Faithful from 41 countries and 47 U.S. states gathered in Anaheim or watched the live webcast of the annual Los Angeles Religious Education Congress last weekend, calling believers around the world to attend to the life-infusing Voice of God.More than 40,000 people came to the Anaheim Convention Center for the 2012 Congress centered on the theme, “Voice Infusing Life,” which started with a day-long event of high-energy rallies, workshops and liturgies for 15,000 high school youth from several western states March 22. The Congress live webcast drew viewers from 873 cities spanning the globe. 

Los Angeles Archbishop José Gomez and archdiocesan director of religious education, Religious Sister of Charity Edith Prendergast, led a Friday morning opening rite and welcome streamed live online and simulcasted to Convention Hall B from the arena packed to the third tier balcony with attendees, many proudly wearing apparel with their parish affiliation.

Commenting in her opening reflection on this year’s theme, Sister Prendergast said that the Voice of God, which set the universe in motion, resounds through the ages. “So many places in Scripture we hear God pleading for us to hear his voice,” she noted.

“The voice of God is easy to recognize, but difficult to take to heart,” said Sister Prendergast. “It is a voice that calls us away from old habits, inviting us to adopt more wholesome ones.” To hear God’s voice, she continued, people need to be reflective and discerning.

“We have to recognize the voice of the shepherd --- and the voice of the stranger,” added Sister Prendergast. “At the heart of religious education is always a personal encounter with Jesus Christ.”

‘Our job is to listen’

In keeping with the Congress theme, Saturday morning’s keynote speaker spoke first about listening to God’s voice in his address: “The Urgency of Discipleship and Evangelization in Today’s World.”

“Voice is a characteristic of human beings and, therefore, it is a characteristic of the God who made human beings,” pointed out Father Anthony Gittins, a member of the Congregation of the Holy Spirit. “Some people, tragically, lack a voice. Some people are deprived of a voice and, therefore, some people become powerless. 

“But our God is a God who speaks with power and with creativity. And God’s voice infuses life. God’s voice is the very foundation of the Jewish and Christian religions. God speaks and things happen. God says, ‘Let it be,’ and it takes place. The human voice and God’s voice are the foundation of discipleship. And we ourselves badly need to be quiet, badly need to listen in order to hear God’s voice.”

The former missionary and formation director, and current professor of theology and culture at the Catholic Theological Union of Chicago, said modern-day disciples are people who not only hear the word of God in today’s 24/7 hectic world but then internalize it and, finally, put it into practice. This inner knowledge and outward action comes not so much from learning facts about Jesus, but following Jesus’ life of serving others as he did in his day-to-day ministry.

“We cannot be disciples simply by knowing about Jesus or reading about Jesus or even hearing about Jesus unless he has an impact on our daily life, unless we are constantly and consistently internalizing the word of Jesus,” said Father Gittins, a native of England. “And we cannot simply come to Jesus and be with Jesus. This discipleship is not just ‘me and Jesus.’ Authentic discipleship is ‘me and Jesus for you’ and for the world.” 

Concerning evangelization, the member of the Spiritan community wondered aloud how it became a “rational” church-driven program. He said evangelization, in essence, is simply continuing the way Jesus brought his father’s loving mission down to earth.

“The church is the servant, the instrument of evangelization,” Father Gittins said. “But the church, like all of us, occasionally forgets and thinks that the church is in charge as we sometimes forget and think that we are in charge. We cannot be in charge of God’s mission. Our job is to listen to the Holy Spirit. 

“So evangelization is not a program as such, because Jesus doesn’t have a program. Jesus’ life is a discovery process. This is true evangelization, and this is what we must do as disciples who are called to do what Jesus does.”  

‘Be Jesus’ voice’

In his homily at the concelebrated closing liturgy in the arena March 25, Archbishop José Gomez urged the large assembly to reach out to others and “bring them to the Teacher” for “God’s honor and glory.”

Acercar a los hombres y mujeres de nuestro tiempo a Dios (bring men and women of our time closer to God); that is the essence of catechesis, the essence of evangelization,” he said, referring to the day’s Cycle A Gospel reading from John when Martha --- based on her faith in the resurrection of her brother Lazarus --- reaches out to her sister Mary telling her, “the Teacher is here and is asking for you.” 

The Gospel was dramatically re-enacted by two lay readers, Dione Grillo and Douglas Leal, from the Office of Religious Education, and Deacon David Estrada, executive director of the archdiocesan Synod Implementation and Stewardship Office.

“Our task is to bring others to the Teacher,” Archbishop Gomez said to a packed arena, mostly parish ministers throughout Southern California who waited for the liturgy despite the heavy mid-afternoon rain in Orange County. 

Concelebrants included Archbishop Emeritus Cardinal Roger Mahony, Auxiliary Bishops Joseph Sartoris, Oscar Solis, Alexander Salazar, Edward Clark and Gerald Wilkerson, and Msgr. James Loughnane, Episcopal Vicar of the San Gabriel Region.

“[Bring them] to the encounter with Jesus Christ so that they realize he is here, that he is alive and present in our world and in our lives,” Archbishop Gomez remarked. “Our task is to help others to hear the call of Jesus so that they understand that he is asking for them, that he wants them to follow him.”

“Be Jesus’ voice, help our brothers and sisters to hear His Voice, Voice infusing life, Voz que infunde vida,” he said, reiterating Congress’ theme.

“Time is flying. Let us make use of the fleeting moments. They will never return,” he said, citing Mother Marianne Cope of Molokai, a Franciscan Sister who migrated from Germany to upstate New York and served lepers in Hawaii for 35 years after responding to a letter sent to her by Hawaiian authorities seeking religious sisters to care for patients in their leper colony.

“Isn’t that just that the way that sometimes we hear Jesus’s voice?” Archbishop Gomez asked the assembly. “A normal letter, or through an encounter, or a conversation. And that’s how Mother Marianne read this letter, as the voice of Jesus calling her.”

Archbishop Gomez encouraged participants to help others come out of their self-made “prisons” such as selfishness, brokenness and sinfulness, into the “new light of the resurrection!”

He described catechesis as more than a job, but a “part of God’s plan of redeeming love.

“Catechesis is at the heart of the Church’s mission” of proclaiming His salvation until the end of time, the archbishop said.

He urged the faithful to renew their faith every day by “always having that intimate friendship with Jesus.”

The nearly three-hour Mass ended with a standing ovation for Religious Sister of Charity Edith Prendergast, who minutes before had asked the assembly to recognize the work of the archdiocesan Office of Religious Education’s team as well as the more than 400 volunteers that were involved for nearly 12 months in the yearly event’s organization. 

The assembly also applauded the 200-plus voice choir and orchestra led by John Flaherty; the liturgical dancing companies that have been participating in the event for two decades; Archbishop Gomez and Bishop Clark, each celebrating the 10th anniversary of their ordination as bishops; and Cardinal Mahony, celebrating 50 years of priesthood this year.

’40,000 can’t be wrong’

“I get so filled [in Congress],” said Martha Vazquez, a catechist at St. Mary Church in Bakersfield, attending Congress for the fifth time. “This time I want to learn to recognize God’s voice more clearly in my life; make sure it’s His voice.”

Vazquez also appreciated “what Sister Edith said [during the opening remarks], citing Luisa May Alcott, ‘not to be afraid of storms and learn to sail my ship.’

“I will text this to my boss who was recently diagnosed with cancer,” she said with watery eyes, while picking up her cell phone. “This is what Congress is about: it helps us to guide others as well. It’s not only about my own ship.”

“We want to learn to listen to His voice among other voices,” said Tom Miller, from St. James Church in Redondo Beach, who was attending Congress for the first time together with his wife Jeanne.

“Forty thousand people can’t be wrong,” they both said when asked why they had decided to attend this year. “We’re here to renew our faith.” The members of JustFaith ministries said they were particularly interested in all the arena events and in Father Greg Boyle’s presentation on his social justice work with at-risk youth. 

“I’m interested in seeing how he (Archbishop Gomez) interacts with kids” in the live chat, said Kim Tuverson, technology coordinator at St. Monica School who has attended Congress “off and on” since 1976.

During the 45-minute online chat March 23 with St. Dorothy seventh and eighth graders which was sprinkled with [happy face] moticons throughout the text, students were particularly interested in learning about the archbishop’s vocation and his family support.

“Were you very religious as a child?” asked Giovanna M.

“Why did you want to become an archbishop?” asked Jackson H.

 “Do you feel God is present with you at all times?” asked Kennedy B.

“Were you born Catholic?” asked Lauren C.

“If you could become a pope, would you? questioned Joe K.

“How did your family respond to your decision to become a priest?” asked Jasmine A.

In a few lines, the archbishop encouraged the students to learn more about the history of the Catholic Church, about the new American Saints Kateri Tekakwitha and Maryanne Cope, and to appreciate their Catholic education.

Personal questions such as the archbishop’s birthday and his favorite movie and sport were also part of the conversation.

“I came to learn more stuff and to become a better person,” said Hector Quintero, attending for the first time with Presentation of Mary’s youth group. 

“It provides a good opportunity to befriend others and to help youth get involved in church,” said his peer Miguel Hernandez.

Speaking to The Tidings in front of the Diocese of San Bernardino exhibit booth, San Bernardino Bishop Gerald Barnes, who has attended Congress for 16 years, shared why he comes every year to mingle with attendees. 

“Basically I’m here to affirm and thank people for their ministries --- have them think beyond,” said the bishop. “I think this is the group that’s committed and dedicated; they carry the burdens and now it’s kind of like their way to be refreshed and do some thinking.

“I heard a lot this year, which I was hoping would happen, that people get together when they get back and they process or evaluate what they’ve learned,” added Bishop Barnes. “It just isn’t an experience they had; it’s an experience that’s reflected, and that’s good for me to hear that. I want to thank the archdiocese for sponsoring this and allowing others to come in and, not only to learn, but to share our own experiences.” 

Contributing to this story were Paula Doyle, Doris Benavides, Elisabeth Deffner and R.W. Dellinger. For more photos, see page 20. For more information about Congress (in 2013, Feb. 22-24), go to  HYPERLINK "" 

{gallery width=100 height=100}gallery/2012/0330/congmain/{/gallery}