INDIANAPOLIS (CNS) -- The sound of more than 20,000 teens screaming and singing along with raucous music of Christian hip-hop artist TobyMac was loud.
The sound of the same number of youths in silent prayer was deafening.
These external and internal forms of praise formed bookends to the opening general session of the National Catholic Youth Conference Nov. 16 at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis.
After two hours of music, entertainment -- including cultural dancing by the Vietnamese Eucharistic Youth Movement -- and an entrance procession of banners from each diocese present, the participants were greeted by Indianapolis Archbishop Charles C. Thompson.
Although each person came "from many dioceses, many states … and with many titles," he said, "we are first and foremost children of God. And that God who knows us desires to be known by us. … God wanted us to know him ... through a personal relationship with a human being, our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
"We are beloved children of God, called by name, claimed by Christ," he continued, referring to the conference theme of Called. "We begin this NCYC weekend by embracing that reality of who we are."
Chris Stefanick, an internationally acclaimed author, speaker and founder of Real Life Catholic, used humor and life experience to speak about the reality of who we are and of God's love for each person.
He spoke of the "love story" upon which the Catholic faith is founded.
"When you remove the love story, what are you left with?" he asked. "Rules that we have to follow. Rituals that we're not sure why we keep them alive, but they take a lot of time. Doctrines that have nothing to do with your life. That's how the world has come to see Catholicism. … The world has forgotten the love story, and so often we've forgotten the love story."
That story, he said, "begins very simply with the words '(I) believe in one God.'"
So many youths today chose not to believe, he said, including an atheist who once told him that belief that God created the universe "is as stupid as a kid coming down on Christmas morning and, seeing presents under the tree, thinks, 'There are presents, therefore there must be a Santa..'"
"You say there's no God?" Stefanick asked. "That's like a flea not believing in the dog. That's like a kid coming down on Christmas morning and seeing presents under the tree and saying, 'Oh look! Presents! They must have exploded themselves here!' … Just so, the universe did not put itself here, and the more we learn about the universe, the more it shouts to us about the existence of God."
And because God's love created us, he said, no other form of love will satisfy.
"We feel so small in this world," he told the crowd that came from as far away as Hawaii and Alaska. "We feel so insignificant in this universe.
"I think God looks down from heaven and says, 'You are huge next to all this.' As big as a mountain is, can it know someone? As big as an ocean is, can it make a choice? As big as a galaxy is, can it choose to love? No, but you can. ... You're a huge deal!"
But because of human rejection of God, Stefanick continued, sin and brokenness entered the world. To applause and shouts of "Amen!" he modified the words of John 3:16 to note that therefore, "'God so loved you that he gave his only Son.' Whoa. …"
This love story -- which continues in the sacraments, Stefanick noted --"doesn't just show you who God is. It shows you who you are."
He encouraged the crowd to use their will to "say 'yes' to the love that created space and time and perpetually invites us to himself."
Father Joseph Espaillat, a priest of the Archdiocese of New York, who was one of the evening's emcees, led the more than 20,000 present through a period of silent prayer to close. He suggested using the word "pray" as an acronym to guide their prayer -- "P" for praising God, "R" for repenting of sins, "A" for asking God for needs rather than wants, and "Y" for yielding to his will.
For Emma Reilly, 15, the acronym was a helpful device. “I liked using that because I know sometimes it’s hard for me to pray, but if you use that acronym it makes it easier to know that you’re not just asking for things, but that you’re really reflecting and thanking God.”
A high school sophomore from Good Shepherd Church in Hope Mills, she attended NCYC for the first time but said she will return because the event drew her closer to God through Eucharistic adoration and allowed her to meet other high school students from throughout the diocese.
“My teacher at school always talks about this 180 degree turn … I know that retreat definitely turned me about 80 percent more toward the person I want to be,” she said.
- Kate Turgeon Watson contributed to this report