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LEFT: Attendees gather at the annual Los Angeles Religious Education Congress, held Feb. 23-26. TOP RIGHT: From left to right, seminarians Manuel Magdaleno, Cesar Omar, Christopher Rodriguez and Ruben Chavarria pose in front of the Diocese of San Bernardino’s booth. Omar is a seminarian from the Diocese of Los Angeles, and the other three are from our Diocese. RIGHT: Parishioners of St. Martha, Murrieta, attend RE Congress.

By Mary Pearson

Comic book aficionados have Comic-Con. Catholics have the annual Los Angeles Religious Education (RE) Congress.

It claims to be the largest annual gathering of Catholics in the United States, boasting as many as 40,000 attendees in past years. This year, over 16,000 came to the Anaheim Convention Center for the Religious Education Congress, which took place on Feb. 23-26.

For many of its international attendees, coming to the Congress is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. People travel from as far as Australia and Brazil for the chance to attend. Contrast this with the experience of most within our Diocese, who simply carpooled for an hour or so from their home parish.

“We drove over this morning,” said Cynthia Salgado, from Immaculate Conception, Colton. Salgado is a first-year volunteer catechist for her parish, and this was her first time attending the Congress. “I’m slowly getting back to my faith and my roots,” Salgado said of her reason for being there.

Like many locals, she had braved an unusually fierce rainstorm to be in Anaheim for the weekend, but she had only positive things to say about the event. “It’s hard to choose where to go,” she said of the many workshop options offered for the day, “but God seems to put you in [the right] classes.”

As its name suggests, the RE Congress is focused on promoting religious education within the Catholic Church, but anyone is welcome to attend. The weekend consists of three days of educational workshops, prayer services and liturgies, as well as special multicultural events such as themed art exhibits and concerts. The Congress is especially known for its emphasis on the diversity of people and cultures that exist within the Church.

“You really have to come with an open mind,” said Arnel Recio from St. Mary, Fontana. “I think there are a lot of people who come ... and their expectations are never met, because they want it a certain way. But you have to be open to what the Holy Spirit is calling you to do.”

Recio has been attending the Congress regularly since 2012, and is one of the hosts of the youth-ministry focused “This Connected Podcast.” His co-host, Tony Pimentel from St. Oscar Romero in Eastvale, was also in attendance at this year’s Congress. They shared with the BYTE their conviction that “religious education” is not just for catechists or parish employees, but for all Catholics.

“We have to be doing this work because it has ultimate consequences,” Pimentel said. “Even outside of parish ministry ... We still need to evangelize.”

While some came strictly as participants, others from within our Diocese were volunteering their time in order to make the Congress possible. Gabriele Oogjen is the parish secretary for St. Joseph, Big Bear, and has been attending the Congress for over fifteen years. For the past five of those years, she has volunteered her time doing whatever the Congress needs.

Oogjen said that she initially began coming “to learn more about the faith ... to meet other Catholics, and just to get away.” This year, she was at the podium in one of the convention rooms, introducing speakers to the audience at the start of their workshops.

In the Vendors’ Hall, the Diocese of San Bernardino had a centrally-located booth promoting programs and upcoming events sponsored by our Diocese. A group of seminarians from the St. Junipero Serra House of Formation was helping run the booth at lunchtime on Saturday, sharing their enthusiasm and discussing their experiences with passersby. Between conversations with friends and joking with a “rival” seminarian from the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, seminarian Manuel Magdaleno told the BYTE, “It’s very good to see the Church back in a big setting like this.”

Also helping at the diocesan booth was Lupita Rosales, the Young Adult Ministry Associate from the Diocese’s Office of Ministry With Young Catholics. Originally from St. Patrick, Moreno Valley, it was Rosales’ first time at the Congress.

“I’ve been to mainly young adult focused talks,” she shared when asked of her experience. Like other parish and diocesan employees and catechists, Rosales chose specifically to attend workshops that would aid and inspire her in her job at the Diocese.

Many who come to Congress are invited as part of a parish group. St. Martha, Murrieta, sent a group of nine parish staff members and volunteer catechists, under the leadership of their Director of Religious Education, Rachel Noel.

“I wanted to attend the Congress to learn more about how best to structure our catechesis program,” said Noel. “I loved seeing and hearing from many different voices!”

For the group from St. Martha, the weekend was a time of both individual enrichment as well as community and team-building. Their group would try to meet up to sit together during the liturgies and keynote sessions in the main arena, and most of them met for dinner both nights to connect and share what they had learned each day.

Angeles Lopez, Coordinator of Baptism and Adult Formation for St. Martha, considers herself a RE Congress veteran. She has been attending for seven years. “I like the enthusiasm of seeing so many people united with a common ideal, and the motivation of the keynote speakers,” she said. It was Lopez’s own enthusiasm for the event that encouraged some of the other staff and volunteers from St. Martha to attend.

“Seeing the excitement of others who previously attended prompted curiosity and I desired to be part of the experience!” said Cynthia Leano, a religious education assistant from St. Martha. “My experience was one of laughter and tears, spiritual and cultural enrichment, spiritual strengthening through the breaking of the bread. And best of all, growing friendships with my sisters in Christ.”

The 2024 Los Angeles Religious Education Congress will be held again in Anaheim, on Feb. 15-18, 2024.

Mary Pearson is a freelance writer and parishioner of St. Martha, Murrieta.