As the 40 days of Lent have officially started, thousands of Catholic high schoolers and adults are gathered at the Anaheim Convention Center this weekend for the annual Religious Education Congress, put on by the Archdiocese of Los Angeles.
As the community mourns the death of Los Angeles Auxiliary Bishop David O’Connell, who was murdered just days before the liturgical season of Lent began on Ash Wednesday, many Catholics hope to find healing through the practice of their faith.
“We’ve been keeping Bishop (O’Connell) in our prayers, and praying for his soul,” said attendee Fatima Hernandez, who came to the event with a group of youth from St. Patrick’s Church in North Hollywood. “It’s surreal, the kind of world we’re living in … violence everywhere, and so close to our community. It reminds me that we aren’t here for long, and we need each other in times like this.”
Conference organizers say that Bishop O’Connell is being remembered at every Mass and faith workshop. Attendees signed posters of him in the hallways. A special prayer service was set for Sunday morning, Feb. 26.
And the Sacred Space, a multimedia exhibit and area for prayer, was also dedicated to the late bishop — who was beloved by many throughout the Los Angeles area and beyond. The exhibit included a touching photo memorial of O’Connell, with a book that people could sign and leave messages.
This year’s conference themes — “Embrace Grace” for the adults, and “Strive For Life” for youths — are markers of what the faithful seek throughout the season of Lent and beyond.
Organizers said that O’Connell had attended the Catholic convention, now in its 67th year, annually since he joined the Archdiocese of L.A.
On Thursday, Feb. 23, thousands of high school teens from local parishes and schools came to the convention center for the annual RE Congress Youth Day, kicking off the weekend with workshops and prayer.
“It’s a great experience to connect with God, and to learn about your faith with your friends,” said Ale Dominguez, 17, from North Hollywood.
Los Angeles Archbishop José H. Gomez celebrated the closing Youth Mass with thousands in attendance, including fellow bishops from surrounding Catholic dioceses. Gomez started the Mass in dedication of his friend and fellow bishop, who served the San Gabriel Valley region and worked in the archdiocese for 45 years.
“It has been a really sad time for the family of God,” Gomez said in his homily. “Bishop Dave was a good friend and a holy priest. I know that many of you knew him, or he celebrated your confirmation Masses. We want to keep praying for the repose of his soul, and for consolation of his family and the archdiocese.”
As the teens sang and prayed during the Mass, Gomez reminded them to remember and honor the late bishop’s life — especially as the period of Lent, a time of sacrifice and reflection, begins.
“He was a man who loved Jesus Christ, and gave his whole life to follow Jesus and be his friend,” Gomez said, reminding the youth of the conference theme. “We all want to find love, joy and meaning in our lives; just as Bishop Dave did. In Christ, we can find the love and happiness that we are looking for. To choose life — that is what God wants for each of us.”
A group of 20 teens came to the Religious Ed Congress from St. Joseph Catholic Church in La Puente, a few miles from where O’Connell lived in Hacienda Heights. They were supposed to have a special confirmation Mass with Bishop O’Connell later in the spring.
“It still doesn’t feel real,” said Isabella Torres, 16. “When we found out, I had no words … like, why would this happen to the bishop, of all people? He was a missionary, always helping those in need.”
Torres and her friends remembered when O’Connell celebrated a yearly Mass at their school, St. Joseph Elementary School.
“Every time he would come to our school, he would go to the cross and say how much he loves Jesus,” Torres said. “If he had a yearbook quote, it would be, ‘Jesus, I love you.’”
Ariana Parra said she was “still in disbelief.”
“He was very kind and humble, and he didn’t make you feel like he had seniority over you,” Parra, 16, said. “As Catholics, we learn that we have to forgive sins — Jesus forgives,” Parra said. “But it’s hard to forget.”
Ariana’s mom, Ana Parra, said the religious conference happening days after the bishop’s sudden death, and around the start of Lent, was “devastating.”
“Lent is a time to prepare yourself, a time to restart,” said Parra. “If you’re not living out your faith, this is a great opportunity to start.”
Amber Harris, a youth catechist at St. Joseph’s, said that O’Connell would always visit their church and surrounding high schools. He also celebrated Mass for the catechist teachers.
Harris said she didn’t know how this year’s confirmation Masses — where the Bishop typically blesses and prays over the youth — were going to go, and things would still need to be planned out.
But as Lent begins, Harris said, the St. Joseph community — and Catholics worldwide — will keep praying for healing.
“His passion was always the youth,” Harris, 26, said. “He always made sure to tell them how important they are.”