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‘This is your city. Be a saint’: Teens take ownership of Los Angeles

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Young Catholics rejoice in song Aug. 4 during the third annual City of Saints youth conference in Los Angeles. The Archdiocese of Los Angeles Office of Religious Education hosted the three-day event on the campus of University of California, Los Angeles to offer teens an encounter with Christ through fellowship, praise and worship as they participate in workshops presented by renowned speakers, including youth leaders. (Victor Aleman/ANGELUS NEWS)

More than 1,000 teenagers from Southern California joined in a eucharistic procession around UCLA campus the evening of Aug. 4, giving a tangible sign of their Catholic faith in an increasingly secularized city.

The young people were kicking off a three-day event of faith, worship and fellowship as part of City of Saints LA. Initiated three years ago, the event brings together teenagers from all over the Archdiocese of Los Angeles to let the young people know that Los Angeles is their city to transform.

“Your desire to live your faith and share your faith — it is so beautiful to witness. And it is so inspiring,” Archbishop José H. Gomez he said in his Aug. 5 homily concluding the event.

“The purpose of our lives is to be transformed and transfigured. To become more like Jesus every day of our lives. Until one day we will shine like the sun — just we saw his face shine like the sun in the Gospel today,” the archbishop said, reflecting on the Transfiguration. “This is God’s plan for your lives — to be his sons and daughters. Just as Jesus was his beloved son.”

Victoria Radleigh, the City of Saints coordinator, said she hopes the event will give the teens a sense of urgency and ownership, enabling them to respond to holiness in their day-to-day lives. “We have the tagline: ‘This is your city. Be a saint,’ ” she said.

“Our ultimate goal is always for the young people to have an encounter with Jesus Christ,” Radleigh added. “We hope that they walk away with their faith deepened — that they’ve met Christ throughout the course of this weekend.”

The yearly event, while being focused on faith, is also teen-friendly. The popular Christian rock band WAL was a mainstay throughout the conference, leading the young people in praise music. The teens wore LED bracelets that light up and change colors in the darkened music-filled theater where they gathered to dance. Around the campus different geofilters with City of Saints themes allowed the teens to share their locations via the popular SnapChat app.

“We want the young people to come here and relax and have fun and know that this conference is for them,” Radleigh said. “We’re looking to do something that is of high quality. We do try and make sure that our production is top of the line.”

The teens were eager to participate during the talks from the keynote speakers. Some raised their hands to share stories. After a question about doubt, some said their faith is tested when being Catholic makes them different. People make fun of them, one high school student said.

Roy Petitfils, a Catholic therapist and speaker at the event, told Angelus News that students make similar comments in his workshops. “The more the culture moves away from what they believe, the more we stand out,” Petitfils said, adding that teens can “stand out more than adults.”

The conference gives students a place where they can let their guard down and openly talk about their faith — even if it’s just to express their struggles with it — which is a key aspect of the event. “We speakers are hanging out with the teens to talk with them,” Petitfils explained. “Teens have a lot of experience, but they don’t always have the language for it. When we are able to articulate it, we get a sense of control over it.”

He added, “Talking about it is important, especially to adults who can help them continue to think it through and ask questions that can bring them further in the process of growing in their faith.”

The teenagers were also given journals to write down their thoughts and inspirations throughout the day. They were invited to go to confession to acknowledge their mistakes and eliminate any shame. The speakers touch on all aspects of faith: doubt, temptation, faithfulness and healing.

This year had an impressive line up of speakers. David Calavitta of Life Teen International was the event’s emcee. Sister Miriam James Heidland, SOLT, author of “Loved as I Am,” was one of the keynote speakers, as was John Yep, a former seminarian, who is continuing his lay apostolate through social media @instahomilay.

Mass is a central focus of the event. “We made an intentional choice to have the Mass be the highlight or the apex of our conference,” said Radleigh, since “that’s when we encounter Christ directly in the Eucharist.”

Although City of Saints is only in its third year, the event is seeing retention and growth. Many of the students are back from previous years, while 11 new groups were welcomed this year. In total, the event welcomed 80 parishes and schools from across the archdiocese, totaling more than 1,400 participants and 200 volunteers.

“We really welcome them,” Radleigh said. “And we hope that they realize that this is their city and that they are called to be saints.”

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