christ. Everything that occurred during the subsequent two years amplified an already difficult time.
Contrary to the hopelessness evident in the culture, all of the Catholic leaders with whom I spoke had hope in the midst of the confusion. They felt a sense of urgency. There was a collective anticipation for the moment when we could gather again, face to face. There was a jolt of urgency to minister, because of the recognition that in this moment, the world needed to see the Church.
As time passed, groups of ministry leaders began to gather and plan for the future. NCYC 2021 was still on the horizon. It was going to be one of the first major gatherings of believers since the beginning of this “new normal.” Everyone recognized that NCYC 2021 was going to be different because the world was different.
Fast forward to Nov. 18, 2021. We all assembled in Lucas Oil Stadium, and our collective experiences brought a newly recognized significance to the moment. Everyone who attended had gone through their own crucibles over the previous two years, and they valued this opportunity.
This year’s conference was a blessing, not an expectation. We brought both pain and hope into that conference. Everyone who attended needed and desired an encounter with the Holy Spirit. Each participant made sacrifices to be present, which showed a hunger that might not have been present in a normal year.
There is something powerful that happens in a gathering, when people pray from a place of hunger and urgency. For a conference or retreat to be impactful, there must be openness and desire from those participating. If the willingness to be open and receptive isn’t there, then conversion doesn’t happen, regardless of the speakers or worship leaders.
On the first evening of the conference, there was an evident excitement and joy in the stadium. It overpowered any gaps in programing or external distractions that might have been obstacles to the work of the Holy Spirit. Throughout the weekend, the openness continued to grow, and fear or hesitancy subsided. Encounter was the desire, and everyone could feel that desire grow and gain focus after each keynote, liturgical celebration, time of worship and moment of prayer.
Over the three days of the conference, we worshiped together, attended Mass and Eucharistic adoration together, reencountered the beauty of our Catholic faith and were reminded of God’s presence in every moment of our lives.
NCYC was a reminder of what the Church is and should be. The boldness of the messages that were being given reminded us of how truth binds and lies divide. Seeing the diversity in the speakers, attendees, emcees and worship band members showed the universality and oneness of Catholicism.
There were people from all over the United States. There were different ethnicities, different cultures, different upbringings, different life experiences. We were all present as one Church who desired an encounter with the Holy Spirit and who needed their Father. I’m sure not everyone agreed on everything, but agreement wasn’t a prerequisite for me to see you as my brother or sister, and to love and affirm you.
Sister Miriam Heidland and I on the surface appear to be opposites. She is a Caucasian woman who played volleyball throughout her life, who works in healing ministry, leads retreats for priests and is a religious sister. I am an African American man who played football when I was younger, works at an all-male high school and is married with three children. In a world that would highlight these differences to define what our relationship should be, we are reminded that none of this matters; we are God’s children, and brother and sister to one another. What unites us is much bigger than our differences. This truth is the hope for our world and is the source of its healing. We live in a time when the world desperately needs to experience the Church that was on display that November weekend in Indianapolis.
When I was younger, a very holy and wise priest said, almost prophetically, that the Church was going to be rattled to its foundations, but out of the rubble would come a stronger and more intentional Church. When obstacles are presented, a person’s character and faith are forced to surface. The last two years have been a rattling moment for the Church. Many young people have used the obstacles to either solidify their unbelief or rationalize their abandonment of the Church. Other young people have had a moment of clarity. Their foundations have been rattled, and they have realized that there has to be more to life. Their loss and emptiness have pushed them to the only One who fulfills, and they have run to God with a genuine conviction and recognition of their need. We were blessed to have a bulk of them together at NCYC this year.
Healing of our world will come through believers who choose Christ every day. One conference is not enough to sustain a person for the rest of their lives; that is the job of their individual Church leaders and their community. What NCYC 2021 showed was hope for the future and direction for our country.
Brian Greenfield is a nationally known Catholic speaker. He writes from Florida.