The Religious Education Congress of the Los Angeles Archdiocese was a sunburst of sensation for two Minnesotans freshly arrived from winter. Visiting LA Congress for the first time, we soaked up the experience of 45,000 people in renewal during this year of mercy: beautiful liturgies and prayer services; soulful music; thoughtful speeches and talks; and friendly, welcoming people. We are grateful for how so much evident hard work translated into spiritual benefits that flowed beyond the LA and San Bernardino/Riverside Archdioceses. We were also impressed by how many of the talks we heard emphasized the importance of listening, when as Americans we so often talk past each other. It’s impossible to do justice to the many fabulous speakers at the Congress, so we’ve highlighted a few.
Sister Helen Prejean, keynote speaker and advocate for an end to capital punishment, described herself as a listener and storyteller for the condemned, and for the families of the victims. In a year when the state of California will vote on whether to continue the death penalty, her call to action blended wisdom of the Fathers and a contemporary call to action. She quoted St. Basil’s remark that “Annunciations are frequent; Incarnations are rare,” and she prayed that her stories would cause “God’s word to come to fruit in us, and that we will act on what we hear.”
Professor Richard Gaillardetz outlined the contribution that Pope Francis is making to the Vatican II renewal as part of the dynamic, living reality of the Church traveling through history. Echoing Sister Helen, he traced the importance of the Church traveling from the centers of leadership to listen to voices at the margins of society. Gaillardetz described how Pope Francis has listened and witnessed this way by example, most recently during his visits to the indigenous people of Chiapas and to the U.S./Mexico border at Ciudad Juárez. In his desire for Catholics to be a Synodal church, a church on the Way, Francis has proclaimed that we must be a listening church at every level: “Faithful people, the College of Bishops, the Bishop of Rome: we are one in listening to others; and all are listening to the Holy Spirit, the “Spirit of truth” (John 14:17), to know what the Spirit “is saying to the Churches” (Rev 2: 7).” Pope Francis recognized that even though listening in Synods can be a painstaking, exhausting experience, “Even when they may proceed with fatigue, they must be understood as occasions of listening and sharing.” Gaillardetz concluded that Francis has “expanded what authoritative teaching looks like” in the age of social media, modeling conversations on the papal airplane that are “occasional, dialogical, and provisional,” as the Pope shares his thoughts and invites listening on issues from immigration to responding to the Zika virus.
The conference speakers spanned the concerns of the Church, from existential challenges of peoples and communities on the margins (like the Mayans in Chiapas) to the pain of individual grievers. Amy Florian spoke about listening to those who mourn. She urged us to invite stories by asking open-ended questions that draw out the emotions of grievers and help them to seek comfort. Drawing on her extensive work with grievers and her personal grief experience, Florian offered practical advice for honoring the unique experience of every griever.
In his talk on the second stage of spirituality, Father Ron Rolheiser broke open Scripture and argued for the imperative of growing into a new maturity in our culture. Making the point that “Scripture is not to be admired, but imitated,” he offered that hearing Scripture at different times in our lives makes a great difference in how we perceive meaning. Our listening in the stages of life is fundamental to sensing what or who in our lives is “radically missing.” Like the woman who lost one of her ten coins, or the shepherd whose hundredth sheep strays, he encouraged us to seek out our missing pieces so that we, our families, our churches, and our communities can return to wholeness. Rolheiser challenged us to be “water purifiers” for negative energy, accepting and purifying rather than retransmitting negative energy to others. Finally, Father Rolheiser described the image of Mary standing under the Cross as one of receiving the anger, bitterness, and violence of the Crucifixion, yet reflecting back only strength, dignity and love.