“Thou hast made us for thyself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it finds its rest in thee.”
What teen doesn’t feel longing and searching? Isn’t that what adolescents and young adults do? Search for themselves? In that one sentence, I found my beginning, my end, and everything that would happen in between. As a middle-aged adult, I relate more to the finding rest part, but I still love me some Augustine.
I spent this past weekend with 5000+ Catholic young people at a faith conference here in San Diego. Somehow, I wasn’t surprised when the t-shirts for our parish showed up on Friday and featured a riff on that very quote.
It’s difficult to describe the energy of thousands of kids packed into one arena. Thrilling? Vibrant? Pulsating? It’s a very pure, unjaded energy. As adults, I think we sometimes assume teens are smaller intellectual versions of us, and that their cynicism is already clouding their worldview. That’s not what I saw, what I experienced, this weekend. Straight fact: teenagers have a lot of energy. Magnify that 5000 times, throw in some thrumming music and enthusiastic shouting, and the building starts vibrating. Add the rushing wind of the Holy Spirit and now the arena is practically lifting off its foundation. I know for certain this isn’t what most people picture when they think of Catholicism. Really, teenagers are THIS happy to celebrate their faith?
For a lot of people, both inside and outside the Catholic Church, we can’t imagine young people so thrilled about an ancient faith, its teachings, its rituals, and its rich sacraments. We don’t realize that young folk are capable of deep reverence, deeper respect, moments of meditative silence, and ministry to each other. I saw all that, and more.
They waited for hours approaching midnight, some the next day in the blazing sun, to receive the sacrament of reconciliation. Teenagers waited and suffered so they could confess their sins, be absolved, and fall back into the waiting, open arms of Christ and welcome His grace. During the masses, every voice echoed. Every response was solid, every song confident. Hands were raised in worship and praise and stretched out in prayer. Eyes closed and faces raised.
Watching young people, so deeply invested and committed, participating so fully – it was strangely intimate. They were so unabashed and so transparent. How often do we, as parents, get to see our teens so completely unguarded? I almost felt like I was intruding on a deeply private moment.
Deeper still was adoration on Saturday evening.
As Roman Catholics, we believe in the True Presence of Christ. During mass, with the priest’s words of consecration, simple bread and wine are transformed by the power of the Holy Spirit. Though they appear the same, their substance is changed. They become for us the body and blood of Jesus Christ. In that consecrated host, Jesus is fully present.
That means we have the privilege of Jesus’ company, believing He is truly, physically present with us. We reverence that host (aptly named), kneeling and praying in adoration. When 5000 teenagers fall to their knees before Jesus, overwhelmed by tears, joy, reverence, devotion, and worship – no words can capture the impact of that experience. These were young people encountering their God on a deeply personal level. I had to remind myself to breathe. In Saint Augustine’s words,
“O Beauty ever ancient, ever new … you called, you shouted, and you broke through my deafness. You flashed, you shone, and you dispelled my blindness. You breathed your fragrance on me; I drew in breath and now I pant for you. I have tasted you, now I hunger and thirst for more. You touched me, and I burned for your peace.”
I watched them, ablaze with faith and hope and love, hugging and holding hands and searching each other’s faces because they knew. They knew they were being changed and that they were not alone. What a privilege to witness such a sacred, beautiful moment.
It was a lot to process afterwards, even as a middle-aged adult. As I’ve prayed in the days following, I asked God to reveal how what I experienced could change me. I think more and more will be revealed in the weeks ahead, but one truth became clear.
We revere, we adore, something so terrible. The broken, battered and crucified body of Christ is the summit of sacredness. It’s so deeply holy because it is the means of our salvation. His suffering, so violent and awful, is made beautiful because of what it accomplished. In my own life, could my own suffering be a path to holiness? Could something so terrible be transformed into something beautiful?
After what I witnessed this past weekend, I know the answer. And I’m confident a generation of young people are rising, full of faith, set apart for a holy purpose, and united in their hope. We have hope because we have Christ.