Beyond the flashy lights: Church camps for teens

Beyond the flashy lights: Church camps for teens December 21, 2023

Franciscan University of Steubenville (called Steubenville for short from now on) is a Catholic university in Steubenville, Ohio. I often jokingly call it Catholic BYU because of how many of the women I knew in high school went there looking for a spouse instead of a degree. They also have conferences for 13-18 year olds. The conferences have so many teenagers that go, that they not only have around 5 Main Campus retreats last time I checked, but also regional retreats all across the country.

That school was often romanticized to me growing up Catholic. People would come back from the high school conferences or after they graduated from university there talking about how amazing the place was. They always came back talking about how much fun they had there, and what an amazing atmosphere it was. People who went to those conferences spoke of how it energized their faith. So of course, being a devout Catholic at the time, I wanted desperately to go to a Steubenville conference retreat.

Shortly after I turned 14, I had my first opportunity to go to a conference. My church was going to the Main Campus in Eastern Ohio, and I signed up immediately. I don’t remember much from that first year, truth be told. There was very little in the way of emotion.

Let me talk for a second about these conferences. It starts on Friday night. They are a series of talks, with Eucharistic adoration every night. For those with no experience with devout Catholicism, adoration is when the consecrated bread, containing Jesus according to the Catholic Church, is exposed for people to pray in front of. Steubenville conferences also feature Mass both mornings, on Saturday and Sunday.

Well, at adoration in Saturday night, a lot of emotional manipulation, typically utilized only by Evangelical megachurches, takes place. The soft music, the colored lights, and the random chanting “Holy Spirit come down!” created a rather strange, emotionally volatile atmosphere. That first year, everyone around me was crying except for me, and I felt like a crazy person for feeling absolutely nothing. I wanted to feel something, but I just couldn’t. It was otherwise very fun that year, I’ll admit. I even bought a book from the campus bookstore.

I decided to go again, a second time. Being at these conferences at that time made me feel very grown up, especially since I was on a college campus. I’d never been on a college campus before my first Steubenville conference. A Catholic homeschooling group took me that year. Everything was fine again… at first.

Another tactic that felt off at the time and that I now consider a manipulation tactic was sleep deprivation and overstimulation. One of the things that created the “fun” atmosphere was the near complete lack of a single moment of silence. Even Eucharistic adoration, an experience that at local churches typically features absolute silence, featured soft music and chanting, with the occasional full blown song. In my developing relationship with God, I was beginning to admire the practice of sitting in silence. So at a retreat where I was supposed to connect with God, I could not find a singular moment to actually connect with God.

It is constant noise: loud noise when you’re eating, music in between talks, people talking to you, music in church, music when you’re walking between buildings.

They also wake you up at around 6am, and they don’t let you go to sleep until 11 pm at the earliest. You also have to wake up earlier if you want to take a shower. With the constant overstimulation, my nerves would never let me fall asleep any earlier than 1 or 2 in the morning. I’m pretty sure this is deliberate.

That year, I felt more disconnected with my spirituality going in than when I arrived. The constant noise was getting on my nerves. That Saturday night at adoration, I was no longer emotionless, though it wasn’t the emotions I wanted. I felt full of rage at the Catholic Church, and at God who I thought was promoting conferences like this.

The reality the Catholic Church presented me ultimately felt deeply unbearable. If God created the Catholic Church, how could this feel so painful? I asked myself, honestly, what kind of world is this, that I will never be good enough? Why would God create a world where, in order to go to heaven, people need to endlessly torture themselves? Expose ourselves to constant, non stop judgement, rip ourselves bare, shaming ourselves deliberately in front of others?

I was deeply afraid of those emotions, and had honestly been suppressing them for quite some time. But I simply could not suppress them any longer.

I remember walking back to the dorm room from the main conference building, thinking that “I just had to get that of my system. I’ll be fine now.” Spoiler alert, that was most definitely not it.

There was deep pressure to only believe what I was told in the Catholic Church. Growing up, I didn’t trust my own senses, because my Catholic mother and church taught me that my feelings and intuition would lead me to the devil. This is why, despite all my senses and emotions telling me not to go back, I went back for a third time. I thought maybe a third time back there would rejuvenate my faith and I would be able to go back to being a good little Catholic girl, the way I was supposed to. I even wanted to, to show I loved God, to prove I was worthy of God, my Creator’s Love. Deep shame was still so prevalent in my life at that time.

That third time was a complete nightmare. My stomach hurt the whole time I was there. There’s something in the aura of that place, something dark and heavy. I threw up Saturday morning after a poor nights sleep. I only wanted to go back to the dorm room we were staying in, to get more rest and sleep. The sleep deprivation was hitting my body hard.

We went to the infirmary to get me checked out medically, after I asked. There was a woman who was working for an emergency medicine company the university had hired in the makeshift infirmary. She looked me over, took my vitals, then told me and my small group chaperone that the reason I’d thrown up must’ve been dietary changes or something. My diet had not changed that dramatically from home to Ohio.

In hindsight it was all anxiety. I sat on the infirmary bed, sobbing and crying, telling my chaperone I did not want to go to Mass or any of the talks that morning. But my chaperone told me I had to be supervised due to the fact I was 15 or 16 at this point, and she wanted to go to the conference. The dorms were locked during the day anyways, so I trudged my feet to catch the end of Mass despite the endless nausea.

The only thing that made me feel better was when during confession when I just dumped my feelings onto the priest. I’m still very grateful that he listened to me patiently and didn’t chastise me or abuse me verbally or worse. After confession ended, I was still talking to him. Everyone else was already leaving the church to go to the main conference building. There was no supervision from anyone, yet this was the one moment it struck me as odd I had no one watching us. It was just me and the priest sitting in two chairs on the altar as is traditional when there are too many priests hearing confessions.

After I was done confessing not only my “sins” but my every trauma I’d ever experienced with the Catholic Church, the priest reassured me and gave me a hug. I needed that, though I was paranoid about everything. I didn’t want to return, but I had to. The rest of the conference was a blur, with my stomach still hurting but most of the nausea gone. It’s the only genuinely positive experience I could recall with confession.

Oh, I was brainwashed enough to ignore my feelings and go a fourth time. The only thing that stopped me was the fact that in 2020, they went virtual. I went Friday night with my church, huddled in a basement, watching the Florida high schoolers meet in person because Florida is crazy. I started feeling deeply distressed once again, I don’t remember exactly at which point. On Saturday, since it was virtual and I had the opportunity, I decided to finally listen to my feelings and ignore Steubenville. It was a breathe of fresh air; it was insanely good to be home instead of two states over from my home in Illinois.

I’m in a much better place mentally and spiritually than I was that last time in 2020. Though those experiences have changed the way I approach many aspects of faith in general, and certainly Catholicism, for good.

People shouldn’t manipulate people the way they manipulated me. Sleep is an important part of the day, and sleep deprivation puts people in a more suggestive state. Between all the different events, teens need to have time to process what they’re being told.

Teens need more than just the loud music and the fun. As people, we all deserve space to be emotionally and spiritually authentic. Spirituality at its best is about getting in touch with God, each other, and ourselves. Flashy lights and nonstop stimulation don’t provide that properly.

Hugs to any others who may have struggled at these or other, similar struggles. You aren’t alone.


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