ANAHEIM — As the spring weather starts to heat up in Southern California, thousands of people are starting to flock to Disneyland, one of Anaheim’s main family attractions.

But just across the street, several thousands of others packed in over the weekend of March 21-24 to attend the Catholic equivalent of a theme park: the 2019 Los Angeles Religious Education Congress, which drew thousands of young people, catechists, teachers, and ordinary Catholics for three days of a fully immersed celebration of their Catholic faith.

Though there were no Disney characters to take selfies with or colorful fireworks to watch, several celebrity-like figures in the U.S. Catholic Church were on hand to offer their take on the current state of affairs in global Catholicism and to provide advice for how to live and spread the Catholic faith, something that arguably produced some different fireworks of excitement.

Much like how the global World Youth Day gatherings are often described, the Congress is a bit of a Catholic reunion, where people from all over the country can come together and celebrate their faith, while also bumping into people they know from other parts of the nation, or who they connected with during previous congresses.

As a microscopic illustration of this, it is one of the few places that in the span of about five minutes one could run into the current Archbishop of Los Angeles, José H. Gomez; his most well-known auxiliary bishop, Robert E. Barron, internationally known for his “Catholicism” series and Word on Fire Catholic Ministries; and Archbishop Gomez’s predecessor Cardinal Roger Mahony.

Referring to the wave of clerical abuse scandals that have swept across the global Catholic landscape over the past year, Archbishop Gomez said that “at this challenging time in the life of the Church, it’s beautiful to see the faith of the people and their commitment to become missionary disciples.”

Despite declining numbers in attendance in years, the gathering continues to draw a diverse and energetic crowd with new faces and emerging leading voices in the American Catholic scene.

Bishop Caggiano speaks at the Religious Education Congress. (TAMARA LONG-GARCÍA)

Bishop Frank Caggiano of Bridgeport, Connecticut — widely considered to be a rising star in the American episcopacy — was a first-timer at the event, which dates back to 1967. Describing the Congress as a “phenomenon,” he said he was impressed at the high numbers and diverse multicultural backgrounds of attendees.

With nearly 200 speakers addressing varying topics, Caggiano, 59, said “this is a national religious congress, not an LA religious congress.”

“Here there’s a microcosm of the whole Church. You have those who are very much in the apologetic mode, teaching the faith and the truth of the faith. There are others who are much more in the social justice and social gospel mode. You have others who are more into the liturgical and spirituality side,” Caggiano said. 

“In a sense, it’s like highlighting the different pieces of who we are,” he said. “I think there’s something for everybody.”

Similarly, Sister Norma Pimentel, whose work with immigrants on the U.S. border with Mexico has drawn international attention, was also a first-time speaker, offering a Spanish-language keynote address on “quenching the thirst for Jesus.”

Considered to be a leading voice not only in the Catholic Church but also in the U.S. political scene, Pimentel, executive director of Catholic Charities in Rio Grande Valley, Texas, said she was “very impressed” by the Congress.

“There are so many people and so many things happening,” she said, and praised the Archdiocese of Los Angeles for “doing such an extraordinary job in convening so many people for such a good cause.”

Pimentel, who had lines of people waiting for a photo and a prayer with her after her address, said she was struck by the sight of so many people who are “eager to hear and to learn and to know, what is God calling me to do, what do I need to do, how much more can I do so that I can become alive in my faith?”

“It is wonderful for me to see people committed and wanting to do more,” she said, adding that one of the main seeds she wanted to plant in her talk is for an awakening of “that fire within that will help people stop all the abuse and injustice and take a personal message from God himself saying I need you, I want you to do something, don’t just wait for someone else to do it.”

Speaking of the importance of taking initiative, especially on the political scene in the lead up to what is already turning out to be a crowded upcoming election cycle, Pimentel said Catholics “have to unite ourselves as one voice in changing our communities to be a community of justice and respect for human life.”

“We must elect leaders who will speak for and represent us and who will really help the community to uphold the dignity of life in all aspects,” Pimentel said. 

(TAMARA LONG-GARCÍA)

The Congress’ closing Mass on March 24 coincided with the first time the Catholic Church celebrated the feast of Saint Oscar Romero since his canonization last October.

In his homily, Archbishop Gomez quoted Romero’s own reflection on the Mass’s Gospel reading about the Samaritan woman and Jesus at the well, in which the future Salvadoran martyr described the encounter between the two as “the hour of the Church.”

“My dear brothers and sisters, we are living also in this ‘hour of the Church,’ ” Archbishop Gomez told the faithful. “As we all know, this has been a hard year for the Church, a moment of reckoning in which many painful truths have been revealed.”

“But we need to live with hope in Jesus Christ!” he continued. “He will never abandon us! Jesus is calling us today, just as he calls the Samaritan woman. He is calling us back to the well, to renew ourselves in the living waters of his Spirit.”

Acknowledging that the end of the Congress meant being sent out “into the desert of this world of secularization and globalization, this world of machines and material promises of happiness,” the archbishop reminded the faithful that carrying out the reform of the Church meant becoming missionary disciples. 

“We need to help our neighbors to know that the Lord is near,” Archbishop Gomez stressed. “We need to help our neighbors to know that he loves us and that he has died for us and that he has a beautiful plan for our lives.”


Angelus editor Pablo Kay also contributed to this article.

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