Struggling in a culture they see as increasingly hostile to Catholic faith, Alaska teens said the June 5-8 Alaska Catholic Youth Conference (ACYC) in Anchorage inspired them to return home with a renewed sense of urgency to pray, participate in the sacraments and live out their faith.
Catholic teens gathered from all three Alaska dioceses — Anchorage, Fairbanks and Juneau. Speaking with the Catholic Anchor, they expressed gratitude for finding a refuge of faith in sacraments and inspired friendship during the conference. These are especially needed, they said, given the distractions and temptations that pull them from faith.
TEENS CITE CHALLENGES TO FAITH
“It’s hard to take the time and be consistent with your faith. That would probably be the hardest part,” Juneau resident Cameron Benning told the Catholic Anchor.
Others spoke of the difficulty in resisting peer pressure.
“It’s hard to fight what society says is good, but we know to be bad,” said Grace Woyte, of Anchorage. “And when you say you’re Catholic, they think, you won’t accept this, so you’re a bad person.”
“The culture is so filled with bad influences,” added Taylor Kiser, of Fairbanks. “But with the church, we’re a community and we should stick together.”
Many teens cited struggles with fitting in with their peers because of their faith.
“It’s hard to openly talk about your faith,” said Malina Sargeant, of Juneau.
“There’s so much pressure nowadays to fit in a certain group,” said Katie Hunt of Fairbanks. “Everybody’s saying it’s all about you, but you’re saying, no, it’s all about God. And then they think, oh, you believe in God? You’re a weirdo.”
Ashley Stevens, of Anchorage, agreed.
“Acceptance is hard,” she said. “A lot of friends of mine used to be Catholic and have started to part ways with it. It’s hard when you have people who are trying to avoid it as much as they can. They’re so distracted that they don’t really pay attention, to the point that they don’t even care.”
“And it’s also hard not knowing a lot of other devoted teens,” said Grace Sikorski, of Fairbanks. “You might know a couple who are Catholic, but not really practicing.” She noted the challenge in finding people “who can encourage you.”
Teens also cited hot-button topics as points of conflict with their peers.
“You have people out there who are transgender, and when you say you’re Catholic, it puts on the label that says, oh, that means you judge me,” Stevens said.
“They immediately think that you hate them, and that’s not the case, just because your beliefs don’t align with theirs,” added Steven Woyte, of Anchorage.
Some said they feel pressure to keep quiet about their faith.
“Whatever I do for my faith, I keep it kind of personal, so I don’t really bring it up at school, because I don’t like conflict, so when things like gay rights come up, I just kind of stay quiet, because I don’t want to start fighting,” Sikorski said.
Aside from cultural issues, teens said technology is also a very real challenge to a mature faith life. They pointed to the distraction of constant texting or the limitless online movies and shows.
“There’s all these electronics now, and they’re trying to grab your attention. Like ok, I really want to watch Netflix, but I have to pray also,” Hunt said.
Steven Woyte explained the technology distractions with an analogy.
“We live in this generation of updates — everybody has the iPhone 6 and as soon as the iPhone 7 comes out, then everybody will get the iPhone 7. Each month we get a new update for that phone — we’re always updating and so when we see something that’s not updated, we think it’s broken, or that it needs to be fixed.”
He continued: “The church is two millennia old, and everyone’s like, oh, they need to get with the times, they need to update, and I don’t think that’s the case. We need to start celebrating our age, the fact that we’ve been around so long that we’ve been able to gain all this knowledge.”
When asked whether family or friends were more impactful in their faith lives, teens cited both groups as influential.
“I think your friends are more energetic about it, but your family will encourage you,” said John Williams, of Juneau.
“My family goes to church every week, and the potlucks and stuff, but my friends and I go to a Catholic school, and we pray the rosary together,” said Grace Woyte. “I have a really good friend from school, I’ll come to her with the questions I have.”
“I’d have to say my friends too, and not because my family is less supportive,” Steven Woyte said. “It’s just because at Catholic school, we’re immersed in that.”
“My friends are really supportive about my faith,” said Taylor Kiser. “I’ll talk to my friends about it, but there’s only one friend in particular who’ll be like, church is stupid. All of my other friends are really good about it. My boyfriend is actually just coming back to the church.”
“Most of my friends are already in the Catholic Church, but I’d have to say my family is more supportive,” Hunt said. “I’ve been thinking about becoming a (religious) sister, actually, so I told my family and they were like, ok, that’s pretty awesome, whatever you feel like God’s calling you to be.”
Others found it more difficult, noting that their families were either not that knowledgeable about the Catholic faith, or not Catholic at all.
ACYC BOOSTS FAITH
Despite real challenges, teens were optimistic and shared their hopes for the future of ACYC. Many cited prayer and the sacraments as their favorite aspect of the recent gathering.
“My favorite part of ACYC was being able to go into the church and just sit there during the prayer sessions,” Kiser said.
Grace Woyte appreciated the chance to pray before the Eucharistic Christ during adoration of the Blessed Sacrament.
“Adoration is my favorite part,” she said. “It was very calming, and you get your quiet time with God — you can sing along if you want to, but I like to just have the quiet.”
Participating in confession moved others. Sikorski recalled her experience of attending confession with Fairbanks Bishop Chad Zielinski.
“I got some really good advice,” she said. “It was kind of scary, but it was actually really good.”
In addition to the sacraments, the youth also took part in dozens of workshops on aspects of Catholic faith and morality.
“The last one I went to was with the Dominican sisters, and it was really inspiring, the joy they bring,” Sikorski said. “I think it’s really great that we have all the religious here.”
SUGGESTIONS FOR ENHANCING ACYC
While teens praised much of the four-day conference, they also offered a few suggestions for the future.
“I’d like to see Catholic Relief Services play a bigger role. Their presentation was really cool,” Steven Woyte said.
“I felt like the marriage and religious life talks were a little rushed,” Hunt added. “I wish we would have had more time with them.” She said she wanted to hear more about “the struggles that they had,” and how they overcame them.
“A few years ago there was a guy who talked about how he had a bunch of temptations,” Kiser noted. “I think it would have been nice for other people to talk about it, because it lets us know that we don’t have to be perfect, but that we just have to try to be perfect.”
And one youth, Malina Sargeant, just couldn’t get enough of the gathering.
“I’d make ACYC longer,” she said.