Ruben Israel, arms outstretched, protests outside the Los Angeles Religious Education Congress at the Anaheim Convention Center on Saturday, Feb. 23. Israel is a member of Bible Believers, a group that adheres to a strict biblical interpretation of Christianity. The annual event regularly attracts protestors, often conservative Christians who object to the Catholic interpretation of the faith.
As cardinals of the Roman Catholic Church began to congregate this weekend at the Vatican for the papal conclave, tens of thousands of Catholics convened their own assembly at the Anaheim Convention Center on Saturday.
The Los Angeles Religious Education Congress dates back to 1966. It is believed to be the largest such event in the world, according to organizers. This year, it attracted nearly 37,000 participants, largely from Southern California but also from other states and countries. They represented a cross section of active Catholics — from teenage youth ministers to Los Angeles Archbishop Jose Gomez.
“The focus of our office really is leadership training and formation,” said Sr. Edith Prendergast, longtime director of the Office of Religious Education with the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, which puts on the event. “We are about forming leaders for all the stages of life – womb to tomb, we call it.”
The annual congress has grown both in the number of attendees that show up and the breadth of topics it covers, Prendergast said. It now includes a diverse mix of liturgies, concerts and exhibitors, as well as hundreds of workshops on issues ranging from gay and lesbian pastoral work to liturgical music. This year's congress ran from Thursday through Saturday.
Organizers work to reflect the changes in the Catholic community and build programming based, in part, on input from attendees and from national polling and survey results.
“I think people needed this Congress this year more than even because of all the issues in the church that we are facing that are more dark, issues of the abuse and that type of thing,” Prendergast said. “It gets very tiring listening to that type of thing.”
The headlines were hard to ignore.
Cardinal Roger Mahony was listed as a Saturday presenter on an early, online version of the Religious Education Congress program. Instead, the retired Archbishop of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles spent Saturday giving a court deposition on a priest accused of child molestation. One day before, Mahoney had tweeted that he would travel to Rome in “a few short hours” to participate in the conclave, despite calls from some that he bow out because of his mismanagement of sexual misconduct allegations.
Conversation about church officials’ handling of abusive priests, and speculation about the future pope, bubbled up in workshops, in corridors, and over meals during the event.
“[I want] somebody who wants to help lead the church in a dark time, because we are going through some dark times, especially with all the scandals going on,” volunteer Amy Williams, 23, said about the new pope. “Somebody that will help bring us out of that and show everybody, ‘Hey, this is not what we are about.”
Other attendees said they want a leader who can advance the teachings of the church within the context of a 21st Century, globalized Catholic community. The new pope needs to be mindful of representing hundreds of millions of people around the world, not just an elite group of male cardinals, said Bryan Sheaks, 23, of San Clemente.
“I would like it to be a she,” Sheaks said of his vote for pope. “I would not mind that. I think women should be priests, I think priests should marry. I think that is silly that that doesn’t happen. We would have a lot less sex scandals if priests could marry. It is archaic that women can’t be priests; that is Middle Ages crap.”
Melanie Mendoza, 23, attended the event as part of a Filipino contingent scheduled to help host Cardinal Luis Tagle of Manila. Tagle's name has been circulating as a possible candidate for pope. He didn't show up Saturday, but the Loyola Marymount University student was willing to excuse his absence.
The new pope should be young, charismatic and plugged into the church’s youth, said Mendoza, adding that the prospect of a Filipino pope has family and friends buzzing.
“I think all the Filipinos would just leap for joy,” Mendoza said. “It would be so awesome. I think Filipino are underrepresented. That whole country is Catholic.”
The new leader’s country of origin was less important to other attendees. Mike Manalastas, a first-year seminarian, said that they holy spirit could deliver the new pope from anywhere.
“Catholicism is really a representation of everyone,” the 34-year-old said. “It doesn’t really matter if they come from the West, if they come from the East, or Africa. Wherever the holy spirit guides is really the important thing. The person who can fill that and do it is fine with me, wherever they come from.”
More than anything, the new pope needs to be someone willing to listen, and open to dialogue, said 23-year-old seminarian Chris Boitano.
“That is the most important thing,” Boitano said. “Someone who is willing to listen to the church in the biggest sense of the world, the church including all the people who believe in God.”
This story is one in an occasional series of reports by students taking part in a class of the USC Annenberg Knight Program on Media and Religion, headed by Diane Winston. Thanks to a grant from the Luce Foundation, Annenberg students have covered global religion, culture and politics for the past four years. This year's journalism class is headed to Ireland and Northern Ireland for 10 days in March and, in preparation, its students are covering Los Angeles' Catholic communities. The nine students are a mix of undergraduates, second year grad students and mid-career professionals. View more stories