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More than 15,000 young Catholic teenagers packed into the Anaheim Convention Center for the 44th annual LA Youth Day, which kicked off this weekend’s Religious Education Congress, March 12-15. 

Droves of students, most who were bused to the Anaheim Convention Center, joined in a rally featuring songs and chants. “The rallies have been the highlight so far. The environment makes me want to be a part of it,” said Rene Cervantes, a member of a group that came from San Francisco Church of East Los Angeles.

Archbishop José H. Gomez celebrated a Mass for the multitude after the rally. His homily focused on what young adults can do today to strengthen their faith. He emphasized that we are all called to be saints, regardless of age.

“The work of Jesus’ words continues through you and though me,” Archbishop Gomez said. “So in the same way, just be normal. Have fun, enjoy life. […] Because Jesus wants to be your friend.” 

His advice to the students was to do three things: talk to Jesus, read the Gospels, and do deeds of love and mercy every day. 

After Mass, Catholic performers Jeremy and Ryan rocked the arena with the Youth Day theme song, “Talk Jesus.” The students also loved the duo’s takes on famous songs, such as “All about that Grace.”

Jeremy and Ryan had the whole crowd chanting “Yes, Lord! Yes, Lord! Yes, Lord! Yes!” and waving their phones in the air, creating the feel of a rock concert and energizing the already enthusiastic audience.

The students also had the chance to listen to talks by Jesuit Father Greg Boyle, founder of Homeboy Industries, and Mike Patin, who advised them on how to be happy and Catholic at the same time. 

Miren Cancio from the Diocese of San Bernardino, has been to the Youth Day twice. He liked it so much the first time, he spread the word.

“I just invited my friends to join me, and next thing you know, they’re all here spending a day with me and thousands of other Catholics celebrating Christ,” Cancio said.

This day was not exclusively for members of Southern California. There were students who traveled all the way from Hawaii and Missouri to be here.

Senior Mary Mertes, a 17-year-old student at Notre Dame de Sion in Kansas City, was one of those who traveled far for Congress. Mertes organized the whole trip for her school as part of her senior project, a Spring Break mission trip.

“It helps me to realize I’m not alone in my faith,” Mertes said. “There is something powerful about having Mass with thousands of people. There are a lot of other young Catholics out there living their faith, and it makes it easier to invite others to join us. It [LA Youth Day] makes it easier to bring my faith life out into view.”

Mertes and her peers are following Archbishop Gomez’s advice of doing deeds of love and mercy. They will travel to Tijuana on Friday to volunteer at an orphanage, and then volunteer on Skid Row this Saturday. On Sunday, they will be feeding the homeless in Santa Ana.

Over the weekend, the Congress will unite more than 40,000 Catholics from the United States, Canada, Australia, Mexico, United Kingdom and other parts of the world. More than 200 distinguished speakers and theologians will give presentations at workshops in English, Spanish and Vietnamese, covering all areas of religious education and catechetical leadership.

LA Youth Day was a success on social media as well. Over 1,200 people posted pictures on Instagram using the hashtag #TalkJesusWithMe, which was the theme this year. On Twitter, that same hashtag was trending. 

“This event has helped me build my faith a lot. Just being able to be more open to anything Christian,” Cervantes said, adding he will try to come back next year.

“It doesn’t matter what you believe in if you don’t practice it with others,” Deacon Fausto of St. Andrew Catholic Church in Pasadena said. “And that’s exactly what this day is about.”

Were you at LA Youth Day? Post your pictures on Instagram and Twitter using the hashtag #TalkJesusWithMe!