My husband and I look forward every year to attending the Religious Education Congress. Organized by the Los Angeles Archdiocese, the Congress takes place in Anaheim, which I suppose makes it the religious equivalent of the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim baseball team.
We have been going to the three-day Congress for over a decade, but every year feels like a whole new ball game (here the baseball analogies end, I promise.) Perhaps that is because we ourselves are different every year. As is the theme, which this year was "Love Unfolding. . .Igniting our Yes!" Along with tens of thousands of Catholics gathered from all over the country and the world, with whom we share a common, closely-held faith, we immerse ourselves in workshops and sacraments, conversations and meals. We visit with the long-distance friends we see once a year. We participate in huge, glorious Masses, where every part, all the music, the homilies, the readings, the environment, the dancing, the reverence, the ritual, the Eucharist, brings me to liturgical tears.
We come back from the L. A. Congress renewed, invigorated, and empowered. Of course, I remember the very first Congress I attended, as a rookie Director of Religious Education. My brain was exploding with revelatory programs, much as my heart was brimming with a newly fervent faith. Crash-landing into reality, I found that some of the more traditional parishioners objected to my imports from Los Angeles. People stormed from meetings with grim predictions of exactly where I was going in that handbasket; people thrust into my hands single-spaced documents from Rome to set me straight. One learns by one’s second Congress to temper one’s spiritual drunkenness with the sobriety of what is actually doable in a calendar year, and what will actually fly in a particular parish.
My husband calls the Congress a spiritual shot in the arm, and he is right. It is a pick-me-up, a cup of rich black coffee, a blast of bracing air. Any time really busy people take a collective breather, positive things happen. The people who frequent the Congress are the same people who volunteer for multiple ministries, who are instrumental to the smooth running of weekend services, who are in charge of locking up the church after the last worshiper has gone home on a Sunday night. For this one weekend, they are absent from their own parishes. They take a step back, and for some moments reflect on the work of God they are usually about. They compare notes with people who do what they do in other parishes: not only notes, but joys and frustrations, blessings and failures. The sheer number of the faithful is an affirmation, a communal amen, inclusive and expansive. By the closing Mass of the weekend, brains are weighted, but hearts are light.
I wondered this year if I should even go: I no longer work in a parish, and am not even teaching a religious ed class this year. I have become a wandering, homeless Catholic. But I am so glad I went. Years ago, the experience of Congress gave me permission to explore the possibility and indeed the necessity of an ever-maturing, adult faith. Each Congress has broken open my heart and mind, my habits and misconceptions, and given me glimpses of God in unlikely places. This year, it did not disappoint. For now at least, I feel my ’yes’ igniting. I feel like I am love unfolding.