A few weeks ago, I spent 3 days with over ten thousand Catholic youth and their leaders at the National Catholic Youth Conference in Indianapolis, Indiana. Pre-pandemic, NCYC would welcome twenty-five thousand Catholic Youth and their leaders for an experience of big-name Catholic speakers, large liturgies, small group time, workshops, and more. Even though the Catholic Apostolate Center attended NCYC in 2013, this was my first. While I could write, for pages and pages, about our booth, stage, and experience, I want to focus on another aspect of my time in Indianapolis that has not left my mind since. That is the joy that was felt.
It’s fitting to reflect a bit about joy in this liturgical season of Advent. St. Paul said in his letter to the Philippians, “Rejoice in the Lord always.” We pay special attention to joy and the action of rejoicing in Advent as we await and prepare ourselves for the incarnation of Jesus Christ at Christmas. We have joy in this season because we know that God’s gift to man, the Word being made flesh, is on its way. As the famous hymn says, Rejoice, rejoice Emmanuel, shall come to thee O Israel.
Joy is not an emotion; it is a state of being which transcends one’s individual experience or circumstances. Happiness is often conflated with joy. I’m happy because my favorite song came on the radio or because my favorite pizza was served in the dining hall. Joy, though, remains with the Christian in particular, in both good and bad. Joy remains in illness, in emergency, in suffering. Joy comes from knowing that Jesus Christ, the Word made Flesh, came among us, lived with us, suffered and died for us, redeemed us, and freed us from the grasp of sin and death. If hope is the rock upon which the Christian life is rooted, then joy is the flower that springs from the roots. As Bishop Arturo Cepeda said in 2019, “the joy of the Gospel begins with a smile.”
So why am I reflecting upon joy in light of my experience of NCYC? Because the joy was palpable, it was unescapable, it was refreshing. In so many parts of our world, including and at times especially in the Church, there is a lack of joy. The pandemic, racial unrest, injustice of all types has led to a world that is less and less joyful. Wherever you turned at NCYC, there was joy. It could be seen in the chants and the hats that groups used and wore as a calling card for their groups. It could be seen in the interactions at the booth as video games were played, radio shows were streamed, karaoke was sung, and conversations were had. It could be seen in the workshops as participants were challenged, were welcomed, and encountered the merciful love of Jesus Christ. This joy was most palpable in the liturgies, in adoration, and in the moments of prayer. Whether it was Christian rapper Lecrae’s concert, Eucharistic Adoration in Lucas Oil Stadium, or daily Mass in one of the conference center’s halls, you could tell that Jesus was present. He wasn’t just present because of the proximity of the Eucharist, or the gathering of his people, no that joy and his presence could be felt so tangibly because of the demeanor of his disciples who had gathered.
Anyone who knows me knows that I caution against these conferences without proper formation and accompaniment. Participants, especially youth, can fall into the trap of seeing the life of faith as being only emotional experiences, massive highs, which can result in the normalcy of the everyday life of the disciple as being unattractive. But at NCYC, I was reminded of the power of thousands of Catholics, especially young Catholics, joining together in worship, praise, and prayer. In these moments, conflicts and disagreement were not at the forefront. Certainly, if we’d polled every person there we would have found thousands of different opinions on liturgy, prayer, spirituality, music, etc., but that wasn’t the focus. No, the focus was the body of Christ and communal prayer and worship of our Lord. Isn’t that a beautiful goal for this Advent season? We know that the disagreements and the conflicts will continue. They’re not always bad in and of themselves. But can we enter into this Advent season with joy? Joy that is rooted in the hope that incarnation gives us. Joy that makes us effective evangelizers. Joy that is the hallmark of a Christian. Joy that comes from Christ alone.