During a noon break from the Our Lady of the Angels Region Congress, Suzanne Bertsch had found a patch of shaded grass at St. Mary’s Academy. The 59-year-old medical transcriptionist was one of the lucky ones. A record-breaking 1,200 women and men, mostly catechists, attended the annual OLA gathering in Inglewood. One of the day’s main goals was to inspire and also give catechists the tools to continue what can be a difficult hands-on ministry of teaching religion to children and teenagers who don’t go to Catholic schools in the Los Angeles Archdiocese.Bertsch herself was taking a yearlong break from teaching eighth-graders at St. Charles Borromeo Church in North Hollywood to study at the Catholic Bible Institute. She wanted to increase her knowledge of Scripture, particularly the parables and teachings of Jesus. Moreover, the regional congress, as well as the much larger Los Angeles Religious Education Congress in Anaheim, both help to “recharge” her ecclesiastical batteries.“It’s definitely not a renewal of faith, but a plugging into the outlet — a reenergizing, a reconnecting,” she explained. “Like I just went to Sister [Kathy] Bryant’s session ‘Is it God Calling or My Imagination?’ I never heard her before, and she just ignited me inside. She clarified so much of my own personal questions. “So when you get clarification yourself, you can go out and you can help clarify for other people. I’ll never be a theologian. But there are so many ways to share your faith. Just by the way you live your life, how you treat people. Do you smile when you talk? It’s the little things that count, especially when you’re teaching youths today.”In his noon-time Mass and homily, Auxiliary Bishop Edward Clark echoed some of those sentiments. He recounted the parable of the owner of a vineyard who wanted to cut down a non-producing tree. But the gardener persuaded him to give it another year, while cultivating the soil around it and then fertilizing the soil to see if it would come to life and blossom again.“Guess what?” quipped Bishop Clark. “You’re the fertilizer. The example of your life fertilizes the ground of faith that allows the faith of others to come alive. It’s kind of a lowly role, huh, being the fertilizer? But how essential. Without the fertilizer, the tree won’t grow. Without your witness and actions and word of faith, so many people will not grow.” Religious Sister of Charity Edith Prendergast, director of the Office of Religious Education, concurred about the grass-roots special role of catechists. “Do you believe you’re surrounded by grace?” she asked at the morning praise opening. The attendees, filling the bleachers and sitting on folding chairs on the polished wood floor, returned a rousing, “Yes!”“Give yourselves a hand,” Sister Prendergast said. “The purpose of this Year of Faith is to open up our hearts. May it occur to all of us to deepen our relationship with Jesus. This is an opportunity to come to know Jesus more intimately in our lives, and to witness by our presence.” Then she stressed, “We really appreciate all that you do for the archdiocese. You are gifts and examples of our peace.”Workshop varietyThe daylong congress featured 33 breakout workshops in English and 45 in Spanish. The former ranged from “Conscience Formation and Decision Making” to “HIV/AIDS Ministry of Jesus Compassion: Story Telling as a Means Of Spiritual Care.” Sessions in Spanish included “Tres Port Tres Son Nueve,” “La Sexualidad de Los Adolescents y Los Retos de Los Padres” and “El Llamado.”In her workshop “Acceptance of Our Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) Sisters and Brothers: A Catholic Discussion,” Jenny Naugton told about her son Johnny “coming out” at the age of 19. The housewife from St. Denis Church in Diamond Bar was happy that he was finally able to claim his identity. But a priest friend she told said that they should pray to “fix” him.“And I said, ‘Father, I can’t do that. That would be like telling God he had made a mistake. And I know that God made Johnny perfect just the way he is. If I’m going to pray, it’s going to be for the others who can’t see that. Because he’s perfect. And I want for him nothing more than a happy, full, complete life. With nothing changed.” Religious Sister of Charity Kathy Bryant posed the intriguing issue of “Being Contemplative in a Digital World” in another workshop. She first pointed out that she couldn’t live without her laptop, smart phone, iPad and other high-tech devices, “I’m the most hooked-up nun you’ve ever seen,” she observed.But she quickly added how she was worried about what all these new online devices were doing to human relationships. “So the quality of our presence to each other is really lessoned,” she said. “My concern is our ability to just be, like to sit in a rocking chair and think — to contemplate — is really compromised. “God is always up to something, so being a contemplative is being aware,” she added. “So to be a contemplative in a digital world is great, but we must become unhooked. But how long can you really do that today?”For teens in particular Sister Bryant warned of two potential pitfalls of the increasingly accessible Internet and mobile communication devices. The first was an addiction to being online nearly 24/7. She pointed out that unlike a book, there’s no last page on the World Wide Web. The other temptation, as has been noted by others, was the easy link to all kinds of porn with a couple key strokes.The ever popular multitasking can also be a genuine hindrance to one’s prayer life today, according to the former missionary. “Pray needs to be more relaxed and less diversified so we won’t lose our focus, which is God. To pray, to contemplate, you have to be wholly present to God. There’s no other way.” But she also mentioned that sites like “Sacred Space” offer a convenient way to connect to the spiritual sides of our busy lives with daily succinct Scriptural passages. “The big question is do you want to reclaim that part of being human — to just hold a child or just read a book or just sit and be still?” she said. “That’s what we must do if we want to really respond to God and also people in our lives. So what we’re talking about are virtues and how you as catechists and teachers can help young people make healthy choices.” ‘Virgen Peregrina’For a smiling David Lara, religious education coordinator for Our Lady of the Angels Region, the OLA Congress definitely reached a benchmark; some 1,200 people attended, compared to the typical 800. To accommodate all who wanted to attend Spanish-language workshops, additional sessions had to be added. This shows the hunger Angelenos have for religious education during The Year of Faith proclaimed by Pope Benedict XVI, Lara said. And the theme of the 2012 OLA Congress — “Grace Given, Faith Renewed” — totally fits into this new evangelization.“First, I hope that people enjoyed the day and rediscovered the joy of being a catechist, the joy of being used by God to transmit God’s word to every person they come in contact with,” Lara noted. “Second, I hope that this year, especially, religious educators come back to their parishes and share this joy, not only with the children they work with in their classes and evangelization programs. But perhaps this year they can look at a bigger picture and reach out to those who have never heard of God and to those who have for some reason left and are inactive in their faith communities.”Lara also wanted to point out how popular the “Virgen Peregrina” had become to OLA’s urban parishes during the last three years. The first year the striking image of Our Lady of Guadalupe was given to Holy Cross, the second year to St. Malachy and this year to St. Agnes.“Parishes keep the image for a whole year, with local catechists keeping it in their house for a week to pray the rosary. And other catechists come to pray with them. So when our mother comes to a particular parish, things happen.” {gallery width=100 height=100}gallery/2012/1109/olacongress/{/gallery}