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R.E. Congress: Looking for the light

By Paula Doyle, Ellie Hidalgo and Sister Nancy Munro, CSJ
March 9th, 2008
The Tidings (

LOS ANGELES, Calif. (The Tidings) - More than 40,000 participants stepping over the threshold of this year’s Religious Education Congress in Anaheim Feb. 28-March 2 were encouraged in numerous workshops and multicultural liturgies to raise their sights and spirits toward envisioning a Christ-centered future of hope and possibilities.

Weaved throughout the weekend was the theme “Lift Your Gaze…See Anew!”, addressed in the opening rite Feb. 29 by Religious Sister of Charity Edith Prendergast, director of the Office of Religious Education, sponsor of Congress. This year’s motif, she said, “is an invitation to open wide not only our physical eyes, but the eyes of our hearts, and the eyes of memory and the eyes of blessing — and to see beyond and to see beneath and to see whole panoramas of goodness and beauty, and to recognize the sacred at the heart of all of reality.

“Today we are called to wake up to the lantern within us, to the light that’s already there and to recognize that and to affirm that. If this weekend we only opened up our eyes to God’s dream for us,” continued Sister Prendergast. “If only we lift our gaze and see the brokenness that is already there — the need in the midst of all the plenty. God invites us to be wide-eyed, open and visionary.”

‘Loved into existence’

Father Robert Barron, in his March 1 keynote on “The Religious Educator as Evangelizer,” urged Congress participants to be “dynamite to change the world” by becoming good at telling the great five-act Christian story of the grace of creation, the fall, the formation of a people Israel, the coming of the Messiah and the age of the church.

“The entire universe has been loved into existence,” said Father Barron, who teaches at the University of the Lake-Mundelein Seminary. “Find the place right now in you where you are being loved into existence, spoken into existence.”

“Because of creation, we are all connected to one another,” he said. “What connects us is always more powerful than what divides us.”

The priest described the fall of humanity as an attitude of “taking” divine life rather than “receiving it” in gratitude. “As you receive it, you give it away,” he said. “You want the divine life in you? Give it away and then you get more.”

The formation of a people Israel began with God’s call to Abraham and Abraham’s decision to listen and to follow. “The call of God leads people on adventures,” said Father Barron. “God breaks into our hearts.” In contrast, he said, “Sin is fundamentally boring.”

God’s law as given to the Israelites, he continued, “is not an affront to freedom. The law is a foundation for freedom.”

With the coming of the Messiah, “the Christmas story is a warrior story,” asserted the priest. Using the “spiritual weapons of heaven, Jesus deals with enemies through the power of non-violent love and forgiveness. …We killed God, and God returned in forgiving love.”

During this age of the Church, “it is our day to tell the world this great story over and over,” Father Barron challenged religious educators. “The Catholic tradition is a very smart tradition, intellectually profound, rich. We will not tell our own story effectively if we turn away from that richness. We must stop dumbing down our tradition if we’re going to make this story compelling. When we tell this story with verve and with panache, that’s the way that we will light a fire on the earth.”

Current challenges

Throughout the weekend, Congress participants spoke about the challenges facing the Church broadly or in their individual parishes. They sought out new ideas, wisdom and fellowship from Congress participants and workshop speakers so as to meet these challenges from a faith-filled perspective.

First-time Congress participant Paul Peloquin of Our Lady of Fatima Church in Albuquerque, New Mexico, said he was experiencing a “reversion” or a re-conversion to the Catholic faith after some 32 years of estrangement. As a child, he had been molested by a priest. He said a subsequent lawsuit and settlement money brought “no satisfaction.”

Describing himself as a prodigal son, Peloquin said, “God knocked me on the ground and said, ‘I have a plan for you.’ I said, ‘O.K., Lord. I hear you. I’ll do anything.’“ The past four years of active church participation have been a profound coming home experience, said Peloquin, adding, “I’m on an adventure now.” He said he’s come to realize, “I can only heal by learning God’s forgiveness. Once you come to the Lord he teaches you forgiveness.”

Stephanie Malcolm, 20, a UC Santa Barbara student from St. Mary Star of the Sea Church in Oceanside where she taught religious education classes to second graders while in high school, has been coming to Congress for four years. Currently an active parishioner at St. Mark University Parish in Goleta, Malcolm said she appreciates the opportunity to be with “a bunch” of Catholics who share the same faith, morals and values.

“I think one of the most pressing challenges is trying to get youth involved at church,” said Malcolm. “So much in our society is telling us to do things that are not moral and not correct for our faith and there is so much outside pressure pushing kids to do what we really shouldn’t be doing. It’s hard to have that kind of faith if you don’t have a good community and a good support system — some older people and some youth who feel the same way you do.”

Mary Hickey, the parish office manager/secretary at Our Mother of Good Counsel Church in Los Angeles where she assists in religious education, said her parish is “probably indicative” of what is going on.

“I think the greatest challenge is re-kindling the spiritual-ness of the parish — it’s finding out what the spiritual life of the parish is and how to enrich it and how we can reach out to the Catholics who are no longer coming to the church — finding out what they are missing and how we can touch them,” said Hickey. “It’s also figuring out how to reach people and getting them to want to give back, too, with their time and their treasure. So we are talking in the parish about the ways we can reach out and touch people in a spiritual way, and that they in turn will want to give back, too.”

Brian Henritde, 21, a youth minister from St. Raymond, Downey, said he believes today’s greatest challenge in the Church is “trying to get hold of the teens and get rid of the distractions from school and getting them to focus on God. It’s a hard conversation now with easy access to immoral things and immoral decisions and trying to make moral decisions not only about your sexuality but also your spirituality.”

Jesuit Father Larry Gooley, 75, who pastors two congregations in northern Idaho, a parish and a mission, said the church needs to relate to real people’s needs. “We need to re-formulate and re-articulate the Christian truths in a way that addresses the issues of [contemporary] people,” said Father Gooley, who was attending his fourth Congress.

“That’s what’s exciting about this Congress. This is a theology of the people. It’s really a theology that’s reaching into spirituality. How do we live this? Not just, how do we think it? It’s a spirituality of the lay people, people in the world. To me, it’s [an event] to get the church into a 21st century dialogue with 21st century vocabulary and issues [such as] poverty, AIDS, violence, militarism.”

“These people at this Congress are seeing that and they’re calling us clergy to do that,” Father Gooley added. “They are, in a sense, continuing to ordain us to do what the church needs.”

Ongoing conversion

Father Brendan McGuire, who presided at the Celtic Mass at which the late Irish poet and frequent Congress speaker John O’Donohue was honored, enjoined the packed congregants at the March 1 evening liturgy to honestly and authentically approach the penitential Lenten season.

“As we continue our journey of Lent,” said Father McGuire, “we are called to plant the tree of truth in our hearts and our minds, and accept, like the [Gospel’s] tax collector that our weaknesses are real and are often just the underbelly of our strengths.

“[We need] to allow our God to make us strong in the midst of our weakness and to stand before our God as humble servants and say the truth: ‘Lord, be merciful to me, a sinner.’“

He added during a “four-minute catechesis” at the end of the liturgy that O’Donohue often described the four movements of Mass — gathering, hearing the Word, partaking the Eucharist and the leaving/sending forth — as the circle of life.

“You get sent out and somewhere on the way, you decide to turn back towards the Sunday Eucharist. That is the circle of life,” explained Father McGuire.

Orange Bishop Tod Brown, presider at the March 2 morning liturgy concelebrated with Monterey Bishop Richard Garcia and retired Monterey Bishop Sylvester Ryan, said in his sermon that each person has their own blinding biases and prejudices.

“We are called in these final days of Lent to try to look more honestly and clearly at ourselves and to see Christ more clearly in others. …With God’s help, we will come to see Christ as He is, as he lives in our brothers and sisters, as he lives in us, as he lives as our Redeemer and Our Savior.”

The Hispanic presence

In a spirit of inclusivity, Cardinal Roger Mahony began the homily of the March 2 afternoon closing liturgy by signing words of welcome to the deaf community seated near the stage. Moving to Spanish, the cardinal asked the congregation filling up the arena how many could understand him in Spanish; thousands stood up.

Thanking the Hispanic community for their strong presence in the church and their committed service to Christ, he added, “We are grateful for the sharing of your talents, your personal gifts and your spirituality. We all will keep working together, because it is through our baptism that we have unity in our diversity.”

Referring to Sunday’s Gospel in which the blind man is healed by Jesus and transformed into discipleship with Christ, the cardinal said to all those gathered, “The goal that all us have is to constantly be infused with the spirit of Christ so that in our hearts and on our lips we are always proclaiming, ‘You are my Lord. I believe in you Lord. Help me open my eyes that I may always see you and deepen my life in you.’”

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