Citizen Staff Writer
RENÉE SCHAFER HORTON
Many teenagers reject organized religion because they see it as nothing but a bunch of “thou shalt not” rules.
Steubenville West, a weekend Catholic youth conference which meets at the University of Arizona, aims to change that.
The conference is in its 12th year at UA, and organizers say more than 1,800 teenagers will descend upon the campus Friday to begin a weekend of learning more about living as men and women of God.
“This is really about showing the next generation of Catholics that it’s not just rules, terminology and rituals, but there is relevance,” said Mark Hart, executive vice president for Life Teen, which co-hosts the conference. “Teens want to be truly Catholic, but you can’t expect reverence from them if you don’t give them relevance.”
The Franciscan University of Steubenville in Ohio launched its first high school youth conference in the mid-1980s as an outgrowth of the Catholic Charismatic Renewal movement.
The movement stressed fidelity to the Catholic church, works of mercy and an openness to the gifts of the Holy Spirit, including healing and praying in tongues.
Since then, Catholic dioceses and groups such as Life Teen – founded in 1985 at St. Timothy’s Parish in Mesa and the largest program for Catholic teens in the U.S.- have paired with the Franciscan university to host regional conferences. There are now 19 different sites around the country, said Tobi Wedig, Life Teen events coordinator.
Steubenville West is open to freshmen in high school through graduated high school seniors, although Wedig said a handful of incoming freshmen usually attend with sponsors or older siblings.
It is no longer advertised as a charismatic conference, but Wedig said the mission, bringing teens closer to Jesus Christ, has not changed.
“At Life Teen, we definitely promote an openness to the Holy Spirit, but we don’t advertise it as a charismatic conference,” she said. “But it doesn’t need to be a charismatic conference for God to show up.”
The three days include group sessions ranging from topics on sex to living the Catholic faith at school, speaker presentations, social activities, worship services and lots of music.
Sam Zelinski, 19, who just completed his freshman year at UA, attended a Steubenville West conference while in high school and said he would recommend it to any teenager.
“It is an amazing experience,” Zelinski said. “You get to get away from everyday life, you stay there in the dorms and basically it is a three-day rock concert where you’re hanging out with thousands of other teens of the same faith. The talks are always good, about living your faith in the real world . . . about how everybody sins and faith is about working toward a better future following God’s path.”
Wedig said teens are coming from seven states forthis year’s conference and that attendance will be up about 400 over last year.
Registration is open until 5 p.m. Monday. The $165 fee covers all conference materials, workshop sessions, meals and lodging in UA dorms.
Hart said the conference has not been marred by the controversy over Life Teen’s founder, the Rev. Dale Fushek, who is credited with revitalizing youth ministry in the Catholic Church and was revered as a religious “rock star” by youth ministers nationwide.
Fushek was placed on administrative leave by Phoenix Bishop Thomas Olmsted in December 2005 after Fushek was accused in a lawsuit of sexual misconduct with minors.
Although expressly forbidden by the Phoenix Diocese from conducting public ministry, Fushek started holding his own non-denominational worship services at the Mesa Convention Center in 2007.
“We at Life Teen have made it very clear that we are a movement of the Holy Spirit and not a ministry of Father Dale,” said Hart. “We stand with the Diocese of Phoenix and in obedience with the Church. And I think it is a real testament that Life Teen is a movement of the Holy Spirit because the conferences keep growing. It didn’t belong to him or it would have died.”
Fushek’s trial is scheduled for October, Hart said.
DID YOU KNOW?
The University of Arizona rents out space for conferences throughout the summer, beginning May 26 and ending Aug. 6, according to Teresa Klinger, program coordinator for UA Conference Services.
This summer, there are 90 different conferences scheduled for about 12,000 guests. Income generated averages about $750,000, Klinger said, and goes to the Residence Life operating budget.
Conference participants stay in UA residence halls and the only requirement for a conference to be held at UA is that it helps match the educational mission of the university.
Klinger said that meant the conferences had to offer classes or workshops or participate in research. The Steubenville West Conference, although religious in nature, meets these criteria because the teens attend a variety of workshops during the weekend, she said.
Deadline to register for the Steubenville West conference is 5 p.m. Monday.
To register, call 480-820-7001.