INDIANAPOLIS — In one moment, the hope for the future of the U.S. Catholic Church could be seen in the eyes and the hands of Sarah Bishop and Carmen Miller.
That moment occurred as 23,000 youths from across the country met in Indianapolis for the National Catholic Youth Conference Nov. 21-23.
The three-day event featured Mass, workshops, musical performances, eucharistic adoration, and a theme park inside the Indiana Convention Center filled with fun activities, service opportunities and a wondrous, widespread wearing of crazy hats by the Catholic teenagers.
As the action in the theme park whirled around them, Sarah and Carmen kept their focus on the face of Christ, the face they had helped shape from their small part of the 2,000 pounds of clay that event organizers had set up for the youths to create images of their faith.
Strangers to each other until just hours before, Sarah and Carmen worked side by side, using sculpting tools to create the crown of thorns for Christ’s head. Then they sculpted his beard, his eyes and his facial features.
As they added the final touches to Christ’s face, they each also shared how God had touched their lives in the past year, a year marked by heartbreak for Sarah.
“My faith means everything to me,” said Sarah, 17, a member of Our Lady of Perpetual Help Parish in New Albany in the Archdiocese of Indianapolis. “I’ve always loved everything in my faith. And I’ve always looked toward it in the tough times of my life. For a while earlier this year, I drew back from my faith when my father died in February. I was mad at God, asking him why he would take my best friend.
“Then all these other good things happened,” she told The Criterion, the archdiocesan newspaper. “I was able to come here. I was accepted into a good college. I’ve learned that God always has my back, even if it’s a different solution from what I wanted.”
Carmen looked at her new friend and nodded sympathetically. Even though she is from the same parish as Sarah, they had never met before they became roommates during the youth conference.
“My faith is what I lean on,” said Carmen, 17. “If I didn’t have my faith, I don’t know what I’d do.”
The embrace of faith echoed loudly during the large, general meetings of the youth conference when the 23,000 participants came together at Lucas Oil Stadium for sessions that mixed music, faith, stories and celebration. Still, the depth and the essence of faith came through louder and more profoundly in the quiet moments when individual youths talked about their faith.
In one moment, Anthony Washington Jr. smiled and laughed with his friends from New All Saints Parish in Baltimore, Md., as he had his picture taken with a life-size, cardboard image of retired Pope Benedict XVI. In the next moment, the 17-year-old turned serious as he talked about his faith.
“It’s how I live my life from the smallest choices to the biggest choices,” said Anthony, who wore a T-shirt emblazoned with this verse from Psalm 127: “Children are a gift from the Lord. They are a real blessing.”
Anthony looked around the Indiana Convention Center swelling with people his age and noted, “It’s a good feeling to be part of all these people who feel the same way about our faith. I’ve never been to anything like it.”
Alli Kiss had the same feeling as she sat at a craft table, shaping a cross from a small piece of reddish-brown clay.
“It’s eye-opening to see how big the church is,” said Alli, part of a group from the Diocese of Charleston, S.C. “It’s not just our parish. It’s not just our diocese. People are coming together from all over the country for one sole purpose — to celebrate Jesus Christ and grow deeper in faith.”
She paused before adding, “My faith means everything to me. I would be nowhere without Christ in my life. We should all live our lives serving God on earth and trying to get to heaven.”
The youths’ display of faith at the conference touched the hearts of the adults who joined in the celebration with them.
“It really gives me a great deal of encouragement as I see the young church alive and well, dedicated to Christ and in love with one another,” said Archbishop Gregory M. Aymond of New Orleans.
At the area where Sarah and Carmen worked on sculpting the face of Christ, Dave Gehrich watched the efforts of the two teenagers.
An adult volunteer in that area, Gehrich had started the head of Christ before Sarah and Carmen asked to take over. Gehrich looked at the two new friends. He looked around at the youths passing by him, some wearing halos, other wearing hats featuring a cow, an upside-down ice cream cone, a piece of corn on the cob, or even a piece of pumpkin pie topped by a dash of whipped cream.
For Gehrich, it was hard not to notice the way the youths embrace a spirit of fun and joy. It was equally hard to overlook the way they embrace their faith.
“You see them and talk to them and it reminds you of the bigger picture — the continuation of our faith,” said Gehrich, youth minister at St. Maurice Parish in Decatur County and St. John the Evangelist Parish in Enochsburg, both in the Archdiocese of Indianapolis.
“When you wonder if the church and the faith is going to continue, this lets you know it will.”