Religious ed congress draws 40,000 to Anaheim

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ANAHEIM, Calif. — Catholics from 41 countries and 47 U.S. states gathered in Anaheim or watched the live webcast of the annual Los Angeles Religious Education Congress March 23-25, calling believers around the world to attend to the life-infusing voice of God.

More than 40,000 people came to the Anaheim Convention Center for the 2012 Congress centered on the theme, “Voice Infusing Life,” which started with a daylong event of high-energy rallies, workshops and liturgies for 15,000 high school youths from several Western states March 22. The live congress webcast drew viewers from 873 cities spanning the globe.

Los Angeles Archbishop Jose H. Gomez and Sister Edith Prendergast, a Religious Sister of Charity who is archdiocesan director of religious education, led a March 23 morning opening rite and welcome.

Young people attend an event during the Los Angeles Religious Education Congress at the Anaheim Convention Center in mid-March. The congress, the largest of its kind, drew more than 40,000 people from across the nation and around the globe. (CNS photo/Victor Aleman, Vida Nueva

“The voice of God is easy to recognize, but difficult to take to heart,” said Sister Prendergast. “It is a voice that calls us away from old habits, inviting us to adopt more wholesome ones.” To hear God’s voice, she continued, people need to be reflective and discerning.

“We have to recognize the voice of the shepherd — and the voice of the stranger,” she added. “At the heart of religious education is always a personal encounter with Jesus Christ.”

Speaking on “The Urgency of Discipleship and Evangelization in Today’s World” March 24, Father Anthony Gittins, a member of the Congregation of Holy Spirit, described voice as “a characteristic of human beings and, therefore, it is a characteristic of the God who made human beings.”

“Some people, tragically, lack a voice. Some people are deprived of a voice and, therefore, some people become powerless,” said the priest, who currently is a professor of theology and culture at the Catholic Theological Union of Chicago.

“But our God is a God who speaks with power and with creativity,” he continued. ‘God’s voice infuses life. God’s voice is the very foundation of the Jewish and Christian religions. God speaks and things happen.”

The former missionary and formation director said modern-day disciples are people who not only hear the word of God in today’s hectic 24/7 world but then internalize it and, finally, put it into practice. This inner knowledge and outward action comes not so much from learning facts about Jesus, he said, but following Jesus’ life of serving others as he did in his day-to-day ministry.

“We cannot be disciples simply by knowing about Jesus or reading about Jesus or even hearing about Jesus unless he has an impact on our daily life, unless we are constantly and consistently internalizing the word of Jesus” said Father Gittins, a native of England. “We cannot simply come to Jesus and be with Jesus. This discipleship is not just me and Jesus. Authentic discipleship is ‘me and Jesus for you’ and for the world.”

In his homily at the concelebrated closing liturgy in the arena March 25, Archbishop Gomez urged the large assembly to reach out to others and “bring them to the Teacher” for “God’s honor and glory.”

Bring them “to the encounter with Jesus Christ so that they realize he is here, that he is alive and present in our world and in our lives,” the archbishop said. “Our task is to help others to hear the call of Jesus so that they understand that he is asking for them, that he wants them to follow him.”

“Time is flying. Let us make use of the fleeting moments. They will never return,” he said, citing the ministry of Blessed Marianne Cope of Molokai.

A member of the Sisters of St. Francis of the Neumann Communities, she migrated from Germany to upstate New York, then served lepers in Hawaii for 35 years. Her ministry in Hawaii came about because she responded to a letter sent to her by Hawaiian authorities seeking religious sisters to care for patients in their leper colony.

“Isn’t that just that the way that sometimes we hear Jesus’ voice?” Archbishop Gomez asked. “A normal letter, or through an encounter, or a conversation. And that’s how Mother Marianne read this letter, as the voice of Jesus calling her.”

Archbishop Gomez encouraged participants to help others come out of their self-made prisons, such as selfishness, brokenness and sinfulness, into the “new light of the Resurrection.” He urged the faithful to renew their faith every day by “always having that intimate friendship with Jesus.”