Three participants and two chaperones smile on the bus ride home from the National Catholic Youth Conference in Indianapolis. Pictured in front are Alexis Hanson, left, and chaperone Lily Spangler. Behind them, from left, are Isabella Roche, Deacon Jeff Zurek and Jacob Lamoureux. COURTESY PHOTO


Participants left youth conference different – ‘a good different’

They were running on little sleep, having left from St. Charles Borgia Parish in Blair by bus at 9 p.m. and arriving in Indianapolis 11 hours later.

But by 3 p.m. the next day – the first day of the National Catholic Youth Conference (NCYC) – the 36 teens and 10 chaperones of St. Charles Borgia and St. Patrick Parish in Tekamah were enthusiastically exploring the Indiana Convention Center.

Keeping the focus on the spiritual purpose of the pilgrimage, the group slipped away from the bustle of 12,000 energetic youths to pray a group rosary.

Before the prayer began at the start of the Nov. 16-18 conference, however, three teens and two chaperones from the group agreed to speak with The Criterion, the newspaper for the Archdiocese of Indianapolis, about their hopes and expectations going into the conference, then to share their thoughts at its close.

This article traces the NCYC journey of participants Alexis Hanson, Jacob Lamoureux and Isabella Roche, and chaperones Deacon Jeff Zurek and Lily Spangler, from their first-day hopes to their third-day reflections.


The last time Lamoureux and Roche visited Indianapolis for NCYC, in 2021, the world was a different place.

“Everyone was wearing masks because of COVID, and there were lots of restrictions on like where you could sit and not giving high-fives,” said high school senior Lamoureux, a member of St. Charles Borgia.

Roche agreed.

“I felt like I was hiding behind a mask, and I didn’t really open myself up,” said the high school junior and member of St. Patrick.

There was no “last time” for Hanson – this was the high school senior’s first NCYC experience.

Each teen had different hopes for the conference.

Hanson, a member of St. Francis Borgia, was shy and reserved during her interview on the first day of the conference.

“I’ve never been around 12,000 Catholics my age,” she admitted.

But she said she was looking forward to meeting her Catholic peers – who came from as far away as Hawaii – and attending the many breakout sessions offered through the course of the conference.

Lamoureux’s hope on the first day of the conference was “to walk away with not just a connection with God, but a way to take that connection and bring it into my everyday life.”

Roche’s desire was simple: “I just want to experience [NCYC] more than I did last time.”

Chaperone Lily Spangler, 22, was also new to NCYC. Her expectations for the conference centered around the youths in the group.

“My hopes are for high schoolers’ hearts to be transformed and for walls to be torn down,” said the residents’ assistant at the St. John Paul II Newman Center in Omaha. “For them to create a more personal relationship with Jesus that feels more like a relationship in your everyday life, like you would with one of your friends.”


As for Deacon Zurek, this visit to NCYC was far from his first.

“Our first was in 2007, so this NCYC is our ninth,” he said of him and his wife Darla, both youth ministers at St. Francis Borgia. “Our youngest [child], who is a freshman in high school, is here. We went to our first one before he was born.”

As with each of his nine experiences bringing youths to the conference, Deacon Zurek said his “hope is that they will grow in their faith, but in a way that’s so profound that it moves their hearts.”

It’s a desire he has seen fulfilled time and again at the conference.

“We have had youths who come into this experience, this pilgrimage, that were kind of in a state of brokenness where they were kind of falling away from the Church,” he said. “And every year I’m in awe and amazed. Because whatever it was, whatever they bring in their brokenness, in their lives, their expectations, all of it, the Lord melts it, and he creates out of it.”

To help the youths process the experience, Deacon Zurek and his team prepared journals with prompting questions for the teens to reflect on throughout the conference.

Their first use of the journals occurred before the bus even left St. Francis Borgia.

“We talked with the kids to prepare them for the experience,” he said. “Then we sent them to adoration with their journals to reflect on ‘What am I doing? Why am I going?’ ”

Each night of the conference, chaperones lead small groups to help the youths reflect on the day – what they experienced, what they learned, what they felt.

“Normally we encounter a lot of young ladies who are sobbing,” Deacon Zurek said. “This time it was a lot of the boys, which was a beautiful testament of true manhood and true surrender.”

After NCYC, he encourages the youths to write letters to those who helped make the conference financially possible for them, sharing about their experience.

And shortly after returning home the group had a potluck dinner with the youths and their families – another opportunity to recall what the participants lived and learned at NCYC.

Deacon Zurek has found that the practice of journaling during the three days, debriefing each night and having opportunities to reflect on the conference afterward “helps make what they learn and experience stay put.”


Such was the case for Lamoureux, particularly in terms of journaling. In a follow-up interview as the conference came to a close, he was visibly moved by his NCYC experience.

“There was a session I went to that I really related to called ‘I Believe It But I Don’t Feel It,’ ” he said.

Then he pulled out his journal.

“I’m not good at journaling,” Lamoureux admitted while thumbing through the pages. “But the speaker said something that clicked, and I knew I had to write it down: ‘It’s not about emotions – it’s about surrender.’ And the speaker the first night said the same thing – it’s called faith because it’s believing in something, even if you don’t see physical evidence.

“God has taught me on this trip … that even if I don’t have that feeling of another presence with me, even if I feel like I’m just sitting there and there’s no one else in the room, God is telling me just to remember I’m not alone. Even if I can’t feel it, He’s there.”

Roche felt God’s presence strongly while worshipping in adoration with 12,000 of her peers on the second night of the conference.

“I felt this voice in my chest coming out and telling me that all the things I laid down in prayer were going to get better, and that it’s all going to work out in the end,” she said.

“There was this girl that was sitting in front of me. She turns around and asks if she can pray for me. And the crazy thing is, while she was praying for me, she was saying all the things I laid down!”

Her experience in adoration and throughout NCYC “made me feel not as heavy with negative thoughts and emotions and all these worries I have been carrying for the last years,” said Roche, her eyes bright with joy. “I feel more lightened and able to be there for others and be able to live my life with a better and happier meaning to it.”

Spangler noted that seeing the high schoolers grow in faith “affects me too, and it helps me deepen my faith as well. I’m not much older than them, so it’s really cool to be walking with them in this way.”

She put forth a challenge for other college-age young adults to serve as a chaperone at NCYC.

“I think it would unite the younger generation of the Church even more, and really help one another grow in faith.”

As for first-timer Hanson, the change in her demeanor between day one and day three of the conference was striking.

“Yesterday, one of the speakers said that lots of people feel like they can’t be completely loved or forgiven by God because of all the bad things they’ve done,” she said. “And I think maybe I felt like that before, so it just hit me.

“But now I know that God loves me,” said Hanson, her face serene, her smile confident. “And he loves everyone.

“This whole experience made me feel different. I can’t explain it, but it’s a good different.”

(Natalie Hoefer is a reporter for The Criterion, the weekly newspaper for the Archdiocese of Indianapolis.) 


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