Two years after its last full in-person attendance and a year removed from an all-virtual presentation, this month’s Los Angeles Religious Education Congress will be a hybrid event for the first time in its history. 

“A lot of energy, heart, and mind has gone into Congress’ logistics,” said Sister Rosalia Meza, senior director of the Office for Religious Education. 

A lot of that has gone into conforming with COVID-19 pandemic safety requirements. As an indoor mega event with 1,000 or more people, organizers have had to comply with California public health guidelines, as well as those set by the Anaheim Convention Center and surrounding hotel partners.

“It has been super challenging to plan with so many changes, but the reality is we will see what happens and make sure everyone can experience a wonderful faith-sharing experience,” said Sister Rosalia.

Speaking to Angelus, Sister Rosalia acknowledged the 2022 Congress will be held on a smaller scale and will be a “bit different” from past Congresses. 

“But everything from the spiritual liturgies to the keynote speakers will be refreshing and healing. We are really trying to honor what we have been through, and move forward as a faith community.”

In-person attendance, once as large as 40,000, will be closer to 5,000 this year, Sister Rosalia estimates. Identification, proof of vaccination, and indoor masking will all be required. All transactions are cashless at the Convention Center — debit or credit cards only.

“People are longing to come back in person and we know we can safely do that,” said Sister Rosalia.

Live participants will be able to attend the opening event, keynote talks, workshops, liturgies, sacred space, art exhibits, film showcases and wander the exhibit hall. Other years have seen as many as 280 workshops. This year’s will have just shy of 100 one-hour sessions (available in English, Spanish, and Vietnamese), down from the previous 90-minute format.  

Congress favorites like Father Greg Boyle, Bishop Robert Barron, Father Robert Spitzer, and Sister Norma Pimentel will be among those speaking in person. The pool of in-person speakers purposefully focused on those able to come from nearby LA, Orange County, and other states.

This year’s Thursday “Youth Day” ($35/person registration, which closes at midnight March 13) will welcome high school students March 17 with the theme, “Let God Take the Wheel,” the subject of a talk by keynote speaker Ansel Augustin from Vagabond Missions in New Orleans.

Linda Dakin-Grimm of the Southern California Catholic Task Force on Immigration will return for a Sunday afternoon workshop for her annual talk on the intersection of faith with immigration law and practice. She admits she’s curious to see what the smaller crowd will be like. 

“One of the best things about REC was the weirdness of the huge crowd — it really was a ‘here comes everyone’ experience of Catholicism,” Dakin-Grimm told Angelus. 

“I hope this year’s REC is energetic, and I believe it will be, with so many people yearning for connection. It is much more fun as a presenter to see people’s real faces and expressions, as opposed to recording something on video and wondering how it is received. Chatting with people afterward is a real joy.”

Those who opt for the virtual Congress experience (price: $35/person) can also access livestreamed keynote addresses and liturgies. An on-demand menu of pre-taped workshops — 31 adult and four from youth day — are included with an interactive “Click.Connect.Converse” connection. Registration for this option is open until March 31, with access to all content until May 17.

More than 10,000 signed up for the all-virtual event in mid-February 2021.

Sister Rosalia explained that when planning the 2022 REC, there was a period of time when no one overseas could count on flying in to participate. That meant the virtual option platform was geared to focus more on international speakers. Virtual workshop hosts this year include John Allen Jr. and the Catholic Faith Network’s Msgr. Jim Vlaun.

Organizers chose the theme, “Living Waters of Hope,” for this year’s event. Sister Rosalia explained that in the context of the pandemic, Exodus 17:6 gives us an invitation to “strike the rock so that water will flow from it.”

It also reflects on the Samaritan woman’s question to Jesus from the Sunday Gospel of the gathering’s last day: “Where then can you get this living water?” (John 4, 11).

“They are beautiful words and appropriate, as we have gone through a lot of dryness and pain, and it’s important to recover and hope for our personal lives and for the world,” said Sister Rosalia. “We found that very meaningful.”