ANAHEIM, Calif. (CNS) — Los Angeles Archbishop Jose H. Gomez advised young Catholics to do three things: talk to Jesus, read the Gospels, and do deeds of love and mercy every day.
“The work of Jesus’ words continues through you and though me,” the archbishop said in a March 12 homily. “So in the same way, just be normal. Have fun, enjoy life. … Because Jesus wants to be your friend.”
Archbishop Gomez was the main celebrant and homilist at Mass with more than 15,000 young Catholics in attendance on Youth Day, the first day of the Los Angeles Religious Education Congress.
This year’s gathering March 12-15 at the Anaheim Convention Center drew close to 40,000 people.
The annual event, which began in 1968, draws Catholics from across the United States and other countries. This year, attendees hailed from 49 different states, including Arizona, and 21 different countries, with 13 coming from Pakistan.
“Congress,” as it’s referred to among participants, is four days of liturgies and religious education sessions that focus on theology, apologetics, spirituality, social justice and other aspects of the faith.
Emily Tempe, a senior at Notre Dame Preparatory in Scottsdale, Arizona, supported the Masses and concerts as a first-time member of the liturgical movement ministry. Her mom, Ginny, a staff member at Notre Dame, has supported the ministry since her daughter was in utero.
The pair coordinated 40 people from roughly five different cultures to dance at the opening event. Many studied YouTube videos prior to the event in order to study the choreography.
Emily was grateful to be part of it and have the opportunity to dance to “I Will Lift My Eyes” while its composer, Tony Alonso, sang it.
More than 200 speakers presented over 300 workshops in English, Spanish and Vietnamese.
Richard Alan Jones, an expert in Latin American migration with Catholic Relief Services, the U.S. bishops’ overseas relief and development agency, spoke of the surge of Central American immigrants into the United States during a March 13 session.
“They aren’t looking for the American dream, they’re fleeing the Central American nightmare,” said Jones, who lives in San Salvador.
Gangs, poverty and even an improving Mexican economy have contributed to the steep increase in immigration from Central America, he said. With the lowest number of Mexican immigrants since the 1970s, human traffickers have targeted Central Americans.
Coyotes, who charge no less than $5,000 for transit to the United States, began stimulating immigration in Central America, even offering two-for-one deals, he said.
Congress attendees traveled to Christ Cathedral in Garden Grove for the second annual Immigration Summit. Bishops from dioceses in Southern California signed a joint letter to Congress, urging representatives to move forward with comprehensive immigration reform.
“No one denies that our response to immigrants and our immigration system itself has gotten off track,” the letter read. “We urge California’s congressional delegation and our leaders in Washington to come together to implement policies … which promise to bring temporary relief and protection to millions of immigrants,” they wrote.
The bishops also underscored the need to defend the due process for unaccompanied minors, “who under U.S. law and under common humanitarian principles should not be deported without first having a court hearing.”
Leaders of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles and the dioceses of Orange and San Bernardino called all parishioners from Southern California to take action. Archbishop Gomez, Orange Bishop Kevin W. Vann, San Bernardino Bishop Rutilio J. del Riego and the auxiliary bishops of Los Angeles all signed the letter.
Earlier that day, the Rev. Rick Warren addressed thousands in a packed a packed Anaheim Convention Center Arena.
The world-renowned Christian leader spoke on spoke about the meaning and purpose of life, first noting that material success and career status are not enough.
“It’s not enough to just have things,” said Warren, a husband, father of three and an evangelical leader at Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, California. Many billionaires and millionaires he has met through his ministry have told him that they still feel empty.
“The problem with the good life,” he said, “is that it’s just not good enough.” God created each person to be with him for eternity; any other goal will fall short of satisfying that “hole in your heart.”
“You were made by God, and you were made for God, and until you understand that, life’s never going to make sense,” he said.
Later, Honduran Cardinal Oscar Rodriguez Maradiaga of Tegucigalpa spoke on the “Church of the Future,” emphasizing the need for ongoing catechesis.
“Many people think that catechesis is only the preparation for a sacrament, especially for First Communion and for confirmation,” Cardinal Rodriguez said. “And that is wrong.”
He called catechism a “continuous and systematic education of the faith,” adding “all of us need this kind of education.” A childish faith is not enough to support the adult life, he said.
Between sessions, participants visited hundreds booths set up by Catholic organizations in the exhibit hall. Some had Pope Francis cutouts so visitors could pose for a mock “selfie” with the pope.
The Argentine-born pontiff’s presence was felt in the sessions as well, with Jesuit Father Thomas Reese giving his two cents.
“This is a workshop to evaluate the pope’s first two years, and — spoiler alert — he did good,” said a smiling Fr. Reese as he kicked off his engaging, positive discussion, eliciting laughter from hundreds of Congress-goers.
The priest cited style, pastoral priorities and the public presence of the church as the top reasons for the “Francis effect.” From his simple words of introduction after being introduced as pope, to the focus on the poor, to being a vocal critic of globalization, the pope has won many fans.
The Catholic Sun in Phoenix contributed to this story.