For years, religious education leaders in the LA Archdiocese could measure the passage of time with the Regional Congress.

This series of conferences, held within each pastoral region, would bring parish catechists, religious education teachers, and others together to learn over workshops, liturgies, and keynote speakers.

“As a catechist, it’s like the start of a new year,” said Erica Castaneda, catechist at Immaculate Conception Church in Monrovia. “I feel I need to receive something in order to provide for the kids.”

And this year, for the first time since 2019, Castaneda was able to experience that “start of a new year” again in person. She was one of nearly 400 participants in the Regional Congress for the San Gabriel Pastoral Region, held on Saturday, Oct. 8, at Bishop Amat High School in La Puente.

San Gabriel was one of two pastoral regions to make the move to in-person Regional Congress, with the Santa Barbara pastoral region hosting their own congress at Saint Bonaventure High School in Ventura Oct. 15. Previously, all Regional Congresses were held virtually due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

At the helm of the planning committees for these two congresses were Juan Pablo Garcia and Damaris Molina-Morales, regional coordinators for the Office of Religious Education for the Santa Barbara and San Gabriel pastoral regions respectively.

“For us, it was more of taking the temperature and just knowing that not everybody was a fan of doing things virtually,” Molina-Morales said of the return to in person. “But I think also, we knew we had to get here at some point. Things are opening up, let’s take a chance.”

“It was my first in-person congress as a regional coordinator, so everything was a learning process,” Garcia said, “but I loved it. I had an incredible team that was always looking to offer the best we could to our region.”

The result was a Santa Barbara Regional Congress line-up of 28 workshops, in both English and Spanish, that drew more than 400 participants.

“We were expecting 250-300 participants, thinking that many people were probably afraid to come back to this type of event,” Garcia said, “and seeing days before congress that we have more than 400 registered says that our church community is ready to be back in our parishes and events.”

“It was so exciting to be around people in ministry again,” said Laura Diaz, director of faith formation for Saint Peter Claver Parish in Simi Valley and member of the Santa Barbara Regional Congress planning team.

“We all felt so blessed to be together there and they were excited about the workshops they were experiencing,” she said. “Being at the Santa Barbara Regional Congress in person also took away some of the isolation the pandemic left us in as we connected with so many.”

“The highlight for me was seeing my team of Catechists excited for the day’s events, the experience of team building, and an event specifically carved out for us,” said Lucy Bolognino, director of faith formation at St. Rose of Lima Catholic Church, who was attending the Santa Barbara Congress for the first time.

While the San Gabriel Congress saw similar turn-out — 389 registrants plus a team of over 100 staff, volunteers and exhibitors at the event — its return was marked by a different structure than previous Regional Congresses.

With a budget less than half that of pre-pandemic years, Molina-Morales said she knew it was time to reimagine what the Congress could look like.

“If I had settled for repeating the same model that we have done in the past it would have been easy to organize but probably out of my budget,” she said.

Molina-Morales’ response was to whittle back the number of speakers and workshops, offering instead a keynote speaker, breakout sessions and a panel discussion. She also moved the registration packet — previously mailed out to catechists — to online only.

“I was really worried that people might think ‘this doesn’t look like the Regional Congress I am used to,’” Molina-Morales said.

“This year was totally different,” Castaneda admitted, “but it was very neat. Only one workshop, but it was very applicable. In order to do that, I know it is a lot of work for the San Gabriel Community. And I’m grateful for that.”

 Fr. Pedro Saucedo, associate director of vocations for the archdiocese, gave the keynote address in English, while Dr. Humberto Ramos, parish life director for Epiphany Church in South El Monte, gave the keynote address in Spanish.

The panel discussion was moderated by Eddie Perez, Spanish Evangelization Coordinator for the Office of New Evangelization and Parish Life, and focused on how the church in Los Angeles responds to current events—from pandemic recovery to the Eucharistic Revival to the Synod on Synodality. Sister Rosalia Meza, Director of the Office of Religious Education, Father Juan Ochoa, director of the Office of Worship, Father Parker Sandoval, Vice Chancellor for Ministerial Services, and Karen Luna, Coordinator of Young Adult Ministry were panelists.

“With that idea of reimagining and restricting the Regional Congress, we wanted to avoid people just coming, taking notes but then putting those notes away,” Molina-Morales said. “We wanted people to be empowered.”