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What I saw at the 2017 Religious Ed Congress in Los Angeles

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Okay. Let’s get the most important thing out of the way: after attending my first LA Religious Education Congress, I can report there was no dancing deacon.

The closing liturgy did not include the bopping clergyman I remember so vividly from the YouTube videos of the 2010 congress. 

That’s not to say there wasn’t dancing. As the video above shows: yes, there was. And there was applause. (Probably the first time I can remember witnessing the entrance procession concluding with a round of applause, in fact.) And there was joy. And there was laughter. And there were remarkable, heart-filled, faith-filled moments of prayer during the Mass. Archbishop Jose Gomez preached thoughtfully and movingly about how we are called to be missionaries, and need to “trust God” to help make that so—which was the theme of this year’s congress. He also began his homily with some pointed remarks on immigration and refugees, and how we need to remain united in prayer during this “time of transition” in the country.

You can watch the entire homily—and the deacon’s proclamation of the Gospel that preceded it—below.

The overall tone of the liturgy was one of celebration and shared joy. I was struck again and again by the fervor and passion of the tens of thousands of people packed into the Anaheim Convention Center Arena. They loved the music—singable, exuberant music that was nice and instantly forgettable. But it was expertly sung and played by a sizable orchestra, led by “co-cantors” who were really, in every way, superb. Folks just loved being together to worship, give thanks, and share a sense of community. One of the hymns prayed that “out of many, may we be one,” and that theme came through loud and clear.

For this kind of liturgy, it was all really expertly executed—if you like this kind of liturgy.  I’ll be honest: this isn’t really my thing. But for a good many Catholics, it is. And those present clearly loved it.

Anyway…herewith, a few other random thoughts and observations.

First, the liturgy never did anything small. Everything was big. And elaborate. There was a long entrance dance at the beginning, with veils and bowls of incense, and another when the altar was set and the gifts were presented. (Something that would normally take a couple minutes at most parishes became a lengthy production here, involving multiple altar linens and people in native costumes.)

Secondly, there were a LOT of flagons with communion wine sitting on the altar during the Liturgy of the Eucharist. I wondered how they’d be handled. At the appropriate time after the consecration, an army of deacons came forward to take them to different parts of the arena where, I guess, they were poured into chalices. Same thing happened with the consecrated hosts: a deacon took a big basket of ciboria to a staging area somewhere outside the main arena, where they were handed out to the ministers.

Thirdly, regarding deacons: I was surprised that the deacons serving alongside the archbishop didn’t wear dalmatics. All the deacons were in alb and stole.  It was also, to me, a little odd that the deacon incensed the Book of the Gospels with a big bowl of incense, rather than a thurible, but I gather that’s how they do incense at these things. The use of incense bowls looked to be vaguely—for want of a better word—pagan. But maybe that’s me. I’m old-fashioned that way.

So much for the closing liturgy. What did I think of the rest of the congress?

Well, I spent most of my time in my corner of the exhibit hall, manning our booth. I didn’t see much outside the hall, and didn’t attend any of the workshops or other liturgies.

I did find a few moments to visit the “Sacred Space” in a third floor corner. They offered Reconciliation throughout the day—there was an impressive line when I passed the makeshift confessionals that were set up, draped in purple cloths. The space also included a labyrinth and a chapel with Eucharistic Adoration.

There was evocative lighting in the space. They also put together a display devoted to Laudato Si, with images of nature and quotes from Pope Francis and, here and there, little water falls gurgling.

A couple dozen people were in a side chapel, praying before the Eucharist.

The atmosphere was quiet, reflective, prayerful. It really was a “sacred space.”

That kind of serenity and solitude were welcome. The exhibit hall, meantime, was as serene and peaceful as Grand Central Station during rush hour.


I have described the congress—the largest annual gathering of Catholics in the United States—as “Catholic ComicCon,” and I think that fits. It’s Catholic nerdvana. You can buy tee shirts, books, rosaries, vestments. There were over 250 exhibitors: publishers, candle makers, religious orders, missionaries, representatives of various youth groups, and on and on and on. And that’s just for starters. Beyond the hall, there were talks, liturgies, workshops. Outside the hall, you could find a protester or two. (During lunch one day, I encountered only one lone protester: a woman near the main entrance wearing a collar and a stole and carrying a big sign saying “Women Priests Are Here.”)  You want to see “Here comes everyone”? Here it is. Check out the video below for a short walk around our part of the exhibit hall.

You saw everyone—and every type of Catholic. There was this engaging Dominican Sister—wearing what became my favorite tee shirt of the weekend.

And there were these Carmelite nuns.

And their male counterparts.

I got to catch up with a few old friends. There was Bishop Paul Tighe, from the Vatican, who used to be a regular at the Catholic Press Association conventions. He’s now the Adjunct Secretary of the Pontifical Council for Culture. He gave one of the talks.

And Sister Rose Pacatte with the Daughters of St. Paul. She’s the director of the Pauline Center for Media Studies in Los Angeles, and popular film reviewer. (I forgot to ask her who she was handicapping for the Oscars…)

And a personal highlight: my longtime Facebook pal Jonas Geronimo, who has rebounded from a near-fatal heart attack and five months in the hospital, and who brought me to tears just by showing up and finding my booth and coming by to say hello. You want to see the power of prayer? Jonas is Exhibit A.

I hope I get to visit again—and actually see, hear and experience more of the congress. But from my vantage point this year, as a first time attendee and exhibitor, I can report it was overwhelming. And exhilarating. And exhausting. You do get a sense of the incredible vibrancy and diversity of the Church. As I said to a friend after a dizzying stroll around the exhibit hall: “Despite everything that’s been done to Her over the last 2,000 years, the Church is alive and well!”

And isn’t that something?

Meantime, my friends and colleagues from CNEWA—the Rev. Elias Mallon and Debora Stontisch, from our development office—were great companions for the weekend. We received a warm welcome from so many we met.  I hope we helped spread the word about Catholic Near East Welfare Association—and raised our profile while also raising some awareness about the work we do.

UPDATE: And one final thought.

I’ve been reading a lot of criticism about the liturgy. And I get that. But I’d like to repost something I added to a Facebook comment a short time ago:

I’d normally steer clear of this style of liturgy, and there are elements of it that really annoy me. But it was a revelation to be able to share the Mass and experience the spirit of so many faith-filled people, gathered to celebrate the Lord and give thanks for their missionary calling. Love it or hate it, this was a Eucharistic celebration—emphasis on “celebration”—and I wish I saw half as much fervor and joy on any given Sunday at any average parish I’ve visited.

And there is this: Christ was present, and given, and received. At a moment in history when so many around the world want that, and can’t have that, it was humbling and gratifying and deeply moving to see religious zeal expressed so forthrightly and without shame or fear.

Let’s pray it never ends for the people who were there—and that it continues in this country, too.

Maybe, by the grace of God, more around the world will one day be able to worship has openly, as freely, as enthusiastically as the people I met in Anaheim…

Deacon Greg Kandra
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Deacon Greg Kandra is a Roman Catholic deacon in the Diocese of Brooklyn, New York. For nearly three decades, he was a writer and producer for CBS News, where he contributed to a variety of programs and was honored with every major award in broadcasting. Deacon Greg now serves as Multimedia Editor for Catholic Near East Welfare Association (CNEWA.) He and his wife live in Forest Hills, New York.
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