The Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels received a major infusion of youth the morning of Oct. 26, as elementary and middle school students from 60 Catholic schools around the Archdiocese of Los Angeles gathered for the annual Missionary Childhood Association Mass of Appreciation.

Founded in 1843, the MCA is, according to its website, “an organization dedicated to fostering children’s awareness of the missionary nature of the Church.” Now in its 16th year, the MCA Mass is the largest yearly gathering of Catholic school children in the world, with more than 3,500 students at this year’s event.

“It’s a Thanksgiving Mass to show [children] to be missionaries of the Church by their baptismal rite,” explains program coordinator Denise Barajas. “They are being missionaries right now by helping others, by sacrificing, by giving and by their prayers most especially. Children’s prayers are so innocent and beautiful. God loves these children’s prayers. We want them to be praying for their brothers and sisters in Christ who are less fortunate than them.”

The Mass was celebrated by Archbishop Jose H. Gomez, who was joined as a concelebrant by Father Gary Wiesmann, who currently serves in the Archdiocese of Mandeville, Jamaica, one of the poorest archdioceses in the Caribbean. In his homily, Father Wiesmann preached to the children that “you, when you come together as a group, are the light of the world.”

He also shared some eye-opening stories of the poverty-stricken people he encounters in Mandeville — the very type of people who benefit from local children’s charitable efforts via the MCA, such as a mother who sacrificed her own food so her family could eat. Or a young girl with medical problems who could have easily been treated in a first-world country like the U.S., but that left her with major complications due to her family’s inability to afford proper health care.

“When you share stories with kids, they stay connected to you; when you approach them solely from a theological angle, you lose them,” posits Father Wiesmann. “I try to tell stories that will help them with their own spiritual lives, I hope, and that will also encourage them to be missionaries for the spiritual lives of the poor — stories that will help them become more and more aware of our baptismal call as Catholics to help not only ourselves, but others.”

And the kids responded to that call to help others in outstanding fashion this year, raising $124,000 via various MCA fundraising campaigns. The final grand total, as determined by the Vatican Pontifical Missions Societies’ International Secretariats, will be divided equally four ways to benefit the nations of Uganda, Peru, India and Papua New Guinea.

Additionally, a whopping $294,000 was collected for MCA’s “Aid for Ecuador” campaign, which benefits the families on the coast of Ecuador whose homes were ravaged by a devastating earthquake in April, and the collection at Mass was granted to Father Wiesmann to take back with him to Mandeville.

In order to raise the money, children throughout the archdiocese worked together with their fellow classmates to organize a myriad of unique fundraising events. The Mass, as well as the ensuing, joyous celebration on the cathedral courtyard (which was catered by In & Out and featured a live DJ) served as a visual reminder to the students that other children from all over the archdiocese are also joining them in their quest to be missionaries to the poor, and that, when their efforts are combined, it truly makes a difference.

“We want to have a huge Thanksgiving Mass to show them ‘look at what your work has done for others across the world,’ but also to connect students with their brothers and sisters around the archdiocese,” explains Barajas. “For them to make those connections and see, ‘Wow! There are other students just like me who are also helping children throughout the world!’ It makes it real and tangible. We are a whole community. We are the body of Christ. It helps them to see the big picture that we’re all in this together and we all can make a difference. It’s not just them and their school.”

“They are unbelievably prayerful and unbelievably intent on listening to God’s word,” adds Wiesmann of the many students in attendance at the Mass. “Kids love to be together and love what they’re doing. It’s important for them to be together as groups.”

The Mass was also highlighted by the presentation of the Los Angeles winners of the National Christmas Art contest, in which Catholic elementary and middle school students all throughout the country submit artwork that in some way depicts the Nativity, and 24 pieces are selected to be displayed at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C. during Advent and Christmas in 2016. Seventh-grader Gladeline Rufo of St. Dominic’s School in Los Angeles was a national winner, and fifth-grader Gabriela Olivo of Sacred Heart School in Lancaster was the national grand prize winner. “I was a little nervous, because I had never won an award for art before, but really excited,” said Olivo of winning the grand prize.

“I couldn’t believe how many people were here today!” she added with a big smile. “It was really incredible.”