WASHINGTON (CNS) — Nearly 70 students from Catholic colleges worldwide came to Washington for the Catholic Social Ministry Gathering’s Youth Leaders Initiative.

Both the annual gathering, held this year Feb. 2-5, and the initiative are projects of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. Six agencies of the USCCB sponsor the gathering with 15 other Catholic organizations.

The youth event provided a fresh perspective for students, even those already familiar with Catholic social teaching. Kaitlyn Kennedy, a sophomore at the University of Notre Dame, works with the Indiana university’s Center for Social Concerns and has a minor in Catholic social tradition.

Still, attending the event in Washington showed her “how to apply it to my own life.”

“I’ve come away with a sense of awe about the people who gave so much to this… their effort and hope is rooted in faith,” she told Catholic News Service.

Ian Mitchell, Catholic social teaching education coordinator for the USCCB, said that connecting youth with seasoned advocates was a goal of the initiative. “This is not a college gathering, this is a professional gathering,” he said.

In addition to serving youth leaders, the Catholic Social Ministry Gathering benefits from their presence. Mitchell said that “youth add energy, but also great wisdom and perspective” to the event. Their activism inspires other attendees, said Mitchell, because “they bring from their campuses a spirit of being disciples in action.”

The Youth Leadership Initiative is only two years old. The first event was held after the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI. Though Pope Francis has been an inspiration to organizers — his quest for a “Church of the Poor and By the Poor” was this year’s theme — the initiative was in the works during Pope Benedict’s papacy.

“Before Pope Francis, we wanted to make this open to young leaders,” Mitchell said.

The Youth Leadership Initiative was partly coordinated by student volunteers. Conor Maloney, a senior at The Catholic University of America and a USCCB intern, helped with event administration.

Maloney was impressed by “how passionate” attendees were about social justice. Meeting with other student leaders, he discovered untapped opportunities at his own university. “It is great to see how people implement the resources from the Catholic Campaign for Human Development on their campuses,” he said, referring to the U.S. bishops’ domestic anti-poverty campaign.

After attending a series of workshops, many students went to Capitol Hill to speak with their representatives in Congress. Among the topics discussed were fair wages, federal safety-net programs, and comprehensive immigration reform.

Chris McClead, director of campus ministry at St. Mary’s University of Minnesota in Winona, was excited to bring his students to Washington. The political activity of their ministry is usually confined to letter-writing, so “it is a privilege to be in this arena,” he said.

After speaking with their representatives, students returned home with renewed zeal.

Alicia Ireland, a sophomore at Cabrini College in Philadelphia, thought the experience “was really fun!”

“I got to meet my congressman, Jon Runyan, and sit down and talk to him,” she said. “It was awesome!” Runyan, a Republican, represents New Jersey’s 3rd Congressional District.

Madeline Coutu, also a student at Cabrini, said that she “found it surprising that many (legislators) were open about their faith background, and what they believed.” On the whole, she said, “we were very supported.”

Though the focus of the event was on federal policy in the United States, a number of international students attended the Youth Leadership Initiative.

Hayley Gould, of Australian Catholic University, said that students worldwide must educate themselves on social justice. “This applies on an international scale,” she said. “Coming here put that into perspective.”

Gould said she benefited from fellowship with fellow student-activists from the United States. At her Australian university, said Gould, the Catholic ministries involved with faith life and social justice often feel separate from one another. Here, Gould said she found that Catholic groups came together on both fronts, “and that is great to see!”

Taminka Hanscamp, another student from Australian Catholic University, agrees that Australian youth especially can learn from Catholic teaching on social justice. “In Australia, our generation is the generation most into social justice, and the most without faith.” She said that “it is pivotal for young people to realize that the church is involved with this, too.”

Attendees say that the experience they gained will stay with them beyond college. Christle Gehman, of Cabrini College, said that after graduation, her peers “will be changing the face of social justice.”