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YOUTH CONFERENCE A group of teenagers from the Diocese joined other young people from around the country at the National Catholic Youth Conference (NCYC) in Long Beach. The teens experienced a weekend of speakers, prayer, activities and fellowship. TOP RIGHT: Conference attendee Griffin Blanco from Our Lady of the Assumption parish shows off her NCYC Conference t-shirt. BOTTOM RIGHT: Deacon Richard Ahumada leads a prayer aboard one of the buses that brought the diocesan delegation to Long Beach. 

By Natalie Romano

LONG BEACH—Local teens were treated to some unexpected entertainment at the National Catholic Youth Conference (NCYC) when Bishop Alberto Rojas strapped on a guitar and began to sing. This joyful performance broke out during lunch just for our Diocese’s youth at NCYC, held in California for the first time Nov. 10-12.

As Bishop Rojas shared this part of himself, he told the teens they, too, should be their authentic selves. “Please know that we love you because we really do and we value you for who you are,” said Bishop Rojas. “You don’t have to pretend. You are who you are, and that’s how God made you.”

The teens were among the 2,600 young Catholics that came to the Long Beach Convention Center for three days of faith-building and fellowship. The event, sponsored by the National Federation for Catholic Youth Ministry, offered motivational speakers, breakout sessions, worship music and Mass. Traditionally held in Indianapolis, NCYC moved this year to make the conference more accessible to West Coast teens.

The diocesan delegation of nearly 200 was the second largest in attendance, after the Archdiocese of Los Angeles’ group, and included priests, seminarians and youth ministers. The teens say the luncheon helped them create a bond with each other and the Bishop.

“It felt like a big family feast. It was beautiful to see people from our diocese come together,” said Celestte Fonseca, parishioner of Our Lady of the Assumption, San Bernardino. “Bishop’s singing tied everything together ... It brought many joyful and positive vibes.”

Bishop Rojas kept the good feelings going as he walked around the conference floor stopping to chat with seminarians and youth groups. He says events like NCYC are a good counter to the challenges of modern life.

“The current secular world around us is really against us. I can imagine if it’s hard for adults to keep faith, what would it be like for teenagers,” said Bishop Rojas. “So it’s good for them to be here.”

The young people in attendance agreed, saying they came because they want to stay on the right path.

“There’s a lot of distractions from the world,” explained Judith Borja, parishioner of St. James the Less, Perris. “[I’m] just really trying to get better tools to cope ... I’ve really enjoyed this experience ... It’s been super nice.”

NCYC hosted a special evening of Adoration led by Auxiliary Bishop Joseph Espaillat of the Archdiocese of New York. He encouraged attendees to be completely focused on the Eucharist and surrender to the Lord. Thousands of young disciples knelt and fell silent.

Among them was 14-year-old Viviana Montano, who was overcome with emotion. “It’s hard to explain, but you could just feel the comfort and the love of the Lord in that moment,” said Montano, parishioner of Our Lady of the Assumption, San Bernardino. “Many of us just couldn’t help but burst out into tears.”

During the day, conference goers attended breakout sessions like “Young People and Social Justice,” “Women Leadership in the Church” and “A Catholic Conversation on Gender Identity and Sexuality.” NCYC says it was willing to take on controversial subjects because that’s what teens talk about.

“It can be a little uncomfortable, a little scary, because you’re entering into waters that can be a little rough,” said Christina Lamas, NCYC Executive Director. “But if we as a Church are not with them having dialogue, then we’re not seen as part of the solution, we’re seen as on the outside.”

In addition to hosting timely forums, organizers tried to reflect the diversity of the west with multicultural performances. Eliana Orosco, who came with a diocesan Native American youth group was able to share her Kumeyaay culture.

“I said the Prayer of the Four Directions...which is done before special events. I felt very honored,” said Orosco, a parishioner of St. Vincent Ferrer, Sun City. We were thankful to have Native people represented.”

Another conference highlight was headline speaker Jessica Cox, who was born without arms. The 39-year-old has learned to use her feet for everything, including driving a car and flying an airplane. Teens in the audience were clearly moved by her presentation.

“It not only made me think how blessed I am to have arms, but it also made me think if Jessica can do all that, what can I do?” said Chrisxander Estrella, parishioner of Our Lady of the Assumption. “[She played] Ave Maria on the piano and I just could not stop crying. I’m not exactly sure why but I felt wonderful afterwards.”

Later the 13-year-old joined his brother for some Catholic karaoke. Any conference goer could sign up to sing. Music, whether it was teens taking their shot on the small stage or Catholic hip-hop artist Joe Melendrez on the main stage, was woven throughout the event. And for some teens it was the best part.

“[Worship music] brings me closer to God, as much as it sounds cheesy,” said a smiling Claire Beckley, parishioner of The Holy Name of Jesus, Redlands. “I also like it because it’s a form of prayer and a form of praise, so I’m praying with other people when we sing.”

Since NCYC was held near the beach, the convention hall was transformed into “La Playa,” complete with a boardwalk and mechanical shark. Teens could enjoy recreational activities ranging from painting to ping pong. They could also check out the many exhibitors like the diocesan Office of Vocations. Father Hau Vu, Director of Vocations, came fully armed with pamphlets on discernment and his trademark grin.

“There has been some interest from local youth ... I get very, very excited because I am filled with hope,” said Fr. Vu. “This is why I am here; to see the young people and promote vocations ... I try to evangelize with my joy and my smile.”

Also taking place on La Playa was the NCYC tradition of trading hats. Attendees wore crazy caps or other items representing their diocese then swapped with others. The conference was filled with halos, cowboy hats and crowns. Our diocese designed keychains with QR codes that when scanned, play worship songs on Spotify. While the trading is fun, it serves a deeper purpose: teaching teens that there is a greater Church beyond their own parish.

“It’s an easy way to break the ice amongst young people,” said Lamas. “I can approach you and we can build community ... There’s something we share in common.”

Next year the conference returns to Indianapolis but NCYC says it may come west again in the future. Juarez hopes it does.

“NCYC exceeded my expectations,” said Edgardo Juarez, Director of the Diocesan Ministry with Young Catholics. “This was a tailored experience for the young Church. The speakers, musicians, testimonials, prayer experiences and warm hospitality provided the perfect space to encounter Christ.”

The teens in the delegation say they definitely grew in their Catholic faith. For Montano, it was life-changing.

“Before going to this conference, I found it hard to trust or to even have faith in God,” she said. “After experiencing this event, I realize that I’m not the only one who has doubts ... It’s not a bad thing to lose faith, what is bad is giving up. This lesson was an awakening one and I found a deeper hope and a strength to pursue my love of God.”

Natalie Romano is a freelance writer and a parishioner of The Holy Name of Jesus in Redlands.