Tuesday, November 26, 2013

A SWOT Analysis of NCYC

This past week I brought 8 young people and two other chaperones to my first NCYC (National Catholic Youth Conference) in Indianapolis.  I wanted to share my thoughts on the experience.


1) The main reason I brought my young people to NCYC was to see 25,000 other Catholics together praying and celebrating life together.  There are roughly 1,000 students at my local public school, and 8 of them are Catholic.  That is obviously a pretty low ratio.  NCYC, the March for Life, World Youth Day, etc. are opportunities for young people to realize that they are not alone in their Faith.  This was certainly true for my young people at NCYC.  They were blown away by the fact that so many other people their age share their Faith.

"You are not alone" - being with 25,000 other Catholics made it all worth it!

2) The keynote speakers were amazing.  Topics included bullying, loss of a loved one, hurt, sin, disappointment, etc.  If you ever get the chance to hear Bob Perron, Jackie Francois Angel, or Ansel Augustine, then do it.  Also Matt Maher, the only national Christian music performer that I personally like, was great.  Also a shout out to Archbishop Tobin who was great both with our opening Mass for our Archdiocese, and also at the closing Mass as well.  Additionally, Bishop Caggiano from Bridgeport gave an amazing reflection at one of the morning prayer sessions that got everyone fired up!


1) The liturgy.  I have been telling my young people that most in the Catholic world seem to think young people are “spiritually retarded” in the true sense of the word retarded – like they have a ceiling and they can’t go to the next level and so they have to be treated like children.  It seems to be that some think that Catholic teens can only handle real short bursts of “spiritual things” so everything has to be flashy and showy.  Archbishop Buechlein once noted that NCYC is “90% show, and 10% content.”  After my first NCYC, I would wholeheartedly agree.  I’m not advocating 100% content, but perhaps we could move away from the 90/10 ratio and get closer to 50/50? 

There was a “prayer session” one morning where a kid was running around on the floor with a sheet over his head, and then a bunch of kids on stage held up red sheets that were lit up, the lighting went berserk, crazy music kicked in, and I thought, briefly, that I was watching the Beijing Olympics opening ceremonies again.  My kids turned to me several times throughout NCYC and asked "do they think we're spiritually retarded?"

2) There was nothing for the young people on homosexuality.  There had to be over 100 breakout sessions and presentations over three days, and not one covered the topic that our young people want to know about.  Bishops were reporting that the number one question they were fielding in their panel discussions with young attendees was “what does the Church teach about homosexuality.”   Too bad the conference didn’t try to address the issue with anything.  That fact alone makes me very suspicious.


1) NCYC does a great job of getting young people in the door.  I remember walking up the steps of Lucas Oil Stadium on the first night, and when our kids saw the lights and heard the music and so forth, they went from walking lazily up the steps to literally running for the doors to see what all the excitement was about.  They were pumped up and drawn in.  NCYC nailed that aspect of things.  The opportunity, then, is to move the young people to a new spot by the end of the conference so that, at the end of the conference, the teens recognize that they don’t need such things to encounter God.  It seemed, though, that NCYC ended in exactly the same way that it began…that we never moved away from entertainment…no one challenged the kids to move beyond pyrotechnics.  The problem with that is that they leave the conference wondering “why can’t Mass be like that when I get home?”  The answer – because no parish has 3 story tall jumbotrons and professional music.  I’ve often described Protestant worship services as pep rallies with no game to follow – they get you all jazzed up, but you’re not quite sure what to do when they’re over, whereas the Catholic Mass is the game.  NCYC felt a lot like a good pep rally, but there needs to be a bigger push to help the kids realize the deeper realities of our Faith.   They can handle it, and they want to be shown those realities.

2) I didn’t hear much at all on the Eucharist nor did I hear much on confession.  Those are the two things that any youth conference ought to be emphasizing and getting kids to encounter, and I didn’t see that taking place, nor did I hear it from the speakers.  On Friday, the middle day of the conference, my kids and I had to have Mass at the high school we were staying at, and we had to have it at 7:30 in the morning because there was no Mass scheduled at NCYC that day except during dinner.  The two options at a National Catholic Youth Conference should not be “dinner or Mass?”


1) Before the closing Mass, all the 200 or so priests gathered and were chatting with one another.  It was a really good opportunity to meet a bunch of new guys from all over the country as well as an opportunity to connect with guys that I had studied with in the seminary.  The OVERWHELMING topic of conversation is exactly the same things I mentioned above.  I probably heard 20 times “this is great for my kids to see all these other Catholics…but it could be so much better.”  I had never heard of Steubenville Conferences, but a lot of the young priests in attendance (the vast majority of the guys who were there) were talking about them telling me I needed to check them out as well.  After hearing about them, I checked them out when I got home, and that will definitely be the next thing I try to get my young people to attend.  I would say that from the looks of things, Steubenville Conferences seem to be the biggest threat to NCYC at the moment.

In closing:

I’m sure that young priests can easily be dismissed as crazed and conservative, but I would also ask that it be considered that perhaps the reason we want the things we do is because we grew up in this generation of young people, and maybe the things we are clamoring for come from an actual awareness of what people from our generation need and want, and that perhaps we’re not just a group of angry people who wear cassocks and talk about the Eucharist and confession because we’re simple-minded foot soldiers of Pope Benedict.  This analysis is certainly free to be dismissed, but I would say that Pope Francis recently called a “conservative” Italian blogger and thanked him for his criticism.  I certainly hope this can be received by the leaders of NCYC, and that they continue to evolve and discern where the Holy Spirit might be leading them today.


  1. Fr. John,
    Spot on. A Catholic pep rally. I used to take kids as a youth minister to events and would not take them to NCYC but always pushed the Stuebenville weekends. Whose main goals are get them to confession, Mass daily and Adoration. The speakers and music were used to promote our Catholic identity as a sacramental church and the teens loved it.

  2. Thank you Father John for your honest assessment. As a diocesan Director of Youth Ministry I have been criticized for no longer organizing a trip to NCYC when it's only a 2 hour drive from our diocese. I have been twice and do not find it worth the time and treasure it takes to lead a group there--in fact I have witnessed things at NCYC that could be damaging to young Catholics. I have shared my concerns with the leadership of the NFCYM, but was told that the planning is up to a committee. I pray that we realize the enormous opportunity we're missing when we have 25,000 young people gathered and the faith is watered down to flashing lights and a "Catholic altar call."
    I know many good and holy people attend and are involved, so why it continues to be so lacking is a mystery to me.

  3. Well said.... Stuebenville conferences are amazing!

  4. If you read through the tweets following NCYC, your assessment would be correct. The teens are frustrated that they don't know how to translate their positive experience to real life. Thank you for this analysis!

  5. Great analysis Father.
    I'd highly recommend the Steubenville conferences - over the past few years they've really been emphasizing "staying in your faith after you return home" as well as the Mass and Adoration as being the most important parts of the weekend. Generally, their reputation is great for getting speakers who really challenge the kids. And you'd be amazed at how many youth go to confession over the course of a weekend!

  6. Father, I attended Franciscan University of Steubenville and a couple of the Steubenville Youth Conferences as a youth minister. I do believe you have it backward. Although the Steubenville conferences are smaller, they take a regional approach, with many conferences each summer, reaching tens of thousands every year, whereas NCYC is every two years.

    Steubenville conferences have their own problems (unorthodox liturgy, local organizers who sometimes don't know their faith and put stuff like Richard Rohr in the bookstore at the conference, etc.), but are far superior overall. The organizers want the kids to know the faith and experience Christ. They may be a little uncomfortably charismatic about it, but Steubenville has a Eucharistic procession with adoration, abundant Confession, tons of relevant talks about the things the teens want to know about.

    NCYC, on the other hand, is put on by the NFCYM, which has a terrible track record for orthodoxy. I wrote an article about this last summer: http://truthandcharity.net/why-i-left-parish-youth-ministry/

  7. Fr. Hollowell,
    I appreciate your comments and your feedback of NCYC 2013 and would encourgae you to offer your feedback at http://ncyc.nfcym.org/ as the on-line evaluation is now available. The NCYC planning team, which I am on, reviews the evaluations and makes changes in effort to make this a positive and faith-filled experience for the young people. We understand that there is always room to grow and to improve. Our goal, I believe is the same, to bring young people to Christ and help them to grow in their faith. Thank you for attending with your young people and for offering your thoughts.
    Kay Scoville
    Director of Youth Ministry
    Archdiocese of Indianapolis

  8. My perspective is VERY different. I attended as a chaperone, with a contingent of 40 kids, 8 chaperones, our Youth Minister and our parish priest. The kids included two of my children and several kids I taught in Confirmation prep.

    I do agree, there is a lot of show and energy to draw the kids in. But, talking with our kids each day and on the bus ride home it was clear that they heard messages that they CAN take back home and use in their daily life to grow in faith.

    What is also clear is that our Youth Minister gets it. He doesn't expect NCYC to do his job or the job of us chaperones and the parents. NCYC lights a fire in the kids, and it's up to him and those of us closer to the kids to connect the kids and their fire with Christ. Each night and morning our YM spent time talking with our entire delegation. Each day the kids had very well defined guided meditations and journaling questions to guide them into taking the lessons home. Throughout the day he encouraged us chaperones to talk one-on-one with our charges to feed the fire that was being set ablaze in their hearts, he and our priest modeled this and led the charge in building on what took place each day on the stage. And the bus ride home was filled with one-on-one discussion of what we experienced and how that experience can be relived every day through the sacraments and living our faith authentically. Over the coming months we will have many follow-up sessions and retreats that not only build on the experience, but allow the youth that attended to witness to their peers that didn't attend and to witness to the parish that supported their pilgrimage.

    I look at what our YM, DRE, and Pastor are doing with our youth and it's clear, they see NCYC as but a single tool, that is very effective if used properly as part of a much larger program of faith formation, catechesis and youth ministry.

    I saw some real conversions of heart take place during our trip. I saw the Holy Spirit set fires in souls that I thought we inaccessible. And, while there was a lot of flash and noise, our YM knew that he could steer our kids towards Reconciliation, the chapel, and some adoration opportunities where there would be quiet, sacramental practices. He made sure each day started and ended with simple, quiet prayer and reflection, including Liturgy of the Hours, Examen, and the Rosary. We saw tears of joy and conversion.

    Our YM has been doing this for over 10 years now. He spends two years preparing the kids for the pilgrimage, he spends as much time unpacking and building on the prior experience as well. It's pretty amazing. We come from a small town with only 250 families. But every 2 years we have 40 youth go to NCYC, we have over 100 regularly attending weekly youth ministry. Parishes 10 times our size can't get 40 kids to come to religious education regularly. NCYC is a small part of the ministry, a very powerful tool in the ministry, but it needs to be part of a comprehensive ministry...

    Praise God, we have a YM and Priest that have heard the call to minister to our youth in such powerful, dedicated ways.

    1. I don't think you understood my post. I didn't say there was nothing for the kids to take home. I said it was a great experience for my kids, but that it could quite clearly be better in some ways, ways that any person who really works with teens can recognize. Again, I didn't say there was nothing for the kids.

  9. Father Hollowell,
    It is my pleasure to tell you that I highly disagree with your post. Firstly, it is obvious to me that, as a father, you knew most of the content that NCYC had to offer. I, on the other hand, found NCYC to be full of informational content and walked away with a better understanding of my faith, much more than when I go to church. Secondly, although homosexuality was never addressed directly, I went to the same workshop you went to, "Gleeful or lethal", and portions of his speech included the roles of a man and a woman. He described how man is to woman as head is to body as Christ is to the Church; without one, the other could not survive. I also realize that this was your first NCYC, and therefore you didn't quite experience the entirety of the conference. One point that I agree with is that it could have been better, but that is only because I experienced NCYC 2011 and I believe that it was a greater spiritual moment.
    One thing that confuses me: why did you HAVE to go to mass on Friday? Mass at Lucas Oil Stadium was on Saturday. Also, if mass is at a certain time, move dinner! It doesn't always have to be one or the other! Finally, I want to say from my pure opinion that, although you were born in 1979, you are NOT part of this generation of Catholic youth. Many of my Catholic friends have opinions similiar to mine, and even adults as well. Your opinion on many different topics strays far from what Catholic youth think now. You could ask thousands of teens that went to NCYC and almost all would agree that they had fun AND became closer to their faith at the SAME time! I know my second time going to NCYC has changed me. I am even thinking of going back for NCCC in 2015. It has changed my life and energizes me to go forth and spread my faith, to not be afraid of it, to turn to Christ in times of trouble, and to life my Catholic life in the best way possible.

    This is Adam Anthony Blackburn of Sacred Heart of Jesus Parish, Terre Haute.

    1. a) I didn't say say that people didn't walk away from NCYC with anything. I said there were strengths, and I'd probably take kids back there.

      b) on homosexuality, if there aren't talks directly about it, then that is a serious problem.

      c) I would disagree with you on the generation argument. Generations are typically around 20 - 30 years. Being 34, I am only 16 years older than an 18 year old. Couple that with the fact that I grew up with the internet, the major sociological change of the last 50 years, and I would say I am in your generation.

      d) I have some vast experience that I can draw from that you can not. I attended Catholic schools for 9 years and saw lots of different approaches to teaching and handing on the Faith. I have the added benefit of being a bit down the tracks into my twenties and thirties which allows me to see how many people have stayed with the Faith, and how many have left, an advantage over someone who is in high school right now. You can certainly speak to what you liked, but I can speak to what works in the long haul.

      For 2 years I taught in a Catholic High School before the seminary. While there, I coached football for two years and track for two years. I led senior retreats, and helped create a junior retreat program. I spent 1 year as a Confirmation director and three more years giving confirmation retreats, I spent two years as a priest teaching seniors theology, and being a chaplain for the high school for three years saying Masses and helping with retreats and so forth. I've heard several hundred confessions from young people, and have been in ongoing counseling relationships with close to 20 young people in my priesthood.

      You can say I'm not from your generation and I don't get your generation, but I would say that maybe I actually get your generation better than you do, and certainly that perhaps some who have been around a while might now what you need to hear to ensure you keeping the Faith better than you do.

      I appreciate your comments, and I am open to the fact that I am wrong, but my experiences have me pretty convinced of what works and what doesn't.

    2. Father,

      I too attended NCYC this year and had many of the same concerns as those you stated. I found myself many times looking at my watch, unfortunately.

      I was wondering if you had heard about Ignite Your Torch youth conference? It is held each summer at St. Catharine's College in Springfield, KY. I assume that it is like the Steubenville Conference but on a smaller scale.We have even had to expand to "IYT Northwest" in Washington state. It is an amazing conference and it's close as well. I highly recommend it, mostly because it is the main reason why I am still Catholic: http://www.igniteyourtorch.com/#!whatisitlike/c41k

      -Maria V.

    3. Thanks for the heads up. I will definitely check into it!

    4. People born between 1961 and 1981 are generally considered to be members of Gen X (though sometimes the dates are considered 1964 to 1984). I would concur, as I was born in 1979 and feel more of a connection to Gen X than to Gen Y. "You might be a member of Gen X if...you remember where you were when you heard Kurt Cobain died..."

      There's also the concept called the Gen XY Cusp, which includes people born between 1978 and 1983. XY Cuspers share traits with both Gen X and Gen Y, as the name would suggest.

      You mention growing up with the Internet, however people "our age" remember a time before the Internet and had significant life events occur before the proliferation of the Internet, which, to me, is a big distinction between Gen X and Gen Y. "Don't text and drive" wasn't a drivers ed topic, heck finding pictures of our 21st birthday on Facebook the next morning wasn't a concern.

      Anyway, glad the event had some value, I know the youth in the parish I attend were pretty excited about it afterwards. Sorry it wasn't anti-gay enough for you.

  10. Dear Father Hollowell,
    Praise God for you honest assessment and willingness to open a thought provoking dialogue about how to truly reach our Catholic teens. Our teens are starving for authentic spirituality and the 'Ignite Your Torch' model recognizes this hunger and offers a full banquet of Catholicism.

    Ignite Your Torch Northwest I (held in Washington State) was attended by two of our sons (one as a high school participant, one as a college 'green shirt' volunteer leader). IYTNW gave authentic witness to the depth of our Catholic faith and did not water down the fullness of truth. Although our sons grumbled a bit about the 'no shorts' (except during athletics) part of the dress code, as parents we were grateful for the crystal clear pre-conference contract which clearly promoted modesty in dress and purity in conduct as requirements for attendance.

    Enrollment into the Dominican 'Angelic Warfare Confraternity', offered on the closing day, gave teens (and adults) a going away gift that will last into eternity. All participants were bussed to pray a Rosary for an end to abortion outside the local Planned Parenthood and a candlelight Marian/Rosary Procession across the outrageously liberal Evergreen State College campus culminated with a consecration of the place to our Blessed Mother!

    My 15 year old son attended break out sessions on the interior life, the Traditional Latin Mass, gay 'marriage' and how to defend the Church's teachings on homosexuality (2 different sessions), vocation talks, and 'guys only' session on true and holy masculinity.

    We are so blessed to have this conference in our area, and I highly recommend it to everyone.

  11. Adam, et al. I am in a unique position to be able to address some of your comments. My name is Anthony Basso and I teach theology at a Catholic high school that had the honor of Fr. Hollowell's service as chaplain. I would like to think I know him well, and as a teacher of high school students for the past 10 years, I'm fairly certain I know young people well.
    First, the generational issue is really a non-issue. Young or old, what matters is timeless: Truth, Beauty, Goodness, Faith - these things don't change. In any generation you will find people who are drawn to them, people who are repulsed by them, and people who are drawn to unworthy imitations of them. That you know people who share your opinion (by your own admission both youth and adults) should be of little consolation since Truth is not a matter of popular opinion.
    Secondly, while the generation that one belongs to is of little consequence, the generation that one can effectively reach is of great significance, and I can attest to Fr. Hollowell's ability to effectively relate to a variety of young people during his time at my school. Father was sought out by students before, during and after school whether for spiritual advice, academic help, or confession. I witnessed first-hand his use of media and technology to reach students effectively. His homilies resonated profoundly with the student body, and often were the topic of discussion for days after an all school mass.
    Third, whenever NCYC has concluded, I invite my students who have attended to offer a report back to the class about what they experienced and what they learned. They were all very excited about having attended, but without exception, the feedback of my students echos what father has said in regard to the liturgy and much of what they say is in line with his comments about the need for more substance beyond the rock concert atmosphere.
    Finally, I am glad to know that NCYC has had such a profound impact on your faith, and would love to hear more about it. What are the specific ways that it deepened, reinforced, or animated your faith in Jesus Christ and inspired you to be a more active member of His Church? How do you intend to share what you learned and experienced with others? How will it shape your faith as a young man? as an adult? It is very helpful for me, as a teacher, to hear these things, and it is quite likely that you were able to make it to sessions that my students were not. If you are willing to share, shoot me an email.
    As a closing thought (sorry, Father, for hijacking your combox) - I can assure you that Father Hollowell is not coming at this as an outsider, nor is he nitpicking for the sake of being critical. It looks like everything he said, positive or negative, was with an eye toward improving the experience for young people, for parishes, and for the Church.

  12. Hi Father,
    Is Father Myer still having the Consumed retreats?? If not, would you consider leading? I understand they are awesome!
    Mother of a teen who didn't get a lot out of her day at NCYC

    1. The Archdiocese puts on the Consumed retreats. Fr. Meyer started them several years ago. When I was the chaplain to the youth office of the Archdiocese, I took over the priest role of Consumed. I know the demand was not high enough for one last year, but I haven't heard anything about this year's retreat. It is mostly composed of young people who are doing a retreat experience for their Confirmation, so if the demand isn't high enough, then it doesn't happen. Kay Scoville at the Archdiocesan youth office would be the one who can tell you where we stand this year for a Consumed retreat. God bless!

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