A digital countdown clock has been ticking on the Los Angeles Religious Education Congress official website, marking the days, hours, minutes, and seconds before the Feb. 20 Youth Day starts inside the Anaheim Convention Center.

But for months, going back to last summer, dozens of teenagers who make up the Youth Day Coordinating Team (YDCT) have been counting down the time as they reconvene regularly at the Archdiocese of Los Angeles’ Wilshire Boulevard office to plan out all the elements.

The finish line is in sight, with enthusiasm and a belief in a unifying common goal for this year’s Youth Day.

Established for grades 9-12 in public and Catholic schools, it runs from 7:30 a.m. to 3:45 p.m. on the Thursday before as the high-energy launch into the adult portion of the Feb. 21-23 Religious Education Congress. It is all sponsored by the archdiocese’s Office of Religious Education.

Jenny Guzman, the coordinator of Youth Ministry Events for the archdiocese, has been impressed with the commitment of those on the YDCT committee, considering many have to come to downtown LA during rush-hour traffic on a school night to get the work done.

“Their energy and enthusiasm is so inspiring, and it’s important for them to understand that it’s a team who creates everything in all different regions of the archdiocese,” said Guzman. “These young people are strong and want to show others how awesome God is, in good or bad times, and to share God’s love.”

Religious Education Congress 2019 Youth Day Mass at the Anaheim Convention Center. (Victor Aleman)

Interweaving Scripture, music, and personal witness around the theme “20/20 Through God’s Eyes,” the focus is to open up communication about a variety of topics that resonates with the student organizers as well as their peer group. “I had some tough times going from 2019 to 2020, feeling maybe I was passed over, or invisible,” said Andre Quevedo, a senior at South Hills High School and a member of Sacred Heart Church in West Covina. 

“What we really want to accomplish with this Youth Day is remind everyone that God sees you, but don’t forget who you are. I feel this message is a good way to say: Be patient and understand you’re not alone. Trust me, see if through a clear lens and you’ll see the brightness in the world.”

Manny Lesedma, a Paraclete High School senior who attends Sacred Heart Church in Lancaster, also said 2019 was a difficult transitional year for him, “and it was hard to see what path God had for me. This makes me think about how I may have focused on something that was a burden or a dark time. God may see it as a way of opening a new door for me as he is closing another. We all have to open our eyes to what God may have in store for us.” 

The YDCT 2020 team has cast a net to invite some 40-plus high school students. Some were direct from Crespi High School in Encino, Louisville High School in Woodland Hills and Junipero Serra High School in Gardena. Others were parts of the youth parish ministries at Our Lady of Lourdes Church and St. Vincent Church in LA, Our Lady of Perpetual Help Church in Downey, Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal Church in Montebello, Sacred Heart Church of Covina and Lancaster, St. Francis of Rome Church in Azuza, St. Mary’s Church of Palmdale and St. Paschal Baylon Church of Thousand Oaks Church.

Most often they were encouraged to join the committee by their local youth group church coordinators, or from previous experience at the Youth Day event. Each takes on leadership roles for every meeting, from facilitator, community building, opening prayer, note taker, and timekeeper.

Madelyn Cruz, a senior at Paraclete High School in Lancaster and a parishioner at St. Mary Church in Palmdale, said it wasn’t surprising to her how these students from different schools were able to mesh so quickly and form a bond. “As a cradle Catholic, helping with summer camps and retreats, it’s amazing to see how people from all over can come together for one thing, and grow so close and so fast,” said Cruz. “I love to see it and I’m excited about this Youth Day.”

As the Religious Education Congress has become the largest annual gathering of Roman Catholics in the U.S., attracting more than 40,000 last year to attend some 300 workshops and hear 200 speakers, there were nearly 13,000 attendees just for Youth Day. The first organized Youth Rally was in 1971.

Cardinal Manning at the 1976 Youth Day. (The Tidings file photo)

Ledesma said the confidence and leadership skills he has developed with the YDCT “gives me the ability to go back and share with my parish. If we can show them that, a group of teens, we helped plan this large event, we can do something here as well, become eucharistic ministers and lectors. We can handle this. As Pope Francis has said, the youth of the Church is now, not just the future. We want to serve more.”

During the 1 1/2-hour meeting in early January, student organizers distributed a sheet of paper with 42 words: reminders of things that are important in their journey and need to be addressed. Many of them were heavy subjects, ranging from anger, depression, dysfunction, and suicide. It emphasized the importance of addressing mental and emotional health.

“We see these words, and it’s something that not just every teen, but children and adults and the elderly, have felt at some point,” said Quevedo. “It’s important to understand you’re not alone and you have people around you who may be going through the same situations. You have to be open to receiving love from other people. Ultimately, I hope those who attend this can understand they themselves have the ability to live the way they want.”

Going back to the “20/20” theme, Cruz said she also hoped the takeaway from Youth Day will be a simple message: “No matter how you see yourself, you’ll always be perfect in God’s eyes.”

Registration for Youth Day continues online at www.recongress.org/register for $40 a student.