ANAHEIM — At the closing Mass, before thousands who crowded the Anaheim Convention Center Arena Feb. 28, 2016, Archbishop José H. Gomez challenged Religious Education Congress attendees to be God’s mercy to everyone they meet.
It was better to be there for Mass than at the Oscars, the archbishop quipped. He also noted how Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta, who will be canonized later this year, is a good example of how to live a life of mercy.
The Mass, concelebrated by several bishops and dozens of priests, capped four days of religious education workshops and motivational speeches that drew more than 36,000. Speakers in 308 sessions addressed issues of faith in English, Spanish and Vietnamese.
“We can trust God because we can trust Jesus,” the archbishop said in his homily before well over 12,000 young Catholics during the Feb. 25 Youth Day. “Jesus is real. You can trust your life to him and find joy and peace, that joy and peace that we’re all looking for.”
The theme for this year’s Religious Education Congress, echoed throughout the weekend, was “Boundless Mercy,” inspired by the Sunday’s Gospel and Pope Francis’ declaration of the Jubilee Year of Mercy. Sister Helen Prejean, CSJ, the event’s keynote, address the need for mercy in her work to end the death penalty.
“Even though we know he’s real, we sometimes forget that he’s always there,” said Ansel Augustine, Youth Day’s keynote speaker who also performed with his Psalm 119 Step Team from New Orleans. “He’s waiting for us to turn back to him.”
Augustine, a youth minister, challenged young Catholics to “shut up, quit tripping and start living,” three phrases he used to make his message more memorable. He encouraged the youth to stop gossiping, be silent and listen to God, stop obsessing over unimportant things like sports teams and live out their faith to serve those in need.
Mark Hart, Life Teen’s “Bible Geek,” encouraged young people to develop a relationship with Jesus through Sacred Scripture. He said that when he was a teen, he thought being faithful meant getting a “humor-ectomy” — that he would lose his friends, his sense of humor and would wind up watching “Walker Texas Ranger” reruns with his parents on the weekends.
“I was convinced that I was unloveable, and then I learned about a guy named Jesus,” Hart said. “Nothing you do can make God love you more or less. Even when you’re not thinking about God, God is thinking about you.”
Jesuit Father Greg Boyle, founder of Homeboy Industries, spoke about St. Ignatius of Loyola’s saying that “God, who is always greater.”
“I can’t imagine a way that I could have learned the tenderness of God better than through these men and women I’ve come to know,” he said of the ex-gang members he employs through Homeboy.
“Our personal experience tells us that God wants to be close and united and whispering in our ear,” he said. “Our God is exhausted loving us, too busy loving us to ever be disappointed in us.”
It’s a message he relates to those he works with and their families. As a priest, he has led funerals for 202 young people killed by gang violence.
“I don’t find it necessary to believe that God protects me from anything, but only that God sustains me in everything,” he said. “This time of Lent isn’t about giving stuff up. It’s about giving into the tenderness of God.”
Homeboy began in 1988 when Father Boyle was pastor of Dolores Mission Church in Boyle Heights. At the time, the neighborhood surrounding the parish had the highest concentration of gang violence in L.A. County.
“The Gospel in the end doesn’t lead me to think that I am somebody, but I am everybody in some exquisite friendship,” he said.
John Yzaguirre, a psychologist who specializes in Catholic spirituality in the home, spoke about unity within married life.
“Unity is a gift God has given us, but it is sometimes lacking in our lives because we haven’t participated in it,” he said. “It’s a gift that requires our response.”
The most direct way to get to God, Yzaguirre said, is to do God’s will. He recommended seven things to help individuals do God’s will: reasonable work hours, good friendships, deep union with God, take care of physical health, unity in the family, learn constantly and serve the community.
“If you can tell Jesus, ‘I am going to love you to the point of abandonment,’ unity will flourish,” he said. “Jesus united us with the Father in his moment of abandonment.”
In that moment of abandonment to God, Jesus welcomed us into God’s kingdom. If we too abandon ourselves to God, we welcome others.
Brother Mickey O’Neill McGrath, OSFS, an artist and speaker, had 200 teenagers in silence during his youth day session, which had young Catholics draw and explore saints in different cultures.
“No one has reflective time,” he said. “We all need contemplative time, including kids.”
Art, he said, can be the source of healing. It can also help young people better understand the complexities of the faith.
“There is nothing like this,” Brother Mickey said of the Religious Education Congress, which celebrated its 60th anniversary this year.
Dora Tobar, who leads the family life outreach and Hispanic ministry in the Diocese of Lafayette, Indiana, spoke about the family as the instrument of salvation.
“Jesus never identified someone with their past,” she said. “He didn’t define people by their defects, but by their possibilities.”
To change the life of someone else, one must do the same, Tobar said.
“Division causes death,” she said. “Let’s let the Spirit be the one that gives us life and lets us live in the unity of the family.”
Congress participants made the journey to Anaheim from 47 different states and 22 countries other than the United States. Many of the events were livestreamed on the web.
“Jesus promises us that if we follow him, follow his example and live as he wants us to live, we will know happiness and joy,” Archbishop Gomez said. “And we will live forever, even after we’re done living here on earth. That’s his promise.”