Over the last decade, the National Catholic Youth Conference (NCYC) — the largest Catholic youth event in the United States — has made itself at home in the centrally located city of Indianapolis every two years.

Now, by planting a foot on the West Coast, the event is expanding in more ways than one: For the first time ever, the gathering will take place in Long Beach this fall, marking the start of a new schedule that will turn NCYC into an annual conference, alternating between the two cities.

Organizers say the reasoning behind the move west seeks to expand coastal participation, given that most years typically saw less than 1,000 participants from the West Coast.

“We had seen for a number of years that participation for those living on the West Coast was challenged, primarily because of finances,” said Christina Lamas, executive director of the National Federation for Catholic Youth Ministry (NFCYM).

Christina Lamas, executive director of the National Federation for Catholic Youth Ministry. (CNS/Courtesy NFCYM via The Criterion)

According to Dayrin Perez, coordinator of youth ministry for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, the idea came from Los Angeles Archbishop José H. Gomez after attending the event in Indianapolis.

“Our delegations in the past have been small due to travel costs,” said Perez. “Having NCYC here in Long Beach makes it much more accessible and affordable.”

To make the cost of this year’s NCYC — which will take place at the Long Beach Convention Center — even more affordable for teens in Los Angeles, the Dan Murphy Foundation provided scholarships to parishes and Catholic schools to support conference attendance. So far, more than three times the usual number of Archdiocese of Los Angeles attendees have signed up.

Those attending expect the standard fare for NCYC — stadium Masses, dynamic speakers, breakout sessions, and service opportunities — but with a California twist.

“I do have to say that there has been a lot of intentional efforts in building NCYC in Long Beach to be reflective of the community, of the cultures that are represented on the West Coast,” said Lamas, who is based in Washington, D.C., but grew up in Los Angeles. “That has been very intentional in all the programming, and I think you’ll see that come forth in the workshops, in the main stage.”

It’ll also show up in the conference’s “villages,” or interactive exhibits that engage students with hands-on activities ranging from Catholic social teaching to open mics, and music from four-time Grammy award-winning Christian pop duo For King + Country.

And for Perez, the timing of this event is more important than ever.

“One of the things that we have learned coming out of the pandemic is that teens aren’t going to believe what we tell them,” she said. “They need to experience it for themselves so that they can believe it. We can tell them every day that they are beloved children of God. Until they experience that love in some way, nothing is going to change.”

That experience is what is intended to make the entire process — which usually involves travel, admission fees, and time off from school or work — worth it for high-schoolers seeking something new in their spiritual lives.

“So often our young people feel alone, feel the pressures of school and life in general,” Perez said. “NCYC is a safe space. It’s a space where you can be with people and feel welcomed, loved, appreciated, like you belong.”

The delegation representing the National Youth Advisory Council poses in front of St. Peter's Basilica Oct. 12, 2022, the day of their audience with Pope Francis. (NFCYM)

Sometimes, it is also a place for challenge and growth. Lamas likes to tell the story of last year’s 2021 NCYC in Indianapolis, where she had been scheduled to give a short, 15-minute address to attendees. But she ultimately decided that the high-schoolers in attendance would be more interested in hearing from one of their own. So she worked with two teens — one boy and one girl — and prepared them to take her spot.

“I turned it over to them,” Lamas said. “It was such a powerful moment. … The young woman who joined me onstage from that point on was able to go back into her home diocese and continue sharing. She was invited to different parishes. She was invited to share her testimony with her diocesan paper.”

The young woman is one of the members of the National Youth Advisory Committee, a panel of 12 young people and four adults who provide insight and guidance to NFCYM.

Though the pope has sent a written or video message to attendees at previous NCYCs, this year he agreed to meet with the Youth Council Oct. 12 in Rome, where he presented a message to NCYC for the representatives to deliver on his behalf.

“I look forward to sharing my experiences with not only my peers and parish but also at NCYC this November,” said Julia Zerbes, Youth Council representative, last month. “I hope the stories I share will open people’s hearts, minds, and souls to the many possible things Christ can do for everyone.”

Registration to NCYC is $320 for general admission, or $280 for NFCYM members, with scholarships available for those facing financial hardship. Click here to learn more or register.