Near the end of the weekend celebration that is the Los Angeles Religious Education Congress, 17 people came to the altar in the Anaheim Convention Center Arena to receive a special blessing from Archbishop José Gomez.
This group is part of a group that will head to Rome, where they will ask Pope Francis to advocate for the cause of the immigration reform in the United States. Each person on stage has had one or both parents sent back to their homeland.
Their presence, Archbishop Gomez’ blessing, and the emotional and enthusiastic response from the capacity attendance was testimony to the weekend’s theme, “Hope: A World Afire/Esperanza que Enciende al Mundo!” that was clearly embraced by the 40,000-plus who attended all or part of the four-day Congress.
Following are excerpts from several of the major talks presented at Congress:
‘Never give way to discouragement’
“We come today, gathered from around the world, a community of hope, bound together by a common mission: to light fires of hope and to set our world ablaze with God’s amazing compassionate love and mercy,” declared Religious Sister of Charity Edith Prendergast, director of the archdiocesan Office of Religious Education, in her March 14 opening talk.
In an unsettled world of uncertainty, conflict and poverty, she said, “we want to see the gleaming taper’s light that cheers our way. We greatly need to be stouthearted and never give way to discouragement, heeding the psalmist who so aptly reminds us: ‘Put your hope in God.’”
She said people lose confidence when they begin to trust too much in themselves “and forget the God of hopefulness who gives us a new heart to free us. Pope Francis counsels us, ‘Do not let hope be stolen from you by worry or needless anxiety.’”
Hope, Sister Prendergast asserted, is not “a naïve expectation that anguish will remain a stranger; rather, hope spirals out. It is a safe anchor that steadies us and enables us to wake up each morning knowing that our lives have value no matter the circumstances.”
Nationally-known author and commentator Father Robert Barron, in his March 15 keynote talk, outlined several recommendations to successfully proclaim Christ in today’s world. Among them were these suggestions followed by his comments:
—Lead with the beautiful. “The hackles tend to go up readily in our post-modern culture when we begin with the good and the true. There’s something more winsome about the beautiful, and we are a beautiful religion — one of the great marks of Catholicism.”
—Don't dumb down the message. “A dumbed-down, superficial Catholicism [in the years following Vatican II] led to the abandonment of the faith by a lot of people.” Why, he asked, can’t high school students who read Shakespeare “be introduced to Aquinas, Augustine, Newman, Chesterton, Dante? We’re the ones who have to do this: teachers, preachers, catechists, priests, publishers.”
—Tell the great story. “Jesus is presented in the Gospel as the fulfillment and culmination of the great story of Israel. Jesus, “the new David, who is himself the embodiment of God’s kingship over the world,” establishes a new order of peace, love, justice, compassion and non-violence. “Everybody needs to be in this new order — that’s evangelization.”
—Use the new media. “If we don't use the [social media] tools we have today, (such as Facebook with 1.1 billion users) we're not acting as the [prophet] Elijah (who publicly challenged the priests of Baal).” Noting that the majority of atheists become so today by reading Internet articles by prolific atheist authors, Father Barron declared: “We've got to be in that world and battling them.”
‘Building back better’
In her March 16 morning keynote address, Dr. Carolyn Woo spoke of her first year leading Catholic Relief Services, the official international humanitarian agency of the Catholic community in the United States serving the needy in 100 countries.
"In our work to serve people, particularly the poorest, they don't deserve our second best, they deserve our very best," noted Woo. It is a matter of "serving the common good, but with uncommon excellence," she explained.
CRS adopts the approach of the Catholic Church in its strategy of integral human development. “For human flourishing to take place, it's not just enough to provide food or jobs," said Woo. “We also need to look at people's physical and economic well-being, their place in society, and their spiritual well-being.”
As an example, she noted that CRS just finished three months of emergency relief to the victims of the recent Haiyan typhoon in the Philippines and is now embarking on long-term development projects to get people in more permanent housing and restore livelihoods.
"We also believe in building back better so that we can solve the problem once and for all," said Woo.
For example, a soon-to-open hospital in Haiti has been rebuilt as a teaching hospital after the nation's devastating earthquake in 2010. And CRS' Information & Communication Technology 4 Development project, providing technological solutions such as cell phones to help rural farmers access the latest market information and allow poor pregnant women to view maternal health videos.
"It is our work to be Christ in the world, to bring about hope, to make solutions, to rebuild people's lives, to rebuild their livelihoods, because we are all part of the same family," said Woo.
Sent into the world
The closing Mass of the Religious Education Congress was an invitation for reflection and renewal after a busy weekend full of workshops, speakers, engagement and more. Worshippers arrived into the near-packed arena ready to celebrate once more and enthusiastically joined in the opening hymn “We Gather in Love.”
With prayers, readings and songs in English, Spanish and Vietnamese, the final liturgy on Transfiguration Sunday was indeed a reminder of the many cultures represented not just at Congress but at the attendees’ home parishes in Southern California, Oregon, Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Hawaii, Australia and beyond.
“The goal of our lives is to be transfigured into the image of Jesus,” said Archbishop Gomez in his homily. As he has throughout Lent, he continued to encourage attendees to think and become “People of the Beatitudes.”
The archbishop also referred to modern-day believers as role models; he pointed to the example of Cesar Chavez, the subject of a new movie “Cesar Chavez” starring Michael Peña coming out March 28. “He fought for justice, urged non-violence and everything was rooted in his Catholic faith,” he said.
At the end of the Mass, after he had blessed the 17 people headed for Rome, and as he prepared to offer a final blessing, he offered a final call and encouragement rooted in the theme of the weekend:
“You are all called to be another Christ,” he told the assembly. “You are called to change the world.”
Sister Nancy Munro, Paula Doyle, Brenda Rees and Mike Nelson contributed to this story.