INDIANAPOLIS — “Follow me to arm-wrestle a seminarian! See if you can beat a man who receives Communion every day!”

Holding a chalk board with “Arm Wrestle a Seminarian” written on it, seminarian Samuel Hansen barked his invitation while walking through the halls of the Indiana Convention Center Nov. 20, the final day of the National Catholic Youth Conference.

“It was incredibly fun,” said Hansen, a senior at Bishop Simon Bruté College Seminary and a member of St. Roch Parish, both in Indianapolis. “Just walking with the sign made a lot of people laugh. I felt like a ballpark food salesman. But it energized the convention center quite a bit.”

In response to Hansen’s hawking, a steady group of challengers gathered around a table promoting vocations to the diocesan priesthood that had earlier attracted fewer visitors when the seminarians manning it waited for NCYC participants to come to them on their own.

As lighthearted and winsome as his strategy to attract attention was, Hansen saw it as following in the tradition of the saints. St. John Bosco, for example, did sleight-of-hand tricks and juggling acts for kids in his village to get them to listen to his catechesis lesson.

The NCYC always includes a thematic area made up of villages, or venues, in the convention hall that have traditional exhibits as well as interactive educational and recreational activities for attendees.

“The saints stepped out of line and took extraordinary actions to inspire others,” Hansen told The Criterion, newspaper of the Archdiocese of Indianapolis. “That’s exactly what Catholic youths need to know about the vocation (to the priesthood). It’s not a day job. It’s not for the faint of the heart. Enthusiasm is necessary, and we need to reflect that.”

Seminarians also were present to NCYC participants in other ways. Those in the last four years of their priestly formation wore clerical attire showing that they were a candidate for the priesthood.

“Wearing clerics makes (seminarians) that much more obvious,” said seminarian Tyler Huber, a member of St. Mary-of-the-Knobs Parish in Floyd County, Indiana, across the Ohio River from Louisville, Kentucky.

“When you’re walking around the thematic park and you engage in conversations with kids, playing games with them, they think it’s awesome,” he said. “You show them that this is a viable option for them. Young people are doing it. It’s joyful. Jesus will provide for you. It’s going to be a wonderful life.”

At the same time, Huber was encouraged during a time of eucharistic adoration at the conference in Lucas Oil Stadium when dozens of priests were available in the arena’s concourse to hear confessions.

Huber helped direct participants to the priests sitting in chairs.

“In my section alone, I looked down and saw four or five guys who are now priests that I’ve been in seminary with,” Huber said. “They were now the guys in the chairs — and they loved it.

“I got so excited. And they were in heaven. To see them thrive and do well in ministry, having a good relationship with their youth groups, getting the kids excited about the faith, celebrating the sacraments, it’s all awesome.”

Huber is in his third year of theological formation at St. Meinrad Seminary and School of Theology and expects to be ordained to the transitional diaconate in the spring.

“My next NCYC will be as a priest, which is awesome,” Huber said.

Father James Brockmeier knows that feeling. He was a high school student when he first attended NCYC.

“It was such a new experience to be with 20,000 other young Catholics, to experience the Mass in something bigger than your own parish and your own experience of it,” said Father Brockmeier, pastor of St. Mary Parish in Rushville, southeast of Indianapolis.

“Seeing all of the priests process into the Mass was one of the things that really got me thinking about the priesthood.”

In 2015, Father Brockmeier, as a seminarian and transitional deacon, experienced a “full circle moment” when he served as the principal deacon at the closing Mass of NCYC and took part in the same procession that had so impressed him earlier.

Later, the same kind of full circle experience may been beginning for NCYC participant Matthew Heidenreich of the Diocese of Columbus, Ohio, who first attended the conference in 2019.

“It’s inspirational at the Saturday night Mass to see so many priests (processing) down the aisle,” Heidenreich said. “As someone who’s discerning the seminary, you have to ask the question, ‘What if that was me? What if I was walking down that aisle?'”

Returning to the conference this year to celebrate the sacrament of penance with Catholic teenagers from across the country, Father Brockmeier spoke of the benefits of dozens of priests coming to minister together at NCYC.

“The priesthood is something that we do communally,” he said. “A lot of times we feel like individuals at our parishes. But we are brother priests. To be able to come and hear confessions with brother priests is a reminder of the communal nature of our ministry.”

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Gallagher is a reporter at The Criterion, newspaper of the Archdiocese of Indianapolis.