INDIANAPOLIS. Outside, a cold drizzle dampened Indianapolis Nov. 21.
Inside the city’s convention center, however, it seemed as if the pure joy and enthusiasm of 20,000 people – mostly high school youths – would have held off the damp chill even if the building hadn’t.
But in a heartbeat, the crowd went from rowdy to reverent. They knelt in silence as a eucharistic procession twined through the Indiana Convention Center, the Blessed Sacrament held aloft in a monstrance carried by Indianapolis Archbishop Charles C. Thompson.
These joyful, worshipping people hailed from 145 dioceses around the country – and even from Australia, Canada and England. They came to participate in the largest biennial Catholic youth gathering in the United States: the National Catholic Youth Conference, or NCYC, held this year from Nov. 21-23.
About 100 young people from the Diocese of Nashville attended the conference; three of the largest groups hailed from St. Frances Cabrini Parish in Lebanon, Sacred Heart Parish in Lawrenceburg, and St. Philip Church in Franklin.
The theme this year was “Blessed. Broken. Given.” To explore the theme and to encourage youths to read the Scripture daily, four general sessions were held in Lucas Oil Stadium across from the convention center. They dove into the story of the Road to Emmaus (Luke 24:13-35) during the course of the conference.
At the opening general session on a chilly night, the youths first warmed up with the musical praise of the band For King and Country.
The Nashville group, along with others from Region V, representing the Southeastern states, got to have a meet and greet with the band before the big show. “It was a special treat,” said Robert Strobel, associate director of Youth and Young Adult Ministry for the Diocese of Nashville.
The sound level and energy were high during the band’s performance But when the 20,000 participants tilted their heads up to watch a videotaped welcome, the sound turned from dull roar to deafening.
“Dear young people of NCYC,” said Pope Francis in his first recorded address to conference participants.
But as with the eucharistic procession, the youths’ shouts turned to silence as Pope Francis read his message.
“I send you an affectionate greeting and my prayers at this moment of encounter that you are living,” he said, occasionally lifting his eyes from a transcript to the camera. “May it be an opportunity to deepen your faith and communion. May it light your missionary hearts with the courage and strength to live in and with the Lord, always as a Church sent forth.
“Go and fill your surroundings, even the digital ones. Not of convictions,” Pope Francis said, setting his paper down and speaking off-script directly to the youths. “Not to convince others. Not to proselytize. But to bear witness of the tenderness and mercy of Jesus.”
Pope Francis closed his message by blessing the participants with the sign of the cross. “And don’t forget to pray for me,” he added.
“It was awesome for him to take time to address these teens,” said Strobel, adding that it was a surprise to nearly everyone in the venue when the Holy Father’s face appeared on the jumbotron, specifically addressing this group.
Being with so many other Catholic youth, hearing the pope’s message, and getting to personally meet the band For King and Country, helped remind the Nashville teens that “our Church is not just their small parish or even our diocese,” Strobel said. It shows them that “the Church is big and loves them, and is glad they’re a part of it.”
As Bishop Nelson J. Perez of Cleveland spoke to the crowd, all lights in the stadium were on the stage, leaving the seating sections in a shroud of darkness. So Bishop Perez asked each of those present to take out their cellphones and turn on the phones’ flashlight.
Suddenly the rest of the stadium became like a night sky pierced by thousands of points of light.
“Everybody look around at all these lights,” he said. “Remember what Jesus said: You are the light of the world. Do not, do not, do not let anybody put your light under a bushel basket. Do not let anybody extinguish your light. Do not let anybody rob you of the gift and the treasure of your faith and your dignity and your love.”
Theresa Laurence contributed to this report. Natalie Hoefer is a reporter at The Criterion, newspaper of the Archdiocese of Indianapolis.