Catholics from the Neocatechumenal Way in Southern California were among the thousands of pilgrims to descend on Rome for the Way’s 50th anniversary celebration on May 5.

“Thanks to God, and also to you, especially to those who have made a long journey to be here,” said Pope Francis as he welcomed the estimated outdoor crowd of 150,000 on the university campus of Tor Vergata on the outskirts of Rome.

That long journey brought Rene Duran from the San Gabriel Valley to some of Christianity's holiest sites in Siena, Florence and Assisi before his group’s arrival in Rome.

“There are no words to describe the joy I’m feeling right now,” said the 24-year-old after the meeting at Tor Vergata. “Being able to sing, to praise God, to meet people from other countries who have the same faith that I do, is just wonderful.”

Duran, who belongs to the first Neocatechumenal community of St. John the Baptist in Baldwin Park, explained that the pilgrimage was about more than merely seeing the pope for a few hours.

“We always come to these pilgrimages to find our vocation,” Duran said. “I’m trying to find out what God wants to do with my life.”

Besides the nearly 400 pilgrims from the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, several hundred more members of the Way from the Orange, San Bernardino, and San Diego dioceses traveled to Rome for the encounter, which began with an introduction of the pilgrims representing the 134 countries where the Way is present by the Way’s initiator, Kiko Argüello.

He also introduced the various cardinals and bishops in attendance, including Boston archbishop and papal adviser Cardinal Sean O’Malley as well as former Archbishop of Dallas Cardinal Kevin Farrell, who now heads the Vatican Dicastery for Laity, Family and Life.

It was followed by a sung proclamation of a reading from the Gospel of Matthew and an address from the pope, who encouraged the Way’s members to evangelize those far away from the Church with the example of their lives.

“What counts is not convincing arguments, but the life that attracts; not the ability to impose oneself, but the courage to serve,” the pope said.

“Your charism is a great gift from God for the Church of our time. Let us thank the Lord for these 50 years.”

Pope Francis is the latest pope to offer his support for the itinerary of post-baptismal Christian initiation, which was born in the slums of Madrid in the early 1960s and was encouraged by Popes Paul VI, John Paul II and Benedict XVI.

For Los Angeles pilgrim Ana Vigil, the pope’s words were an answer to her prayers to God.

“I came wanting to hear him speak to me,” said Vigil, a parishioner of St. John the Evangelist in South LA, where the Way’s first community in the West Coast started 40 years ago.

“The moments of prayer, of being together with others, showed me that God gives me so many things that I don’t deserve.”

Accompanied by her husband and grandson, she credits the Way with saving her marriage and strengthening her relationship with God amid the difficulties of her daily life.

“Hearing the pope, and seeing him and all these people giving their lives for Jesus Christ and the gospel, makes me want to bring this back to my everyday life,” said Vigil, whose group made stops at the Sanctuary of the Holy House in Loreto and the Shrine of the Holy Face in the small town of Manoppello, both in Italy.

She and others from the group of 25 pilgrims from St. John the Evangelist said they were especially touched by the hospitality shown by families from the Way in the Roman suburb of Dragona, who hosted the LA pilgrims in their homes during their time in Rome.

Pope Francis gives a mission cross to a priest accompanying one of the 34 "missio ad gentes" communities sent out at the May 5 encounter with the Neocatechumenal Way. MASSIMO GAUCCI/CNC

Before accompanying the singing of the "Te Deum" as a hymn of thanksgiving for the movement's jubilee, the pope sent out communities from parishes in Rome that had finished the Way’s itinerary to assist pastors of other parishes in the city’s peripheries, many of whom serve areas with large immigrant populations.He also sent forth 34 “missio ad gentes,” composed of three or four missionary families accompanied by a priest to evangelize in countries as far away as Tanzania and Siberia, where the Church’s presence is limited or nonexistent.

One of those families is that of Josue and Angelica Gonzalez, who belong to a community in Our Lady of Lavang Parish in Santa Ana. Together with their eight children, they will move this summer to the Graubunden region of German-speaking Switzerland at the request of the local bishop.

When asked why he and his wife volunteered to uproot their large family to such a faraway place, Gonzalez pointed to his history.

“I just feel so grateful for everything that God has brought me through, that I’m willing to do whatever he calls me to do,” said Gonzalez, who spoke to Angelus News after the encounter together with his children.

Before sending out the Gonzalez family and the other missionaries by blessing the crosses that would accompany them to their destinations, Pope Francis told them that “it is necessary to travel light; you cannot take all your household goods with you. The Bible teaches this: when God frees the chosen people, he makes them go into the desert with only their trust in him as baggage.”

“To proclaim it is necessary to renounce,” the pope continued. “Only a Church that renounces the world can proclaim the Lord well. Only a Church freed from power and money, free of triumphalism and clericalism, can bear witness in a credible way that Christ frees man, and those who, for his love, learn to renounce passing things, embrace this great treasure: freedom.”

Gonzalez’s third child, 10-year-old Isaiah, says he’s excited to move to a new place, even if it means learning a new language.

“Just because it’s God’s plan doesn’t mean it’s gonna be easy, but at some point it’s gonna be a good plan, and it’s gonna improve my life.”