by J.D. Long-Garcia
ANAHEIM, Calif. (CNS) — At the closing Mass, before thousands who crowded into the Anaheim Convention Center Arena Feb. 28, Archbishop Jose H. Gomez of Los Angeles challenged Religious Education Congress attendees to be God’s mercy to everyone they meet.
It was better to be there for the afternoon Mass than at the Oscars, the archbishop quipped, referring to the Academy Awards presentation taking place that night.
The Mass, concelebrated by several bishops and dozens of priests, capped four days of religious education workshops and motivational speeches that drew more than 35,000. 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 at a Mass for well over 12,000 young Catholics Feb. 25 at the congress’ Youth Day, which was followed by three more days of sessions. “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, a Sister of St. Joseph of Medaille, the event’s keynote, addressed the need for mercy in her work to end the death penalty.
“One of the reasons we’re begging to put the death penalty down in this country is we have wardens testifying: ‘I didn’t get into this job to kill people. I’m the one who has to officiate at these deaths,'” Sister Helen said.
“In California, the average wait is 25 years,” she added. “The wounded healers among us, they are the ones callings us as a society, as a nation to end the death penalty.”
Ansel Augustine, the Youth Day keynote speaker, performed with his troop of dancers from New Orleans.
“Even though we know he’s real, we sometimes forget that he’s always there,” he said about God. “He’s waiting for us to turn back to him.”
Augustine 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, LifeTeen’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” re-runs with his parents on the weekends.
“I was convinced that I was unlovable, 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 of 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 that 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 know if I 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 in Los Angeles. At the time, the parish was in a neighborhood with the highest concentration of gang violence.
“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 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: Keep reasonable work hours; develop good friendships; deepen union with God; take care of physical health; foster 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, he said, Jesus welcomed us into God’s kingdom. If we too abandon ourselves to God, we welcome others, he added.
Brother Mickey O’Neill McGrath, an Oblate of St. Francis de Sales, who is 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.
Dora Tobar 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 let’s 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.”
Copyright ©2016 Catholic News Service / U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.