On the secular campus of UCLA, it may be unusual to see the archbishop of Los Angeles posing for selfies with high schoolers, or nuns in full habit taking electric Bird scooters for a spin, or a eucharistic procession with hundreds of teenagers praying to be saints — but with the City of Saints Teen Conference still going strong into its fourth year, this three-day witness to faith is becoming the new normal.
The Pope Francis quote, “To be saints is not a privilege for the few, but a vocation for everyone,” was proudly displayed on the T-shirts of teenagers from Santa Rosa, one of the many cities in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles to participate at the youth event hosted at UCLA by Archbishop José H. Gomez from Aug. 3 to Aug. 5.
“This is a beautiful weekend and I look forward to this all year,” Archbishop Gomez said. “We are here to have some fun together and to share the joy we have in knowing Jesus Christ and following him in our lives.”
This year’s City of Saints emcee, Katie Prejean, said that Archbishop Gomez is setting an example through his work with young people. “I love that the archbishop just comes and hangs out,” she told Angelus News. “He eats in the dining hall, walking around taking pictures, wearing a snapback hat today. That’s profound.”
Prejean was one of nine delegates from the U.S. to travel to Rome in March for the Pre-Synodal Meeting of Young People. She’s a renowned international speaker and author with many years of experience as a parish youth minister, so the USCCB was eager to hear her insights about the needs of youths in the Catholic Church today.
The pre-synodal document compiled from the input of the 300 global delegates states: “We [the youths] seek to be listened to and to not merely be spectators in society but active participants.”
Prejean noted that Archbishop Gomez is one of the five U.S. prelates to represent the country at the XV Ordinary General Assembly: Young People, the Faith, and Vocational Discernment in October, making his active listening at City of Saints all the more relevant.
“It’s really cool for [young people] to see their shepherd,” Prejean said. “It humanizes the hierarchy, which is another thing we talked about at the pre-synod.”
Prejean said that bishops should be able to greet by name at least some of the young people in their diocese and know some of their stories. She added, “I think there’s a lot of distance between the Church people and the unChurched. Young people often find themselves in between, so we have to bridge that gap. It comes down to talking.”
Difficult subjects need to be addressed — something event speaker Chika Anyanwu found when she asked the high-schoolers about the problems they were facing. Some said immigration, one said doubts about her own self-worth and another said the recent suicide of a close friend, driving home the reality that these young people are in need of guidance and support.
Anyanwu acknowledged the recent suicides of celebrities before saying, “Suicide is not an option,” and added, “I know that depression is a real thing. I know that anxiety is a real thing. … The Church urges you to get help, to turn to the people you know care about you, like the people in this room, like your priests and your youth ministers. … We are here for you.”
She told Angelus News, “The world is so blunt with them that we want to hit them with love and truth. … I pray that they hear it first at home and in their parish communities, and then we just reinforce it here.”
Prejean said her biggest concern for young people is that they don’t understand that they are loved. “They don’t think that other people love them. That’s why we are all sitting on these devices because we want affirmation. We post pictures because we want those ‘likes.’ We are seeking that community and that comfort.”
However, she said, social media and technology can also be used for good. “For young people, the entry point is usually, ‘Let’s take a selfie together!’ and then maybe you talk about something you saw on Instagram and that switches to some conversation you saw on Twitter, and then the next thing you know you might be talking about demonic possession.
“That literally would happen sometimes because the conversation is freewheeling and flowing,” she said of the many youth discussions she’s hosted. “It’s a conversation thing. It’s a presence thing. It’s a they-can-trust-you thing.”
Prejean added that the clergy can’t settle with hosting conferences. “Conferences like this are important for the mountaintop experiences, but for the day-to-day walk through the valley, we need to be accompanied. We need people who are honest, who are authentic, who are vulnerable,” she said.
“It means having teams of adults in your parish that are resourced and trained to have relationships one-on-one. One adult for every five kids that know their situation, they know their families, they know what’s going on at their schools. [Young people] feel comfortable coming to them and having an honest conversation about what is going on in their lives.”
Anthony Sanchez, 22, was at the conference for the fourth time and said finding spiritual guidance during the year can be difficult. He volunteers as the youth coordinator at St. John the Evangelist in South LA, working as a construction worker during the day.
Sanchez sees City of Saints as an event that gives participants the conviction to continue with their faith throughout the year, and in particular to continue attending the youth group. But, he said, “We are currently struggling in the youth group because we don’t have that spiritual guidance.”
Volunteers don’t always put in the same amount of work and dedication as perhaps a paid church employee would, Sanchez explained. The parish has floated the idea of hiring a teacher to help with the youth group and the confirmation classes, but the funds were lacking, and the parish was forced to continue with only the help of volunteers. Consequently the youth group numbers have dwindled.
He hopes these lack of resources will be addressed during the youth synod, although he acknowledged that at his parish the priests know many of the young people well and “will help you if you seek [their] help.”
Sanchez likes the analogy of conferences as hilltop experiences and youth groups as the walk through the valley since he said that City of Saints fills “you up with energy and spirit that just recharges your motivation to be at the youth group for another year.”
He says the event has sparked his recommitment to the youth group, saying, “Throughout the year you are climbing the mountain once again to hit the hilltop.”
Prejean is aware that a lack of resources is a top concern for the youths. Although Prejean won’t be attending the synod in October, she hopes that a concrete action plan for helping youths will result from the synod. “I think at a certain point we have to let the Holy Spirit be the Holy Spirit and let bishops be bishops … at a synod, canonically, it’s the bishops talking,” she said.
She noted that Archbishop Gomez jokingly said that the synod will result in a document — and nobody reads documents. But Prejean knows that the U.S. will be able to unpack this document and present it in modern ways (through video content and radio shows) to effectively get the message out to all Catholics.