Renewal, friendship, camaraderie --- all words that summarize the purpose of the Religious Education Congress throughout nearly half a century, words used by those who have seen the growth of an event that annually brings more Catholics together than any other in the Los Angeles Archdiocese. Msgr. James Loughnane --- pastor of St. Denis Church, Diamond Bar, for the last 17 years and currently episcopal vicar of the San Gabriel Pastoral Region --- worked in developing religious education programs in the Los Angeles Archdiocese in the 1960s, not long after he had arrived here after his ordination from his native Ireland. 

Eva Walters, current president of the Native American City of Angels Kateri Circle, was among the first 100 people to attend the first congress (then an “institute”) held at Immaculate Heart College.

Religious Sister of Charity Edith Prendergast has been in charge of the event for nearly 25 years, in her position as director of the archdiocesan Office of Religious Education, a time when Congress has become the largest event of its kind worldwide.

Recently, each reflected on Congress’ growth and history.

From ‘CCD’ to ‘RE’

Msgr. Loughnane recalled when in the early 1960s what would now be the director of religious education position was a volunteer position in every parish. Mostly women ran it, he said, while men were mostly involved in teaching.

At the high school level the program was very strong, he said, each class lasting about an hour and a half. Much like today, Catholic schools’ classrooms were used during weekday afternoons and on Saturdays to teach religious education to hundreds of public school students.

“I enjoyed it actually,” Msgr. Loughnane said with a smile, recalling many professionals who were involved in teaching religious education --- school teachers, engineers, even an FBI agent who later became a deacon.

The program was then called the Confraternity of Christian Doctrine (CCD), and the desire for more knowledge to serve the growing local population helped to launch, one Sunday a year, a three-hour religious education meeting at Immaculate Heart College.

“That was really the genesis of the Religious Education Congress,” said Msgr. Loughnane. “It was the place where the catechists went to get motivated for their teaching.”

Parallel to the religious education classes were teacher training programs throughout the year. Eventually, the meetings overgrew the space at the college and led to the first Southern California Confraternity Congress, held Jan. 13‚Äë15, 1967, at the International Hotel near LAX. To everyone’s surprise, attendance ballooned to 4,000-5,000.

“I don’t think anyone ever had the vision of where those meetings could go,” reflected Msgr. Loughnane. “We never realized it would grow so big.”

Obviously, a larger venue was needed and, beginning in 1970, Congress moved to the Anaheim Convention Center in Orange County, at the time part of the L.A. Archdiocese. The event --- including Youth Day for high school-age students --- now draws upward of 40,000 annually.

Msgr. Loughnane believes that a sense of “security and stability” in the archdiocese throughout its 75-year history has contributed to the ongoing growth of Congress. Only five archbishops in that time (just three in the past 40 years), plus just a few archdiocesan directors of CCD or DRE throughout the years, has injected confidence among the faithful, he said.

“Each one of them kept improving [the event] bringing in speakers and building up the attendance,” he explained.

At its heart, however, is the thirst for knowledge and deeper spirituality that has kept Congress growing, in tune with the Second Vatican Council’s call for the laity to renew their faith.

“People needed enrichment and that is what Congress is really about,” Msgr. Loughnane mused. “It’s about updating them, broadening their vision, enriching their faith and their prayer life, because what you have at Congress isn’t just about religious education. You’ve got family ministry, liturgy and other issues like immigration, so there’s a lot of spiritual growth; it’s renewal.”

Involved and aware

That is exactly what Walters was seeking when she first was “getting back” to the Catholic Church.

After being away for some years, she wanted to learn more about the Church, about its procedures and changes that occurred while she was gone.

In the 1960s she decided to attend the meetings held at Immaculate Heart College. With just a little more than 100 participants, she said the event was a “bit more personal.” 

Her attendance during those initial years was sporadic, but since the archdiocesan Office of Ethnic Ministries was created she has not missed a single Congress. Members of the Kateri Circle to which Walters belongs have staffed a booth for many years and in the last few years Congress’ liturgical celebrations have included a Native American liturgy. This year the liturgy will be held at the Arena, with an eye to this year’s canonization of Blessed Kateri Tekakwitha, Lily of the Mohawks.

What has stood out throughout the years, Walters said, is the friendliness among people who attend. “It’s a great feeling to see people involved, with a renewed religious consciousness,” she said. “Everyone is happy and glad to be there to learn more.”

‘It’s in their blood’

The addition of Youth Day has contributed “big time” to the event’s growth, added Msgr. Loughnane. Many current church leaders who attended Congress at an early age together with their parents, he said, “have kind of grown with it; it’s in their blood, in their genes.”

Among other contributions that have triggered interest in Congress, he mentioned increased parish activities and the fall regional congresses, which “help people get started”; “tremendous” liturgies held at Congress; opportunities for reconciliation and for quiet time; various music concerts; the “great” spirit on the exhibitors’ floor; and finally, the evaluations from participants, which are “taken very seriously.”

He lauded the support of the archbishops, the auxiliary bishops and “of course, Sister Edith’s vision.”

“For some people Congress might be a little vacation; it might be a little retreat,” he said. “They’re renewed, refreshed, re-energized. They receive input and share with friends. And all of that is powerful.”

‘Voice the Gospel’

A powerful transformation is what Sister Prendergast and her team would like to see happen from this year’s Congress.

“We’d like parishioners to go back to their parishes, homes, families, workplaces and ministries transformed,” she said. “We’d like them to voice the Gospel, Jesus; to bring life through the new ideas, practices and resources they find at Congress.”

Among the achievements in the last decades, she mentioned the implementation of technology, including live streaming that helps take Congress to the rest of the country and world, an enhanced web site, digitalized materials and “responding to challenges faced by the Church” with workshops, art and a sacred space for contemplation or prayer.

“This is about the Gospel and the people,” she said, “It’s about social justice for the poor; about listening and being aware of the trends happening in the world.”

She commended the work of more than 400 volunteers who have “taken ownership” of the event, and praised the support of Cardinal Roger Mahony in previous years and of Archbishop José Gomez since last year.

The 2012 theme, “Voice Infusing Life,” comes from St. John’s Gospel, the Cycle A reading for the fifth Sunday of Lent (March 25), the closing day of this year’s Congress when Jesus tells Lazarus, “Come out.” 

“Jesus calls Lazarus forth from death to life,” she observed. “In the same way, we are called to call people forth from death, from lethargy; to call those who are disenfranchised from Church and give them hope and renewal.”

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