The annual Los Angeles Religious Education Congress (RE Congress), sponsored by the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, Office of Religious Education, was held March 15-18 at the Anaheim Convention Center. The largest Catholic religious education congress in the world, attendance topped nearly 40,000.
The gathering has been a haven for attendees to glimpse and listen to leading Catholic figures from around the world. This year, presenters included Cardinal Tagle, archbishop of Manlia, Bishop Robert Barron, journalist John Allen, Lisa Hendey, founder of CatholicMom.com, and nearly 200 other speakers in English, Spanish and Vietnamese.
Preceding the Congress workshops, Thursday’s Youth Day drew over 12,000 young adults, both from regional schools and nationwide. The popular Exhibit Hall featured over 250 different companies and organizations, ranging from the publishing house Ignatius Press to the Sisters of St. Joseph of Orange.
Religious education has always been the main focus of RE Congress, from its beginnings as a two-day conference in the 1950s to today’s four-day events, workshops, concerts, liturgies and exhibits.
Among the 40,000 in attendance at the 2018 RE Congress was Michael Dennin, professor of physics and astronomy at UC Irvine, and a frequent Congress participant for almost 20 years. Dr. Dennin is also the Vice Provost for Teaching and Learning and dean of the division of Undergraduate Education. A member of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, Dennin serves as a volunteer with the Youth Education programs at the parish, mostly with confirmation classes.
“Coming here and listening to the talks is a way for me to continue my own faith education,” Dennin says. The author of “Divine Science: Finding Reason at the Heart of Faith” (2015, Franciscan Media), Dennin involves himself both professionally and personally in the relationship between faith and reason, an issue he notes is often seen as a point of contention in the media. “The media likes to highlight conflict, but the bulk of us live happily with the two together,” he says.
Dennin takes an affable approach to the often-combative matter. “I want to help people of faith be more relaxed towards science,” he explains. He writes in the Introduction to “Divine Science,” “Faith focuses on our attempts to understand the fullness of reality.” He continues, “The study of physical reality—that is, science—logically should inform our faith.”
The positive relationship between faith and science is one students and young people often fail to grasp, Dennin observes, thinking one has to choose one over the other. Rather, harmony between faith and reason—in Latin, fides et ratio—has long been the position of Church teaching. “Faith and reason are like two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of the truth,” opens Pope St. John Paul II’s 1998 encyclical, “Fides et Ratio.”
Bishop Vann, when visiting with exhibitors and attendees at the RE Congress exhibit hall, noted the Catholic contribution to modern science. “Gregor Mendel, the father of genetics, was an Augustinian friar,” Bishop Vann commented. “Belgian priest Georges Lemaître discovered the theory of the Big Bang,” he added. “These are just a couple examples of how people of faith helped shape modern science.”
Dr. Dennin hopes a recently formed organization will help promote a new understanding towards faith and science. The Society of Catholic Scientists (SCS), of which Dennis is a member, was founded in June 2016 “to foster fellowship among Catholic scientists and to witness to the harmony of faith and reason,” the SCS website states. Archbishop Charles J. Chaput of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia is the society’s bishop adviser.
Among its goals of fostering a network of Catholic scientists and serving witness to the “harmony between the vocation of scientist and the life of faith,” SCS also seeks to serve as a forum for reflection and discussions on the relationship between science and the Catholic faith. Additionally, SCS acts as a resource for a wide spectrum of the populace on scientific theories, discoveries, and learning more about the relation between science and faith.
The 2018 SCS Conference will be held June 8-10 at Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. The first SCS conference, entitled “Origins,” met in Chicago in April 2017. On Nov. 15, 2016, the feast of St. Albert the Great, patron saint of scientists, SCS held its first Gold Mass in the chapel at MIT.
Dr. Dennin hopes SCS will look to Southern California as the location of another Gold Mass. In the meantime, Dennin will continue returning to the Los Angeles Religious Education Congress, aiming to be a presenter next year. “Congress has always been a great addition to my faith,” he says.