When someone asked me at the Los Angeles Religious Education Congress if I was enjoying myself, the answer was easy. “It’s like being in heaven,” I said. My friend laughed, but I was serious. The four-day event that ended on March 1 is the largest Catholic conference in the country, attracting some 40,000 participants yearly. And spending time with faithful Christians bursting with enthusiasm for their church, filled with Christian joy and working hard to spread the good news felt like a foretaste of heaven.
Of course “Congress,” as participants call it, is never without snafus. For one thing, I could have done without waking up on the last day at 6 a.m. and turning on the television only to hear a newscaster say gleefully, “Let’s go to our big story: the monster storm that has walloped the East Coast!” A six-hour flight delay ensued.
But after Congress, who cares? Besides the roster of some favorite Catholic speakers and authors, I met thousands of Catholics from across the country who are, in a word, happy.
That is no mean feat. These are tough times in the church. For me, the stories about the church’s dealings with the breakaway Society of St. Pius X, the hateful comments of Bishop Richard Williamson on the Holocaust and subsequent admissions from church officials that the Vatican’s message is being mismanaged have been saddening and, sometimes, maddening.
But in the face of this, the people of God quietly do their work, to great effect. One Christian initiation director from California wiped her brow (literally) as she told me that she’s never been busier in 20 years of ministry. “That must be hard,” I said. Her face brightened. “Oh no,” she laughed, “It’s great!”
This year, America magazine sponsored its first booth at the congress, right next to a display of bronze sculptures from Creator Mundi. Our tireless publisher Jan Attridge, along with associate editor James Keane, S.J., and our online editor, Tim Reidy, greeted thousands of people curious about the mag. A few yards away from the booth one morning, a religious sister asked after “Jimmy Keane.” “He’s right there!” I said, and her face lit up. Later that day, Tim hosted a live demonstration of our new Web site on the convention floor. (The Web site really is new; the redesign was launched last week.)
Our booth received plenty of visitors, and there was something of a run on the free items we distributed, with one family making off with 10 tote bags. How much stuff can you tote?
In the midst of hearing inspiring speakers, leafing through new books at the publisher booths, catching up with old friends and meeting hundreds of hardworking Catholics, it would have been hard not to be happy.
It reminded me of a controverted saying. Last year at the congress I met Anne Kernion, who makes beautiful handmade cards (cardsbyanne.com). On one she features a quotation from Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, S.J.: “Joy is the most infallible sign of the presence of God.” But later I saw almost the same lines attributed to the French writer Léon Bloy. So I put the question to Anne: “Who really said that?” She sighed and explained that she had been struggling for years to find the correct provenance.
In its place, I suggested a quotation from the newly named archbishop of New York, Timothy Dolan. When a reporter asked him to sum up his approach for attracting vocations to the priesthood, he said something that rang true for me in Los Angeles, and has rung true since Jesus of Nazareth first brought joy to people in first-century Palestine: “Happiness attracts.”