I was inspired to see so many of you at our Religious Education Congress this weekend.

This year marked the Congress’ 60th anniversary, making it one of the oldest and largest Catholic gatherings of its kind in the world.

Meeting the thousands of people who come each year, I find myself reflecting how the Church is bigger than any of us and bigger than all of us. I recall the old hymn about “the wideness in God’s mercy, like the wideness of the sea.”

In the mystery of God’s mercy, there are so many different roads that lead people to Jesus Christ. They say that God always writes straight but sometimes uses crooked lines. And often in my own ministry, I have seen how that is true. The path to Jesus, the path to God, is not always direct.

The challenge is always to find the right path, to walk in the truth, the way that leads to the face of the living God. We can be tempted to make God or the Church “in our own image.” This temptation is big in our culture, which is so obsessed with self-expression and self-fulfillment. 

That is why education in the faith is so important. Because religious education is about truth. We want to know Jesus, not somebody’s ideas about Jesus or who we wish Jesus might be. We want to know what Jesus really taught and what he really said about how we should live. We want authenticity and integrity. We don’t want to live in a spiritual and moral “echo chamber” in which we hear only what we want to hear.  

Sometimes I think the language we use — “religious education,” “catechesis,” “formation” — needs to be updated for a new generation. What do those words even mean today?

Is religion something that we can teach? Yes, if we think of religion as only a body of knowledge. In one sense, our faith is a “deposit,” a body of truths that God has entrusted to his Church. This beautiful body of truth is found in our Scriptures and Tradition, in our liturgy and in the “Catechism of the Catholic Church.”

But when we speak of education in the faith, what we are really talking about is conversion “to” Christ and “in” Christ. We’re talking about leading people to discover the path that God has set out for their lives. We’re talking about preparing them to hear God’s voice and to speak with him, and to set out on a life-journey in which they are walking with Jesus in the company of others and seeking the will of God and his Kingdom.

Conversion is the key — conversion that leads us to knowing that our lives have a direction and a plan; conversion that leads to our spiritual transformation into the image of Jesus Christ.

If our meeting with Christ does not lead us to personal transformation — to change our behavior, the way we think, our outlook on the world and our approach to other people — then this encounter is not real. If our “encounter” with Christ only confirms the path we are already taking or our own preferences and assumptions, then we have met a “counterfeit Christ” or a Christ of our own making, or of somebody else’s making.

The truth at the heart of all authentic religious education is beautiful. The truth is this: the God who created us has a deep thirst, a deep longing and desire for our love.

And all of us — every human person in every time and every place — has a deep longing and desire for God. Our lives are the meeting of God’s thirst for our love and our thirst for his love.

That “meeting” takes place in the encounter with Jesus Christ, who is the face of God and the true face of humanity. And this meeting is the beginning of a lifelong friendship.

This weekend we have a beautiful way to continue the energy and joy of our Religious Education Congress and to deepen our personal encounter with God’s mercy.

On March 4-5, we will join Catholics around the world in observing “24 hours for the Lord.” Select parishes in each of our pastoral regions will be open for 24 hours for round-the-clock adoration of the Blessed Sacrament and opportunity for confession. Go to our Year of Mercy website, seekmercy.org, to find the parish near you.

I hope that you will be able to make some time to be with Jesus this weekend. This is what our faith is about — this personal friendship with our God who is living and true and who longs to share his life with us.

Let’s pray for one another this week — pray for our ongoing conversion to Jesus, pray for his love to grow in our hearts and give us more confidence to follow his way for our life.

Let’s stay close this week to our Blessed Mother Mary. She knows what we need and she always brings our needs to Jesus.

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