The dark night was suddenly lit up by candles, revealing young faces peaceful in prayer.

After a jam-packed day at the City of Saints Teen Conference, the flickering votives, bearing the image of Blessed Carlo Acutis, signaled it was a time for the youth to slow down and share.

Around the same time, halfway across the globe, Pope Francis was also speaking about light, asking young people to be a shining example in a sometimes dark world.

“Dear young friends, today we too need something of this burst of light,” Francis said. “Yet, I would like to tell you that we do not radiate light by putting ourselves in the spotlight, for that type of light is blinding. No, we cannot illumine others by projecting a perfect, well-ordered, refined image of ourselves, or by appearing to be powerful and successful, strong but without light. No, we radiate light — we shine — by welcoming Jesus into our hearts and learning to love as he does.”

Pilgrims with St. John of God Church in Norwalk use candles for an evening prayer session while in Portugal during World Youth Day. (Photo courtesy of St. John of God Church)

Whether they were among the reported 1.5 million pilgrims who descended on Lisbon, Portugal, for World Youth Day, or the 700 teens and youth ministers who engaged in the City of Saints event held Aug. 4-6 at UCLA, young people from the Archdiocese of Los Angeles exhibited their faith in major ways both near and far.

Pilgrims in Portugal spent several days in both grueling travel and temperatures, but basking in the expressions of faith, prayer and memorials, including Fátima and the audience with Francis. Parishes who sent pilgrim groups included St. John of God Church in Norwalk, St. Margaret Mary Church in Lomita, St. Paschal Baylon Church in Thousand Oaks, Epiphany Church in South El Monte, and St. John the Evangelist Church and Ascension Church, both in South LA, among others.

Besides seeing the pope during the World Youth Day vigil and Mass, the St. John of God group was especially fortunate to see Francis up close multiple times, including once where he unexpectedly drove past them not more than 10 feet away.

“I thought I’d come and see him from far away, but we were nearly 10 feet within him,” said Dianne Oliva, 17. “That was really the biggest surprise.”

Back in LA at the City of Saints event, with the motto “Be Here, Be You, Be God’s,” hundreds of young people experienced a weekend filled with adoration, reconciliation, Catholic lectures and worship music.

“I felt a lot of relief and a lot of love through being here, through the people, and through God himself,” said Sidney Ramon, a parishioner of St. Frances of Rome Church in Azusa. “I feel embraced.”

Archbishop José H. Gomez leads attendees at the City of Saints events at UCLA with a Eucharistic procession on Friday, Aug. 4. (Isabel Cacho)

City of Saints, hosted by Archbishop José H. Gomez and the Office of Religious Education, was created so young people could encounter Jesus and strengthen their relationship with him. This eighth year marked the return of a full weekend program following the COVID-19 pandemic. During the Saturday evening Mass, Archbishop Gomez urged teens to think of Jesus as their most trusted friend.

“Jesus wants to walk with you, to be your friend, to be your best friend, your companion in the journey of your life,” Archbishop Gomez said during his homily. “Listen to him … he will lead you to happiness and heaven. Isn’t that what we all want, happiness and heaven?”

Sophia Reyes, 15, said this kind of encouragement is exactly why she came to City of Saints.

“I’ve been far from God lately and just hearing the homily, reflecting on it, it impacted me,” said Reyes, a parishioner at St. Agatha Church in Los Angeles. “Sometimes I struggle spiritually and I need God’s guidance.

“I’m finding that help and it’s nice.”

On the event’s opening day, Archbishop Gomez led teens out of Mass and into a Eucharistic procession that wound through the university campus. Some parish youth groups wore matching T-shirts and carried signs with messages like “Free Hugs.”

“We’ve come with open arms, ready to embrace the Lord and anyone who wants to join us,” said Zachary Venegas, a parishioner at St. John Vianney Church in Hacienda Heights. “This is my first time experiencing this and it’s beautiful.”

The procession ended with adoration held in the event’s “Sacred Space,” a room filled with flowers, a decorative font and pictures of holy people like teenager Carlo Acutis. The possible soon-to-be-saint was often highlighted during the conference because of his young age. After adoration, teens unburdened themselves by going to confession or writing their intentions on the Prayer Wall.

Pilgrims with St. John of God Church in Norwalk pray at Valinhos on the outskirts of Fátima, Portugal. (Photo courtesy of St. John of God Church)

In Portugal, pilgrims were also finding peace after reconciling their own struggles back at home. For Irene Cuevas, 19, the loss of several loved ones recently — including an aunt who helped raise her — has made the past two years difficult. But being on the pilgrimage helped her to see that God is always with her.

“It’s been really hard, but I’ve been trusting the Lord knowing that he has a plan for me,” Cuevas said. “And because he has a plan then all these things that have happened to me have been there for a reason. So I continue to put my faith and trust in him and he led me here.”

It was not all serious at City of Saints. During their free time, young people played lawn games or competed in social media challenges like taking a selfie with Archbishop Gomez. Some teens even used the time for service by assembling bags of toiletries for the homeless.

The joyful atmosphere continued into the evening when Worship Leader Francis Cabildo hit the stage and had the teens dancing to music while Master of Ceremonies Mike Patin had them laughing. Archbishop Gomez noted the jubilance as he walked out on stage and drew cheers when he said, “It seems like you’re having fun!”

He told the crowd to embrace the fellowship being offered at City of Saints and to pray for their counterparts at World Youth Day with Francis. The archbishop reminded the teens they are in fact saints, even if they make mistakes.

“To be a saint does not mean you are perfect,” Archbishop Gomez said. “It doesn’t mean we have it all figured out. It doesn’t mean we always do the right thing. No, it means we’re trying to do the right thing.

“Look around you, this is what the City of Saints looks like.”

wyd lisbon

Los Angeles clergy before the World Youth Day closing Mass with Pope Francis in Lisbon Aug. 6. From left to right: Father Matthew Miguel, associate pastor at Our Lady of the Assumption in Ventura; Deacon Frank Gonzalez, regional deacon for the San Pedro Pastoral Region; Fr. Raymond Decipeda, MMHC, pastor of St. John of God in Norwalk; Fr. Paolo Garcia, director of the Queen of Angels Center for Priestly Formation; and Fr. Carlos Mesa, associate pastor of St. Paul in Mid-City.

The weekend’s keynote speakers were Ansel Augustine, D.Min., Noelle Garcia, Chris Padgett, Joel Stepanek, and Emily Wilson Hussem. The latter, known for her large following on social media, told the audience that the faithful are often called crazy and she herself was an outcast in college because of her beliefs. Her advice: Listen to truth and choose to see your faith as a present from God.

“If I’m at Holy Mass on Sunday thinking what a gift, what an unbelievable gift that I get to stand here and receive the Lord, it really will change everything,” said Hussem. “The Lord is the best gift-giver.”

Teens at the conference said they know all too well that their faith makes them different.

“A lot of teens don’t want to go to Mass. They just want to stay on their phones and video games,” said Thaddeus Maylone, parishioner at St. Lawrence Martyr Church in Redondo Beach. “But exploring Jesus will help you in the long run, which they don’t understand. I’m making sure I’m keeping up with Jesus.’’

Stepanek wants to help teens do that. His Saturday presentation included practical tips on how to follow your heart and be your authentic self. As chief mission officer for the National Eucharistic Congress, Stepanek said the youth are vital to the ongoing Eucharistic Revival called for by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. As he travels around the country, he sees the potential for a generational shift back to religion.

“Teenagers will actually revitalize the Church almost as an act of rebellion in a culture they find wanting,” Stepanek said. “They’re going to ask questions like, ‘What more is there?’ and I think if we’re ready with the Gospel and we go into apostolic mission, we’ll be able to capture a younger generation of people who are looking for Jesus.”

One of the activities for the City of Saints weekend was completing social media challenges, which included getting a photo with Archbishop José H. Gomez. (Isabel Cacho)

City of Saints Coordinator Jenny Jackson said the archdiocese is doing that work.

“We’re really rebuilding the Church again,” said Jackson, archdiocese coordinator of Youth Ministry Events. “It’s no longer just about sacramental preparation. It’s about introducing young people to the person of Jesus and how he transforms lives. We’re giving them opportunities like City of Saints to have authentic dialogue about faith. It’s exciting.”

On Sunday afternoon, it was time for the young “saints” to pack up and go home. Many were tired but energized by the weekend’s most powerful moments. Sydney Ramon walked away with a new cross necklace and a new sense of hope.

“I bought this for myself,” he said, looking down at the crucifix around his neck. “I’m going through a lot at home. It’s a reminder that God is always with me, a really big reminder that I’m not alone in this world.”

Back in Portugal, Francis looked out into a sea of youthful faces, none of them alone in this world, and emboldened the youth to rise to the challenge.

“As young people, you want to change the world — and it is very good that you want to change the world — you want to work for justice and peace,” Francis said. “The Church and the world need you, the young, as much as the earth needs rain. To all of you, dear young people, who are the present and the future, yes to all of you, Jesus now says: ‘Have no fear,’ ‘Do not be afraid!’ ”

Associate Editor Mike Cisneros contributed to this article.