About 12,000 youth — and nearly 2,800 chaperones — filled the Convention Center Feb. 21 for the Los Angeles Religious Education Congress Youth Day. Garbed in T-shirts that proclaimed “Saved With Amazing Grace — and I’m Catholic,” “Don’t Panic, Jesus Has the Keys,” and “Keep Calm and Pray On,” the crowd came from all corners of Southern California (and even from outside the country) to praise and worship together, to learn about their Catholic faith, and to enjoy fellowship. “It’s a good experience,” said Lizbeth Lara, 17, who attended Youth Day with others from her parish, St. Justin Martyr in Anaheim — so close to the Convention Center that some of the group walked to get there. “It’s pretty fun.” Fun was clearly a focus of Youth Day — from the constant invitations to dance and join in praise songs during the rally, to the often-humorous presentations of the speakers. But the theme of this year’s Youth Day — “Keep Calm, God’s Got This” — was a serious focus, constantly referenced by presenters, by Archbishop José Gomez in his Mass homily, and in vignettes in which teens acted out some of the challenges they face. Whether the actors were anxious about poor grades, unhappy family life, or peer pressure, each one received a response from God.“All you need to do is ask, and support will be given,” declared “God” in one vignette. “I got this.” “You are never alone. I got this.” “Don’t you know I’ve always had a plan for you? You’ve knocked — now the door will be opened. I got this.” The crowd quieted for these moments, but the volume rose instantly as soon as praise music resumed. Cheers filled the arena as photos from Pope Benedict XVI’s papacy appeared on the massive overhead screens, and the crowd roared with laughter during Father Tony Ricard’s keynote presentation. A priest of the Archdiocese of New Orleans, Father Tony took the stage by storm, dancing with a group of teens before shooing them off “his stage” so he could begin his presentation, which included a retelling of the creation story with a stand-up comedy sensibility. But his humor led to a very serious point. “We really are blessed to be who we are in the eyes of God,” he said simply. “God can work miracles if you are just willing to be who he made you to be.” All face many struggles, he added — but “no matter what comes our way, it’s our mission to stand strong in our faith. The good news is that we don’t need to struggle alone with that mission.” “When you come to this altar,” he explained, “Jesus is saying to you, ‘I will be your strength.’”The arena crowd immediately sprang to its feet in a standing ovation as Father Tony left the stage, hollering and applauding. As a handful of deacons and 21 priests processed into the arena to concelebrate Mass with Archbishop Gomez, the atmosphere quickly changed to quiet and prayerful — though Archbishop Gomez nevertheless quipped that the crowd was “scaring him.” Reminding attendees that Pope Benedict should be in our prayers as he prepares to leave the papacy — “an act of a saint,” the archbishop said — he pointed out that “these are interesting times in the life of the church.” He soon transitioned to the theme of Youth Day, emphasizing that God — because He is a wonderful father — does answer our prayers, and that we should pray to him with confidence. But, he added, it’s not enough to ask God for what we want; we must also ask Him what it is he wants us to do. “That’s the most important question,” the archbishop concluded. Workshop topics ran the gamut from handling peer pressure to getting the most out of Mass, to testimony from singer-guitarist Tony Melendez — born without arms, he performed for Pope John Paul II on his 1987 visit to Los Angeles — to recognizing the voice of God. The full Youth Day experience is, attendees said, a powerful one, particularly for those volunteering to help it run smoothly. “You can see your handiwork, and everyone experiencing it,” said Nadine Mata, 16, a student at Bishop Alemany High School in Mission Hills. “It helps me live my faith,” added classmate Gabriel Mexicano, 16. {gallery width=100 height=100}gallery/2013/0301/youthday/{/gallery}