Personal Encounter

How to Help Teens Become Fully Alive in Christ

Greetings from Steubenville, Ohio! My name is Brian Kissinger, and I work for Franciscan University of Steubenville, where I serve as executive director of conferences. I grew up in Steubenville, but before moving back to my hometown, I spent 11 years in parish youth ministry and, more recently, lived in Austria, where I worked for Franciscan’s study abroad program.

As a parish youth minister, I was always trying to come up with better flyers, social media posts, icebreaker games, and event topics to pull in more teenagers to our events. Then I realized that, once they came, we also needed catchy titles for talks, thought-provoking small group questions, and unforgettable snacks to keep them coming back the following week.

A small group of kids and teens hanging out together on a sunny summer day

The Key Ingredient to Youth Ministry

Although I still think some of my Instagram posts were cultural masterpieces—and I’ll never forget how cool it was to make a life-sized Angry Birds game (circa 2010) using cardboard boxes and massive balloon launchers—in hindsight, there’s no doubt the most effective and impactful part of our parish’s youth ministry program was the simplest part. We kept things personal.

We knew we couldn’t compete with the entertainment everyone had access to via their phones, but we could accompany young people on their journey of faith and offer personal encouragement and support. Most importantly, we could provide the opportunity for young people to personally encounter Jesus through the sacramental life of the Church.

The concept of encountering Jesus can sound intimidating or abstract, but it doesn’t have to be. We recognized that, all too often, we Catholics can forget the significance of the rituals and sacraments that Christ has given the Church. Our aim was simply to offer a place and a time where young people could step back from the noise, distractions, and busyness and turn their focus on Jesus present in the Eucharist. Of course, when we speak of the Eucharist, we mean both the Mass—the source and summit of the Christian life—and the Blessed Sacrament. I am going to focus here on Eucharistic adoration. When it comes to setting the stage for this encounter with Jesus, it wasn’t a complicated formula:

  1. Before any times of Eucharistic adoration, we’d have a short talk reminding the congregants of both the Real Presence of Our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament as well as his desire to come close to us individually.
  2. During the time of adoration, we’d invite everyone present to call to mind whatever was on their hearts and to silently and prayerfully offer it all to Jesus. Whether they were hopeful, anxious, excited, or fearful about those things, we reminded them that Jesus wants to hear from us.
  3. We’d have times of both music and silence, recognizing that some people would love the silence while others would struggle with it.
Teenage girl with head bowed in prayer at an outdoor youth event

The Longings of the Human Heart

The young people from our parish weren’t magically made immune to the problems in their daily lives. They still had struggles, questions, and doubts even after they prayed in front of the Eucharist. But we knew that only Jesus could satisfy the longings, hopes, and needs of the human heart. Only in meeting the person of Jesus do we find the peace and fulfillment we’re all looking for. Young people who had gone through years of faith formation remarked that something changed when they realized that the God of the universe, in the Person of his incarnate Son, Jesus Christ, actually wanted to be close and known. We were privileged to accompany several teenagers as they sought Baptism and then full initiation within the Church. The response from young people was powerful; their hearts were moved as they came to know the Father’s love made visible in our Eucharistic Lord.

In Evangelii Gaudium, Pope Francis invites the faithful to a “renewed personal encounter with Jesus Christ.” Although our age is unique in its ability to be more globally connected than ever before, we all still long for personal connection and real relationships.

Group of teens raising hands in praise and worship at a youth event

Awaken: The Congress Youth Experience

For the last 49 years, Franciscan University has offered Steubenville Conferences in the summer to invite both young people and adults to a renewed personal encounter with Jesus, in the power of the Holy Spirit, through the sacramental life of the Church. Both here on our campus in Steubenville and in collaboration with regional conference partners across the United States and in Canada, we’ve been privileged to provide this transformative retreat experience for over one million people.

While we’ve been blessed to work with incredibly talented speakers and musicians, we know the most important person involved in the Steubenville Conferences is Jesus Christ. Through reverent and inspiring liturgies, opportunities for the Sacrament of Reconciliation, and times of Eucharistic adoration at every conference, we see faith renewed and hope restored. It’s not a complicated formula; the music and talks prepare people to encounter Jesus, and then we get out of the way to let him do what only he can do.

As Catholic Christians, we believe that the same Lord who healed the sick and raised the dead 2,000 years ago is truly present in the Eucharist we receive at Mass and adore on the altar. More than simply help for the journey, the sacraments offer us a privileged opportunity to encounter Jesus. As Pope Benedict XVI reminds us, “Christianity is not an intellectual system, a collection of dogmas, or a moralism. Christianity is an encounter, a love story; it is an event.”

Teens in Eucharistic adoration with a monstrance on the altar in a Catholic church

We at Franciscan University of Steubenville are grateful that events like the National Eucharistic Congress help facilitate personal experiences of the revival, restoration, and renewal that Jesus Christ offers through his Church. We are honored to partner with the Congress to oversee the Youth Experience, Awaken, and trust that if we simply set the stage, Our Eucharistic Lord will do what only he can do: heal hearts and transform lives.