CHICAGO (CNS) -- More than 8,000
young adults from around the country gathered at McCormick Place in Chicago in
early January to gain the tools to share their faith with the world.
They were attending SLS18, a
biennial conference sponsored by the Fellowship of Catholic University
Students, known as FOCUS.
Mass was the focal point of each
day of the Jan. 2-6 conference, along with talks by keynote speakers such as Los
Angeles Auxiliary Bishop Robert E. Barron; actor Jim Caviezel, who played the
role of Jesus in "The Passion of the Christ"; and Sister Bethany
Madonna, a Sister of Life. Christian recording artist Matt Maher performed an evening concert Jan. 5.
Organizers said priests heard
more than 4,000 confessions and many of the young people attended eucharistic
adoration held in a special area during the entire event.
In the past, SLS, which stands
for Student Leadership Summit, was limited to college students and FOCUS
missionaries. The missionaries -- who this year number 700 on 137 campuses in
the U.S. and Europe -- serve on college campuses, often in Newman centers,
accompanying students on their faith journeys.
However, this year, SLS18
included lay ministers, parishioners, seminarians, men and women religious, and
others who minister in the wider church, even if they are not involved with
FOCUS. Each group -- students, missionaries and others -- had its own track of
workshops and all came together for Mass and keynotes. This year's emphasis was
equipping participants with tools to evangelize.
"For the last 20 years, we have
seen that conferences have played a really important role in helping students
and young adults take the next step in leadership," said John Zimmer, vice
president of apostolic development for FOCUS.
Conferences, much like the
international World Youth Days -- where young people from around the
gather in one country for several days of prayer, teaching and Mass with
the pope -- help young adults see that Catholicism is broad and
all people, Zimmer said.
Much like other national and
international Catholic gatherings, faith was the center at SLS but so was fun,
with concerts, magicians and events such as a "Tacky Christmas Sweater Party"
"When you come to an event like
this and you see 8,000 other people from all walks of life, and all colors and
all ethnicities and everyone is bowing down on their knees in front of the
Blessed Sacrament, it quite honestly blows your mind and helps you think of the
church in a different way," Zimmer told said. "There's something about
recognizing 'I'm not alone' that really helps launch a young person into
To engage this age group, you
have to combine truth and beauty, he said.
"This generation wants the
truth, everybody hungers for the truth, our hearts were made for the truth," he
said. "So, we have speakers who come and teach the truth, who are willing to
come and proclaim it in all of its beauty and wonder."
FOCUS and the SLS18 conference
is an example of "discipleship in action," of seeing a need and going out and
filling it, said Father Peter Wojcik, director of the Archdiocese of Chicago's
Department of Parish Vitality and Mission.
For its part, the Archdiocese of
Chicago hosted an evening Theology on Tap session with Sirus XM
Radio host Jennifer Fulwiler Jan. 5. Chicago Cardinal Blase J. Cupich
celebrated the conference's closing Mass Jan. 6. The archdiocese also sent a
delegation of young-adult leaders to the conference.
"We know that like every diocese, we have a way to go to engage the next generation of young Catholics," Father
Wojcik told the Chicago Catholic, the archdiocesan newspaper.
"We also know that three or four
people on our archdiocesan team will not be able to do it themselves," he said.
"So SLS18 created a perfect opportunity for us to reach out to a number of
recently ordained priests, youth and young adult ministers, campus ministers,
religious, seminarians and directors of religious education and others to join
us for this gathering."
The priest described it as a "first
step" for the archdiocese to build more regionalized young adult ministry to
help young people "easily connect" with one another "and find faith and service
offerings relevant to them" wherever they are in the Chicago Archdiocese.
Father Wojcik said that young
adults are an important part of Renew My Church, the archdiocese's wide-ranging
pastoral approach to all programs, including evangelization, vocations, education and
"The bold vision Cardinal Cupich
has put before us is the foundation of all our programs as we develop ways of
support and guidance for parishes going through changes and rethink what
pastoral vitality is," he said.
"Eight in 10 young adults who
were raised Catholic don't practice their faith and as a church we cannot
ignore those numbers and pretend that we are doing great," the priest noted.
Chicago's cardinal and other
archdiocesan officials hope that having a "dedicated resource engaging young
adults ... will bring them back to parishes," Father Wojcik said.
For Fabian Pato, a freshman at
Loyola University Chicago and a parishioner at St. Bede the Venerable, conference organizers
met their goal for him on at least one level.
"I go to a Jesuit college and am
taking the first year of theology and I kind of needed to see a little bit more
in depth about Catholicism, more focused toward youthfulness," said Pato. "This
was pretty enticing."
Northwestern University junior
Ben Paolelli attended SLS18 after family and friends told him it would be an
"I've really taken in a lot
about being authentic and being authentically Catholic," Paolelli said. "It's a
lot about what Bishop Barron said the first night. We need to speak boldly, we
need to speak bold words like when the apostles were first given the tongues of
fire over their heads at Pentecost.
"Sometimes it's not going to be
what people want to hear, but it's what people need to hear," he added. "That's
something that I feel a lot of Catholics today don't do. That's something I'm
definitely going to take away from this."