The arena was perfectly silent. Twenty thousand young people knelt at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis as the Eucharist was exposed at in a monstrance on the altar in the center of a stage on the 50-yard line of an NFL football field during the National Catholic Youth Conference (NCYC).
A magnetic energy pulsed through the quiet. It was a silence filled with expectant hope, as if the quiet in that place would lead to a vibrant and vocal renewal in a noisy world.
It was a joyful silence, prompted by the encouraging words of Pope Francis spoken via video the night before. It was a healing silence, inspired by the challenging words of Immaculee Ilibigiza’s powerful testimony shared that morning. It was a contemplative silence, as the young people pondered the insightful words of Mark Hart. It was a silence building to worship, as Village Lights began leading the crowd in song and praise.
It took everything in me to not to cry as I listened to the deafening silence and then heard voices begin to raise in praise as we knelt before the Eucharist and sang “Lord, I Need You.”
A few verses in, I saw her. A young girl was kneeling on the floor, close to the stage, her arms lifted as she stared up at Jesus. Then I saw him, a young man, walking to the other side of the stage, kneeling down and staring straight at the monstrance.
Then they all came: The floodgates opened and hundreds of teenagers poured from their seats and began filling the floor of the stadium, kneeling as close as they could get, to be a little bit closer to the altar … closer to Jesus … closer to the one they desperately need.
That joyful, healing, contemplative silence became a joyful, healing, contemplative and vibrant worship, as 20,000 voices continued to sing “Lord, I Need You,” and then began softly singing, “Here I am, Lord … Is it I, Lord? I have heard you, calling in the night.”
For all the problems we face in the church — the stats showing us that more than 34% of Generation Z has no religious affiliation and that teenagers are twice as likely as baby boomers to say they’re atheists — what I witnessed in that stadium on a Friday night in November wasn’t a problem.
No, it was a solution. It was a visible witness to the power of the on-fire, faith-filled, passionate, zealous, well-formed, in-love-with-Jesus young people who are unafraid to run to the altar to be close to the Lord because they hear his voice and want to hear it more clearly.
I didn’t see the disaffiliation crisis we worried about during NCYC: I saw, firsthand, hope for the future of our church.
The young people at NCYC, the ones I saw fill workshop rooms, share meals, dance, sing and fervently pray — they are the ones who will solve the problem of disaffiliation, not because they have a slick film with glitzy editing or because they have a well-produced podcast with thousands of downloads, but because they’re simply being themselves: young people who have big questions, are searching for big answers, and who are unafraid to rush forward to be close to Jesus and bring their friends along too.
The weary world rejoices as Christmas approaches; Jesus’ birth gives us the thrill of hope and worth to our souls.
But my weary soul, worried mind and heavy heart were thrilled in late November when I saw the hope of our church rush to the 50-yard line to be close to Jesus in the Eucharist. Those young people were my thrill of hope, the ones who will help this weary world soon rejoice.
Katie Prejean McGrady is an international Catholic speaker and author. She is project manager of Ave Explores from Ave Maria Press and logs over 100,000 travel miles a year speaking to audiences of all ages and sizes. She has her degree in theology from the University of Dallas and lives with her husband and daughter in Lake Charles, Louisiana.
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