By Peter Smith, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

STEUBENVILLE, Ohio — Attractive young singers accompanied by electric guitars, bass and drums led off with high-octane worship music at the crowded college fieldhouse on a warm July night. More than 2,000 teenagers teens sang along, raised their hands and hopped up and down beneath colored spotlights while swatting around a beachball and an inflatable shark.

It might seem like a cross between a mosh pit and an evangelical Protestant megachurch — except for the replica of the medieval crucifix on stage and the nearby statue of the Virgin Mary.

Before the night was over, speakers were encouraging the hushed teenagers to go to confession, pray before the consecrated sacrament and practice other traditional Catholic pieties.

It was the opening night of a three-day Steubenville Youth Conference sponsored by Franciscan University here. Twenty more like it have been taking place here and across North America throughout this summer, drawing a cumulative 50,000 teenagers.

Many teenagers ride 12 or more hours by bus to the Friday-through-Sunday gatherings, which have become a rite of passage for many young American Catholics over the past four decades.

It’s just one of the ways that Franciscan University, located in this small post-industrial county seat on the Ohio River, has become a nerve center of traditionalist Catholicism in America — a network of broadcasters, publications and other groups reaffirming church dogma, devotions and the policy priorities of bishops in opposing abortion and gay marriage.

A Steubenville Youth Conference is “unlike any other environment,” said Alex Grob, 18, of St. Catherine of Sweden Church in Hampton, who was attending for the second time. “As a teenager, it’s hard to find an environment like this, when you’re with so many kids who are trying to celebrate and live out their faith.”

Added Zach Probst, 17, also of St. Catherine, who was attending the mid-July conference to cap off a week-long leadership training at Franciscan University: “I couldn’t even describe it, the change I went through.”

Attending just days after the Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage across the land, he added. “I felt the church is losing a lot of battles. But after this week, I know there are youth who are going to be strong in the church. I hope I will be one.”

The influence of such conferences is widely felt. At least one in 10 newly ordained American Catholic priests has gone through a Franciscan University youth conference as a teenager, as have one in five new nuns, according to recent studies by Georgetown University’s Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate.

So have many lay leaders in the church. Franciscan University, half of whose students attended a summer youth conference, counts about 700 lay alumni as currently working in full-time church jobs, not including another 400 ordained priests.

At the closing Mass of each youth conference, teens are invited to come forward if they’re considering a future in the priesthood or a religious order.

Pittsburgh Bishop David Zubik, who celebrated the closing Mass at a Steubenville gathering earlier this summer, was surprised at the large response.

“There were several hundred young people who came forward,” he said. “Not that all of these people are eventually going to become priests and sisters, but at least they’re taking their faith seriously enough that it was an option.”

The conferences offer “a fun Catholic event, which doesn’t always go together,” said the Rev. Father Matt Lamoureux of St. Patrick Church in Yorkville, Ill., who was accompanying 90 youths from two parishes to this year’s event in what’s become an annual trek. He first experienced Steubenville as a seminarian and “saw how powerful it was for youth,” he said. “When I was assigned as a priest, I knew we had to do it.”

About 10,000 teens have attended five conferences in Steubenville this summer, with another 40,000 projected at 16 other conferences at locations from Halifax to San Diego. The university also sponsors conferences for adults that are reaching 6,000 this year. This year is the 40th year of the adult conferences and 39th for its youth conferences.

“They’re sacramentally based, we have dynamic praise and worship, we have speakers who are nationally known,” said Mark Joseph, executive director of Christian outreach for Franciscan University. 

Such speakers at the recent July weekend included the Rev. Leo Patalinghug, and accomplished chef who has become a media presence with his “Grace Before Meals” movement that seeks to promote family togetherness around the dinner table. He led the teens in an examination of conscience before a scheduled time in which dozens of priests would be hearing confessions. Mixing in recent pop-culture allusions to “Twilight” and “The Lord of the Rings,” he had the teens reflecting on sins ranging from dishonoring parents to dabbling in the occult to indulging in pornography.

”You find saints in the confessional because in confession you admit the truth: ‘I ain’t a saint, but I want to be one,’ ” said Father Patalinghug.

Several teens interviewed in July said a highlight of the youth conferences is the Saturday night time of adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, in which a priest carries the consecrated host through the darkened arena, and teens raise their hands in sometimes-tearful prayer and praise.  Franciscan has also long been associated with the Catholic charismatic movement, which blends Catholic piety with exuberant, Pentecostal-like worship.

Mr. Joseph traced the university’s trajectory to the Rev. Michael Scanlan, the retired longtime president who determined that in the face of liberalizing trends, “we need to take a hard right and be more Catholic.”

Such traditionalism is in minority among self-identified American Catholics today, many of whom dissent on such issues as gay marriage and birth control, according to surveys. But it’s in favor among many at the church’s altars, front pews and microphones, including priests and others who came of age during the long pontificate of St. John Paul II and were shaped by his conservative social views and devotions.

A lifesize image of John Paul greets conference participants at the fieldhouse, even in the era of pontiff who sainted him, Pope Francis, who took his name from the founder of the Franciscan order associated with the university.

Sam Rocha, an academic and blogger who graduated from Franciscan and played guitar at some of its conferences about 15 years ago, said he has mixed feelings about the conferences and their legacy.

Growing up in a small rural parish in Texas, attending a conference offered the first chance to see “there’s a lot of Catholics out there” and to bond with them, said Mr. Rocha, now a professor of educational studies at the University of British Columbia.

But he lamented that he hears more commentary coming out of Franciscan about culture-war battles than about fighting poverty or environmental degradation, signature priorities of Pope Francis.

And the high-energy conference experience can “go into a sentimentalism that, if not properly understood or discerned, can lead people in many cases to a more stranded spirituality after the feelings wear off,” Mr. Rocha said. “I’m almost speaking autobiographically. Nonetheless, I think there’s grace, and that can intervene in any structural weaknesses.”

Peter Smith: or 412-263-1416; Twitter @PG_PeterSmith