Next year’s Religious Education Congress (REC) will be held virtually due to the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, the Archdiocese of Los Angeles announced this week.
“COVID-19 has changed many of the traditional ways of gathering,” said Sister Rosalia Meza, VDMF, senior director of the archdiocese’s Office of Religious Education (ORE) in a June 29 letter. “After consultation, prayer, and discernment, we [the RE Congress team and Archbishop José H. Gomez] came to the decision that the Religious Education Congress 2021 will be a virtual event.”
“Congress” is considered the largest annual gathering of Catholics in the United States, offering a series of workshops, liturgies, and opportunities to network with other Catholic ministries and professionals. It has been held at the Anaheim Convention Center since 1970.
This year, the event drew more than 25,000 people and nearly 200 speakers, including Apostolic Nuncio to the U.S. Archbishop Christophe Pierre, Bishop Daniel Flores of Brownsville, Texas, and the former president of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR), Sister Teresa Maya.
In an interview with Angelus, Sister Meza said that safety concerns about planning such a potentially large gathering of people amid uncertainty about the pandemic’s future course factored heavily in the decision. But organizers also took into account the grim financial reality that many of Congress’s regular participants are already facing.
“Many of the people that attend Congress are ministers, people from parishes, and a lot of those are losing or have already lost their jobs,” Meza said. “We care about the people, and we have to be very mindful on different levels.”
The 65th Religious Education Congress will run from Feb. 19-21, 2021. Feb. 18 will mark the 50th occurrence of the annual “Youth Day” event, typically held at the Anaheim Convention Center the day before REC starts. The REC 2021 theme will be “Proclaim the Promise!”
“This is a very unique way to celebrate [those anniversaries],” said Meza, who took over as ORE director exactly one year ago. “But we are fully committed to offering the high quality that our attendees have come to expect.”
Planning for the event is still in the early stages, but Sr. Meza said that her office’s tech partners estimate a virtual Congress held via Zoom could host some 50,000 online participants.
While the change is an unwelcome one for all involved, Sr. Meza hopes it can help her team to think more seriously about how to attract younger generations of Catholics in the long run.
“Just to think about not having an in-person event is really painful,” she said. “But I’m sure that this will open a new door. We hope that we can reach more people: locally, nationally, and internationally.”
The Verbum Dei religious sister said that for her, the unprecedented planning decisions in the months ahead center around one fundamental question.
“For me, it’s about: ‘What’s the best way to continue being present for the people?’ Because I’m certain that people need this [Congress] more than ever, to see that the Church is here for them more than ever.”
As she, Archbishop Gomez, and ORE continue to discuss, pray, and discern what the 2021 REC should look like — including deciding which speakers to invite — Sr. Meza is keeping the theme chosen for the event in the front of her mind.
“It’s about loving God’s people,” she told Angelus. “This pandemic has changed people’s lives. But it’s important to fix our eyes on God, so that we can continue proclaiming the promise, that God is still alive in the midst of this painful experience.”