“I like the way the children look at you when you’re teaching. They’re just staring at you, wanting to learn more, wanting to absorb everything that you’re saying about God. You just want to show them everything you know so they can understand also.”Daisy Vargas stood in the grassy courtyard behind St. Mary’s Academy during a break in the Oct. 26 Our Lady of the Angels Regional Congress in Inglewood. The 16-year-old was explaining what she really likes about being a catechist at St. Lawrence of Brindisi Parish in Watts and why she’s given up her Saturday mornings the last four years to teach second-graders about their faith.Asked what were the most important lessons she was trying to get across to her 28 seven- and eight-year-old public school students this year, the teenager didn’t hesitate to explain. “First of all, that God loves them, no matter what,” she said. “You teach them that not everything they do is right, because they still might be at the age where they don’t understand that. But you tell them that some things are good and some things are bad, and just try to, like, lead them in the right way.”And Daisy believes that by the end of the school year, when her catechism class ends, most of her students “get” that God really does have this unconditional love for them. She says the hardest thing is teaching second-graders their prayers, because she only has them for 90 minutes on Saturday. So parents have to be involved in their children’s religious education, too. “If they don’t, then that’s something we somehow have to do,” she said. “So we need a lot of parent support.”Daisy has been to the Our Lady of the Angels Congress for the four years she’s been a catechist, following in the footsteps of her parents, Ignacio and Margarita, her siblings, Jannette, Orlando and Dianna, plus her uncle, Victor. So it’s a real family affair that just came natural to her when she was only 12. The junior at Bishop Conaty-Our Lady of Loretto High School has picked up some valuable lessons about teaching young children at the OLA Congress. One workshop a couple years ago pointed out how with young kids it was important to do hands-on activities like coloring and pasting together artwork. So she had her students make hearts and put them on cards to give to their mother or father — and it wasn’t even Valentine’s Day.“But coming to the regional congress has also helped me a lot to grow as a person,” she confided. “I just came out of a workshop on self-esteem — how to make it better for us catechists so we can teach children not to call themselves bad, negative things. And being with other catechists and worshipping together at Mass has helped me to deal with my family members, my brothers, my sisters; and even at school with my schoolmates. “You get to learn a lot from different people here and not just the teachers, but also from some of the other adults in the workshops,” she said. “You get to learn a little bit from their experience, and you can use that in your own class. And you can show that to others, so it’s just like a ladder.” Right then, the bell rang for the noon liturgy. And Daisy Vargas, a seasoned catechist at 16, headed off with her family of catechists to find seats in St. Mary’s Academy gym.A new evangelizationThe theme of this year’s Our Lady of the Angeles Regional Congress was “Encounter Christ, Be Renewed” (Encuentra a Christo y Renuévate), which invited people to maintain and renew their faith that comes through Jesus Christ. More than 1,200 people, including many catechists and directors of religious education, attended the annual event held for a number of years at St. Mary’s Academy. The daylong congress started with a moving morning praise of music, songs and prayers, and ended with an equally energetic closing praise as well as an award ceremony recognizing catechists for their “outstanding service to the community.” In between, 33 workshops in English and 57 in Spanish were held during three sessions. English subjects ranged from “Spirituality for Women Multi-taskers, Leaders, Caregivers, Parish Minister Volunteers” to “An Introduction to Special Needs with Focus on Autism.” Spanish workshops included “Celebración Eucharística” and “Los Sacramentos con Adolescentes; Ideas Prácticas Para Implementar.”In her afternoon workshop on “Aging with Grace,” Sister Gretchen Hailer noted that older adults, who are often marginalized in parishes, need more than bingo or card games. She stressed what’s really required is a special catechesis designed for seniors along with keeping them involved in the whole life of the parish. “Are your religious educators teaching kids to be respectful of their elders?” she asked. “In any way are we linking the older person with the confirmation kids? Are we linking them with the First Communion kids? How are we bringing the older person into touch with our new generation? “Because we know a lot,” quipped the local Religious of the Sacred Heart Mary. “We’re not stupid.” In his earlier “Saints — On Fire for the New Evangelization” workshop, master catechist Bobby Vidal from Santa Clarita said in the history of the Church there have always been children, teens, young adults and older adults who inspired others with their passion for the Gospel.“The condition for having this fire, for spreading this fire, is that you become the person that God has created you to be,” he said. “There will never ever be another you. And if you cooperate with God’s grace and become the person that Christ has called you to be, you will, in fact, set the world on fire.”Auxiliary Bishop Edward Clark celebrated Mass in St. Mary’s Academy’s gym. It had been transformed into a sacred liturgical space with a sheer greenish ribbon stretching from basket to basket along with a forest green plant living cross topped with strips of cloth taking the place of Christ. It laid flat on the polished wood floor before a humble altar. People sat on folding chairs on the court and they also filled the bleachers. As the bishop entered the gym from a side back door, led by women dressed in the finest decorative clothes of their native Latin American countries, people stood up clapping and singing loudly. At times, the whole gym seemed to vibrate. “Evangelization and catechesis don’t begin with the church, but with the person of Jesus Christ,” he passionately declared during a walking-around homily. “To bring people to know Jesus before we talk to them about the church, before we present the rules, before we present the history, before we present the ways of living. We need to help them first to encounter the person of Jesus Christ. …“So the new catechesis, like the new evangelization, begins with the person of Jesus Christ,” he continued. “The encounter with Jesus is something that Pope Francis says all the time: ‘Know Jesus,’ ‘Encounter Jesus,’ ‘Be with Jesus.’ That’s the start. And then take Jesus out of the church and into the world.”In a much quieter voice, Bishop Clark told the religious education teachers, “That’s our mission.”Joys and challengesThe bishop was really talking to people like Angel Rangel, who’s conducted the two-year Confirmation program for teenagers at Immaculate Conception Parish in Los Angeles the last four years. Before that, the graduate of James Monroe High School’s magnet police academy and current fulltime student at Cal State L.A. taught fourth- and fifth-graders for three years, starting when he was only 14 himself.Why?“I just can’t see myself not doing it,” he replied with a mild shrug. “I like interacting with the kids, teaching them, seeing the changes as they go through the two-year training. Sometimes it’s a slight change and sometimes it’s a great change. But you do notice the change in the kids from when they came in. Sometimes you’ve got a timid kid come in, but by the end of the year he or she is the most talkative one. And it’s just really great to see how they change.”What about the challenges?“The biggest challenge is when the kid in the beginning is coming because their parents are forcing them,” he explained. “So the biggest challenge is to have them change their idea and enjoy the class so much that they want to come back on their own. “But that happens a lot. By the end of the two years, some of the kids that were being dragged come by themselves. And they even have to tell their parents to take them,” he added with a good laugh. Rangel, in fact, has changed himself. “I’ve learned a lot from the kids that I’ve taught,” he said. “And in each group you get different characteristics. Some are more energetic, more participating; others are more shy. So I’ve had to adapt myself to them in order to see what works with each and every one of them.”The soft-spoken college kid was one of four individuals at the OLA Congress receiving the “Excellence in Catecatical Service Award,” a clear glass flame, at the closing of the 2013 Our Lady of the Angels Regional Congress. (The others were Marina Ayala, Maynor Alvarez and Myriam Oliva.) St. Lawrence of Brindisi Parish was presented with the “Virgen Peregrina” until the 2014 OLA Congress. “It was a big surprise,” he said. “I really didn’t expect it. I didn’t know until I heard my name called.” Come this Saturday, Angel Rangel will proudly show off the glass flame to his religious education students. And then the Immaculate Conception catechist will get back to the steadfast work of witnessing his personal faith and proclaiming the good news of Jesus Christ to Angeleno teenagers. {gallery width=100 height=100}gallery/2013/1101/ola/{/gallery}