Where Two or More are Gathered

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Where Two or More are Gathered

In-person encounters with the Lord—and each other—have never been more important.

Winter 2023 | John Romanowsky

In This Article

If you have noticed more empty pews in your parish on Sunday, you’re not alone. As soon as the COVID-19 pandemic passed, people flooded back to bars, restaurants, sports stadiums—but not to churches. The Barna Group estimates in-person church attendance in the U.S. is 30 to 50 percent lower than before the pandemic. In 2020, weekly in-person Mass attendance dipped as low as 5 percent. According to a recent Associated Press poll, it is still far from returning to its pre-pandemic level of 30 percent.

The pandemic has had a similar impact on Franciscan University’s Steubenville Conferences. What had begun in 1975 with one conference for priests had grown into 5 annual adult conferences for over 4,000 attendees, and 22 annual youth conferences at 17 locations across the U.S. and Canada for over 55,000 youths. By 2019, the total number of high school students who had attended a Steubenville Youth Conference surpassed one million.

Then along came COVID-19.

Isolation suddenly became mandatory. People had to connect with others virtually or not at all. Everyone pivoted overnight to online classes, remote work, virtual family visits.

The University took its Steubenville Conferences virtual in 2020. “We did one virtual conference for adults and one for youth,” says Mark Joseph, vice president of Franciscan’s Center for Evangelization and Renewal. “It was the only alternative during the thick of it in 2020. The Youth Conference was met with relative success, but the adult conference was wildly successful. More than 30,000 people signed up.”

That success, however, was very short-lived. Looking back, Joseph says he understands why. It served a purpose in a time of crisis, but he recalls how quickly people tired of attending online. Many people have chosen to attend conferences again in person.

“In person is so much better!” says Denise Pencola, who has traveled every year since 2009 from Kent, Pennsylvania, to the Steubenville Conferences. “There’s something about being together with like-minded people who love the Lord the way we do. We’re trying to talk more people into coming and helping them realize they need that spiritual vacation.”


“He’s calling us to gather, to use all our senses to experience the conference in its fullness.”


Even though many have returned, last summer, conference registrations were down around 30 percent from the preCOVID-19 average. Youth attendance has also been slow to rebound, with 16 Youth Conferences planned for 2023 instead of the pre-pandemic norm of 22.

Joseph explains why returning to in-person conferences is needed now more than ever.

Where Two or More are Gathered

“It’s the difference between watching an NFL game on TV and going in person to the game and sitting on the 50-yard line,” he says. “You can’t possibly have a three-day experience of encounter and community on our campus, which is a special, holy place, on your TV or smartphone in a two-hour snippet.”

The conference experience is deliberately designed for what we need most to overcome the isolation and loneliness that spiked during the pandemic: face-to-face encounter and in-person community.

“The encounter is first and foremost with Our Lord Jesus Christ,” explains Joseph. “Understanding and internalizing the unconditional love of Jesus Christ changes your world. It rocked my world and changed my life forever.

“Community is the second piece,” he continues. “We’re not meant to go through life alone. We belong with other people. You really see that in our conferences. The sense of affirmation and being together as community is incredibly important.”

The culminating experience of encounter and community is the Saturday night eucharistic adoration at every conference.

“From the moment people arrive on campus, we take them on a journey,” Joseph says. “Eucharistic adoration is the pinnacle of that journey. It becomes that mountain-top experience where people truly encounter the love of Christ through the Eucharist.”

When asked what they missed most when they could not come to campus, annual Steubenville Conference-goers spoke about the warm fellowship and holy atmosphere, the students’ joyful witness, and beautiful, reverent liturgies. But to a person, they all emphasize the transformative impact of the “mountaintop experience” of Saturday night’s eucharistic adoration.

Where Two or More are Gathered

“It’s all about an encounter with the Lord,” says Warren Hunt from Knoxville, Tennessee, who started coming to the Defending the Faith Conference two years before the pandemic. “If you asked 10 people, I bet 9 of them would say eucharistic adoration is literally an otherworldly experience. The lighting, incense, music, being with other people—those moments have been very powerful for me.”

Michele Kennedy of Redford, Michigan, who has attended conferences for the past eight years, says she also missed eucharistic adoration.

“Being able to experience the smell of the incense, the cries of the people, the laughter, praising God with all the people around you—that’s what I hugely missed from the in-person conference.”

When asked what she would say to someone who is reluctant to return to an in-person conference, Kennedy is enthusiastic.

“Jesus calls us to get out of our comfort zone,” she says. “He’s calling us to gather, to use all our senses to experience the conference in its fullness. It’s definitely worth coming to have those new relationships with other people and experience the sacraments all in one weekend.”

“We spend so much of our time with something between us—screens, phones, distance,” says Father Dave Pivonka, TOR ’89, president of Franciscan University. “But being together, seeing each other, hearing each other is so important. I want to invite everyone to prayerfully consider attending a conference this summer. The Lord is waiting to welcome you and to pour out his grace and mercy.”

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