Catechists are reminded that only by living in the spirit of God can they find true joy — and pass that along to their students.In his opening remarks at the Oct. 22 Our Lady of the Angels Regional Congress at St. Mary’s Academy in Inglewood, Auxiliary Bishop Edward Clark told the more than 600 mostly catechists present that this year’s theme — “Live the Freedom of the Spirit” — reminds us that only by living in the spirit of God can we obtain the happiness and joy that God intended for every human being since the beginning of creation.“But no one can know the happiness, the joy, the freedom of the Spirit without first knowing God,” he pointed out. “And that is our task as teachers: to make available to our students a way of knowing and loving the God who first loved them. So let me also express my gratitude to each one of you for all that you do, for all of your dedication and your work to bring our students to a knowledge and love of God.”Later, during his homily at the late morning liturgy, Bishop Clark observed that if catechists simply teach their students to always seek what God wants them to do —which is to be steadfast followers of Jesus — they won’t ever have to preach the “shall-not” constraints of the Ten Commandments. Moreover, there will be no need to spell out over and over other laws that can make them feel anxious about how they go about living their daily lives.“We will only have to remind them to keep the two great commandments: love God with all your strength, and love your neighbor as you love yourself,” he said. “As teachers, this is our task and it is our joy — to teach our students to know the love of God, to love God as God loves us, and to live our lives in the freedom of the Spirit.”

‘God’s freeing power’

The OLA Congress offered participants a “wonderful opportunity” to reflect, to affirm and to be challenged in their true and transcendental call to catechesis, declared David Lara, Our Lady of the Angels Region coordinator for the Office of Religious Education. The daylong event featured nearly 40 workshops in English and 45 in Spanish, plus exhibits from archdiocesan offices, religious congregations and religious publishers. 

At the closing session, Excellence in Catechetical Service Awards were presented to five catechists: Magdalena Gutierrez, St. Agnes; Magdalena Rodriguez, Holy Cross; Juanita Alabastro, Immaculate Heart of Mary; Carmen El Khoury, Holy Name of Jesus; and Angeles Martinez, St. Vincent.

And Immaculate Conception Church presented the Our Lady of Guadalupe image, known as “La Peregrina,” to St. Malachy Church. 

 “The thing that’s important in all of our leadership in ministry,” said Sister Edith Prendergast, director of the Office of Religious Education, during her opening address, “is the realization that all of us have been gifted in abundance. So let us give thanks to God for the gift of wisdom, the gift of strength and the gift of understanding. All of these wonderful gifts that we give and are given away.”

The Religious Sister of Charity said the real question was how to live freely in the presence of God, in the presence of one another, trusting always that God’s power is working through catechists. Fortunately, she noted, there was the awesome tradition of the earthly witness of Jesus himself — a concrete witness that invites everyone to leave behind all that diminishes and stand fast for the liberty God has given humankind.

“And so what’s our theme invites us to do?” she asked. “It invites us to live the mission of Jesus. Now it is our turn today to wrap others in a mantle of justice, to give hope even in the face of pain and distress that comes our way from time to time. Yet it is to live in that sense that God is with us, God’s power is with us, God speaks powerfully through us. 

“So now it is our turn to show the world that there is a better way, a way marked by love and compassion,” she stressed. “And to reach out in all of our parishes, ministries and schools to lift burdens, to unwrap bindings that hold us sometimes in captivity so that others may come to experience the gifts of God’s freeing power.”

‘Why should I believe?’

Vianaca Saldana, 20, came to the OLA Congress with other catechists from Holy Cross (Santa Cruz) Church at 47th and Main Streets. Because she just started teaching two confirmation classes in September, she was hoping to especially pick up information and classroom tips from the workshops. And halfway through the day, she wasn’t disappointed.

“I learned so much in the session on the new missal [“And with Your Spirit: Finding New Life in the New Missal”],” she told The Tidings. “I had no idea about the changes and that Nov. 27 was the first Sunday that we’re going to start using the new missal. I learned how it’s a truer translation from Latin to English, word by word. So we can be more united all together. And so I was really impressed. Now I can take some of the things I’ve learned back to my class.”

Saldana said being a catechist today, especially with teenagers, is no easy task for a lot of reasons. Teaching religion, in fact, is countercultural because of the continual negative lifestyle messages from videos, movies and TV. And then there’s all that peer pressure to be “cool,” which often leads to drug use and promiscuous sex. 

Finally, the whole issue of relating to parents is an ongoing big issue, particularly if they’re immigrants with a different cultural background.

“A lot of my students question: ‘I feel that I’m a good person, but why am I suffering so much?’” she reported. “And that’s a question that sometimes I can’t answer, you know. But they ask me: ‘Why should I believe? Why should I come to this confirmation class? You know, I’m a good person, but yet I suffer so much at home or at school.’”

However Saldana, who is in junior college with hopes of being a teacher, isn’t giving up — and coming to the regional congress gave her some badly needed encouragement. 

“As a catechist you want to guide them the right way,” she mused. “And religion is a touchy subject even for them to bring up. It’s not like it’s math or science. It’s something more personal and at a deeper level. So sometimes they’re confused.

“Sometimes they talk to me in private, and I’m so grateful that I have that connection with them. You know, they feel safe to talk to me and they trust me. I thought it was going to be a piece of cake, honestly. But I have a lot of help from the other catechists, and from speakers at this congress. And I do want to do this for a long time.”

Celia Gomez has been preparing second-graders at St. Joseph Church in Hawthorne for 11 years. “I enjoy it a lot because I can share my knowledge with them and also catechize myself,” she said. “Because we never finish learning. And I like to give this time to God because he gave me a lot of blessings for myself and my family.”

But the native of Jalisco, Mexico, also admitted that teaching about God to children and adolescents today can be difficult. “Because new technology occupies their whole life,” she explained. “Some of them are so distracted, always thinking on something else. So it’s hard to keep their attention. I always try to have good examples and keep them writing to pay attention and always remind them to give some time to God.”

After Gomez took her own kids to First Communion class, she was so impressed that she became a catechist herself. And she’s never stopped because she loves teaching and learning more about her creator.

Which is what brought her to the 2011 OLA Congress.

“Because I like to prepare better myself and to have more knowledge,” she said. “Because the church is always getting new ideas because the world is always changing. This helps me keep up. By going to these different workshops, it gives me more ideas to bring to my classroom.” 

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