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 | Father Mark Pautler

Before Coronavirus:

LA Religious Education Congress

I am retreating to late February, just before coronavirus became the nation’s dominant concern. On Feb. 21-23, I attended the Religious Education Congress sponsored annually by the Archdiocese of Los Angeles and held at the Anaheim Convention Center—across the street from Disneyland. Youth Day was Feb. 20. For the rest, the promotional summary explained my options:

The remaining three-day weekend is open to adults and young adults and offers more than 200 speakers presenting more than 300 workshops, in addition to lunchtime entertainment, evening concerts, 14 eucharistic liturgies, the Exhibit Hall and much more.

Look at those numbers. Over the three days, you could attend eight workshops max. You had to pick from 25-30 possibilities for each session. Even more, if you include Spanish and Vietnamese programs. I couldn’t find attendance for 2020, but 40,000 was given as attendance for the 2019 congress. I’m estimating that 37,425 showed up this year.

For what? There was an “arena presentation” headlining the options for each of the eight sessions. So, that meant thousands, rather than hundreds, at the program. I attended presentations by John Allen, commenting on the seven years of Pope Francis; and James Martin SJ, whose reflections on prayer were perceptive. The other sessions with hundreds rather than thousands ranged from OK (just OK?) to “within the margin of error.” In other words, there were no duds, but no fireworks.

The congress is much more than the workshops. I could not or did not attend other events except for the colossal closing liturgy. Another colossus was the trade show. During my pass through, I drove no money changers from the temple.

The mere sight of so many of God’s people testifying by their presence to their faith is eye-opening and heartening for the strength of the Church.

How did it come about that I attended this massive event? Vince and Kathleen have invited me to attend for several years. This year, I had no commitments that weekend. Where to stay? Vince finds deals. This year, it was a condominium in Newport Beach. We had a comfortable suite with two bedrooms and three TVs. V & K did have to attend the mandatory “an offer you can’t refuse” presentation. They declined. My part was the rental car for the daily commute. But as a bonus, Vince knows where to find free parking within walking distance. The Convention Center charges $18. Another bonus, V & K’s parish in Yucca Valley hosted a hospitality room. Was I the reason they ran out of food by day two?

Vince has lots of family in SoCal. We enjoyed dinner with relatives on three evenings. I also have an aunt, Kay Paietta, whom I visited in Altadena (next door to Pasadena). Kay, the widow of my uncle, Steven, is the mother of eight children and is 89 years old. She is the sole survivor of the aunts and uncles of my parents’ generation. “The last (wo)man standing.” Considering that she had recently returned from a trip to Southeast Asia, she is standing pretty well.

And a last word. Bishop Robert Barron, auxiliary bishop in Los Angeles and the man stoking the fires of evangelization through his Word on Fire ministry, was one of the featured presenters. He was formerly a priest in Chicago and rector of Mundelein Seminary. I amused myself by imagining the conversation I would have had with him:

“Hey, Bishop. You and I have something in common. Both of us have worked for the same boss.”

“Oh yeah. Who was that?”

“His Eminence, the Chicago cardinal. I knew him when he was bishop of Spokane.”

“My goodness! How high he has risen.”