By Tom Hoffarth and Pablo Kay, Catholic News Service     3/9/2020

Sister Teresa Maya, one of the keynote speakers at the Religious Education Congress in Los Angeles, spoke to thousands at the Anaheim Convention Center Arena Feb. 22 about her grandmother. 

The woman religious, a Sister of Charity of the Incarnate Word based in San Antonio, who is former president of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, quoted the words of Los Angeles Archbishop Jose H. Gomez in the gathering’s program: “Holiness means loving God and loving our neighbor, right where we are, in the middle of the world.” 

She said that message resonated with her grandmother Lupita, who died in 2000. 

Sister Maya said her grandmother was an “ordinary person” who taught her about prayer through her actions and “a profoundly spiritual life.” She created a welcoming community through cooking, which reinforced the ideas of inclusion and forgiveness. She started a parish in Mexico just by setting up a tent, finding a priest and gathering her neighbors before an actual structure could be built. 

She also said her grandmother embraced God’s creation and enjoyed life, despite many sufferings, because “compassion creates a place for joy and hope in the world. She knew a grateful heart is a blessed heart, so why shouldn’t we be grateful? Compassion is what makes us human.” 

Sister Maya’s message of encouragement drew on the 2020 congress theme of “Live Mercy, Be Holy,” which the thousands in attendance and following via livestream and social media could experience from the Feb. 21-23 event through many different prisms. 

Another speaker at the three-day gathering was Julianne Stanz, director of discipleship and leadership development for the Diocese of Green Bay, Wisconsin. Stanz was part of a panel discussion about evangelization. She also moderated a discussion of Pope Francis’ papacy with Archbishop Gomez and Archbishop Christophe Pierre, apostolic nuncio to the U.S., that was streamed on Facebook Live with questions coming from both live and digital audiences. 

Archbishop Gomez talked about how in a culture of division, we are called to love God and love one another. 

“Once we do that, we can change culture,” he said. 

Archbishop Pierre pointed out the need to look past the modern attitude “that we can fix problems by ourselves.” 

Conversely, he said faith is about “the capacity to say yes, to open our hearts.” 

“But say yes because there is somebody before, somebody who has called us, and this somebody has been there since the moment of my birth — actually, he was there before!” said Archbishop Pierre, who recalled that it was through the witness of his parents that he came to truly know “that God was there.” 

Through the reach of social media, including the @LACatholics and @LACongress Twitter and Instagram feeds, attendees were able to share their experiences from the gathering with a broader audience 

Abraham Cervantes, a young adult minister at St. Louis Church in Cathedral City, said in a video shared online that he was impressed by a Feb. 21 session he attended, where a woman religious talked about the vocation not only of marriage, but of those who also discern a calling to the priesthood or of being single. 

“That really filled my heart knowing the vocation is still out there and still alive,” he said. 

For Joel and Nora de Loera, the decision to drive down from San Jose with their five young children — and a sixth on the way — included a promise to the kids of visiting nearby Disneyland. 

Joel, who last year started a job as the director of family life for the Diocese of San Jose, said that many people had recommended attending the Religious Education Congress as part of his ongoing formation. 

“I’m here to learn from other speakers and their experiences, and how I can best apply that in my ministry,” Joel told Angelus News, the online news platform of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. 

Organizers reported nearly 27,000 pre-registered for the gathering, including exhibitors; 9,000 of those registered attend Youth Day Feb. 20. More than 175 speakers attended. 

The gathering offered plenty of workshops and networking opportunities for Catholics working in church leadership and ministry, like the de Loeras. But it also featured talks from speakers and experts addressing themes faced by everyday Catholics and young people, like addiction in families, married life and prayer, as well as transmitting the faith to children.