After sleeping overnight at the Cardinal Manning Center’s homeless shelter on Skid Row for three weeks last January, Andrew Wallender came home with a new attitude toward the homeless.

“What struck me most was how normal the people’s lives started out and how many of them were just like me in every way when they were younger,” said the Loyola High School senior. “I know a lot of times when we see people on the street, we just run by and hope they don’t notice us, but it taught me to really see the person inside everyone.”

Wallender was one of three Loyola students among 77 seniors from 51 Catholic high schools being honored March 18 for their exemplary community service throughout the archdiocese at the annual Christian Service Awards Mass. Held at St. Basil Church in Los Angeles, the event also honored ten exceptional Catholic High School teachers, the largest number recognized since the Christian Service Awards’ inception in 1992.

“The 77 seniors and 10 teachers being honored here this morning have experienced that service is the secret of happiness,” said Holy Faith Sister Angela Hallahan, archdiocesan coordinator of the Christian Service Awards. “This happiness was found in the generous giving of themselves and their time as they brought their presence with a willing care and active compassionate love to the lonely, the destitute and the marginalized of our city.”

A short list of organizations benefitting from the students’ service includes the Cal State Long Beach Special Olympics, Camp Maristella, Good Shepherd Shelter, Habitat for Humanity, L.A. County-USC Medical Center, Life Teen and Meals on Wheels.

In his homily, Archbishop José Gomez told the students that the Christian life is all about a life of loving service. “Each one of us is called to be a missionary disciple,” he said. “It means that we are always looking for ways to bring the love of God to other people. Missionary disciples try to serve others with generosity and with humility, especially as Pope Francis is helping us to understand to meet people wherever they are at, [particularly] the poor and most vulnerable.

“Being missionary disciples, which is a vocation of service, is also a vocation to try to do our best in obeying Jesus in our everyday life,” the archbishop continued. “Not just once in a while, or special occasions, but every day,” in the pursuit of holiness.

He cited the life of LAPD Officer Nicholas Lee, a Catholic married father of two daughters known for his kindness and compassion who was recently killed when a runaway truck slammed into his police car.

“He was a good, faithful Catholic, good husband and good father,” noted the archbishop. “We can say that he was a missionary discipleLet us try to learn from his example because the lesson is this: We serve God in the everyday circumstances of our lives.

Archbishop Gomez urged the honorees — “we all are proud of you and you inspire us” — to “have faith in the beauty of our Christian life and our Christian mission: becoming missionary disciples [and] apostles of Jesus Christ because we are called to set the world on fire, to change the world.”

Bishop Conaty-Our Lady of Loretto High School senior Kimberly Salinas, who performed more than 600 hours of Christian service tutoring and coaching students in track and field for four years, told The Tidings following the awards ceremony that serving youth has been “a delight” and a pleasure. “It’s always a good feeling to know that they love my assistance and just me being there as a friend,” said Salinas, who served as Mass lector.

Justine Echenique, a San Gabriel Mission High School senior who helped bring up the offertory gifts, said one of the highlights of her more than 400 hours of Christian service was volunteering at Camp St. Francis in Aptos.

“I worked with boys from 7 to 13, teaching them leadership skills and having a blast with them,” said Echenique. “Everything was just really fun, and it made me develop what I want to do in the future: physical therapy, because I want to help kids.”

For Bishop Alemany High School senior Louisa Tostado, the highlight of her Christian service was delivering meals to the Sylmar homeless shelter. “Sometimes people would tell us they hadn’t eaten for days,” noted Tostado. “Just seeing that smile on their face, knowing that you made a difference in the community, really does bring light into your soul.”