at the _____ (Joyce Coronel/CATHOLIC SUN)
The inaugural Youth Catholic Congreso drew young, bilingual Catholics from across the Diocese of Phoenix June 12-14 for formation presented in a way that engaged them and made them gentle evangelizers by sharing their experiences via social media. (Joyce Coronel/CATHOLIC SUN)

They came from all over the diocese, some 1,500 Catholic teenagers and young adults ready for a weekend of prayer, praise and talks geared toward evangelization.

The diocese’s inaugural bilingual “Youth Catholic Congreso” June 12-14 was an effort aimed at attracting young Hispanic Catholics and youth leaders for three days of fun and formation.

Guadalupe Vasquez, director of the Jovenes de Fuego youth group at St. Margaret Parish in Tempe, brought 40 teens to the Congreso.

“I brought them here to get closer to God and bring them that hope that they need,” Vasquez said. “No one said being Catholic is boring and so this is how we are getting them to be more active.”

Cuco Ortiz, a 14-year-old member of Jovenes de Fuego, said he attended the three-day event to grow in his faith.

“I came here today because of my relationship with God so I can have a better connection and get to know Him more and be more involved with the Church,” Ortiz said.

Fr. Agustino Torres, a Franciscan Friar of the Renewal, was one of the featured presenters during the Congreso. He was introduced to the crowd at the Phoenix Convention Center alongside one of the order’s founders, Fr. Stan Fortuna. A couple hundred of those who wanted to hear the Saturday morning presentation in Spanish followed Fr. Torres to the Diocesan Pastoral Center.

“It’s incredibly important to reach our youth,” Fr. Torres told The Catholic Sun. “They are open and they have a natural disposition for God, but they also have a great need for this message to be put in a way that they can understand.”

To that end, Fr. Torres presented the truths of Theology of the Body to the youth using his acoustic guitar, good humor and dramatic storytelling that included a demonstration of balloon juggling.

“It’s not just necessarily in a classroom setting. It needs to be an upgraded presentation of the Gospel to them,” he said.

Fr. Fortuna, in a talk peppered with Spanish, jokes and guitar riffs, stood on the stage at the convention center behind huge banners of Pope Francis and Our Lady of Guadalupe. He pointed out that only Jesus Christ can truly satisfy the human heart.

“If you want to settle for less, you can get a taco at Taco Bell. Or, you can go to Abuela (Grandmother). Please,” Fr. Fortuna told the crowd. “The bishops here and the whole diocese, they got a crazy love for you and they want you to know that.”

Carmen Portela, director of parish leadership support in Spanish, helped organize YCC 2015 and said she hoped the young people would think about their futures in light of what they’d learned at the Congreso.

“God didn’t make them for nothing,” Portela said. “He made them for a well-defined purpose and we want to help them understand that whatever plan God has for them.” Participants had an opportunity to hear a vocations panel discuss the consecrated and religious life.

Cristofer Pereyra, director of the Hispanic Mission Office, said he attended the Congreso with his 12-year old son and 14-year-old daughter. They weren’t too enthused about the prospect of a full day of catechesis, he said, but discovered the event went far beyond their expectations.

“It turned out to be not only a good and uplifting experience, and a good formation experience as well, but it was really an opportunity to encounter Christ,” Pereyra said. “My children got the idea that the faith doesn’t have to be boring. You can convey it in a natural way and it can even be a fun experience.”