By ANDREW NELSON, Staff Writer | Published August 6, 2009
Mix chest-thumbing music with thousands of high-energy teenagers, throw in Catholic devotions and talks about Mary and the saints and what you get is Steubenville Atlanta.
The annual celebration of music and faith drew some 2,300 teens and young adults to the Gwinnett Conference Center July 17-19 for three days and two nights.
From a Christian rapper who helps people recover from drug addictions to a speaker talking about her top 10 dating tips, the weekend delivered high-octane worship.
“Everyone acts like they want to be here. Everyone is energetic and happy,” said Lauren David, 16, from Mississippi, adding another highlight is that “getting close to God is a huge plus.”
Musicians entertaining and educating the throngs of fist-waving fans were Matt Maher, one of the most popular contemporary Catholic music artists in the country, and Bob Lesnefsky with his stage name: Righteous B.
The event had separate sessions for men and women, along with small group discussions. Workshops taught topics from Mary and the saints and “Living Justice—Living Mercy” to vocations and the Mass.
Some 14 priests assisted by several deacons celebrated the Saturday morning Mass. The homilist, Father Nicholas Schumm, of Pensacola, Fla., urged the young people to develop a friendship with Jesus and with people who will care for their well-being.
“One of God’s greatest gifts is friendship. Jesus thirsts for your friendship,” he said.
This year’s theme was taken from the Old Testament book of I Chronicles: “Above All.”
The message struck home with Brandon Vuksanovich, 15, of Winston Salem, N.C. He and some 60 young people from St. Leo the Great Church drove more than five hours to get here. The group stood out with T-shirts of “Top 5 Catholic Pick Up Lines,” including “Is that a new perfume or the odor of sanctity?”
It was Vuksanovich’s second trip to the conference. The first trip inspired him to take his faith more seriously, so he became an usher at his church.
“It turned out to be one of the best things I’ve done in my life,” he said. “I felt I drew more closely to Christ.”
He welcomed the second trip. The message he heard was “If you put God first, everything else will fall into place.”
Patrick Kim, 14, who is an incoming freshman at Duluth’s Northview High School and attends Korean Martyrs Church, Doraville, was initially skeptical about spending a weekend during vacation at the event. Kim was one of close to 20 from the Atlanta Archdiocese parish.
But the enthusiasm here won him over.
“It was better than I expected because during Mass it brings me closer to God,” said Kim, an altar server.
Kim said the message he heard was to “try to stay close to God even if I am not at a retreat.”
Three best friends from Columbus, Miss., found themselves in a sea of Catholics. Usually, they are odd ones out in the community in northeast Mississippi.
Lauren David, Margo Friloux, Courtney Freeland, all 16, were taking it all in.
A highlight for them was just seeing other Catholic teenagers. Freeland said, “It’s different seeing so many our age.”
And the worship style, with raising hands in praise and Eucharistic adoration with young people, is new, David said. “It was a really big change for me. It is a lot more fun.”
Friloux said Catholics are very much a minority in her town, so to see others is a nice change.
“It’s easier to open up about (being Catholic)” and “proud of faith” here, she said.
Brittany McCormick, from North Carolina, is making her fourth visit to the conference. “Life happens. And you need that renewal every year to just get stronger. It refreshes your view of God and Catholic. It is incredible,” she said.