From Thursday to Saturday, I — along with approximately 40,000 other Catholics — was at the Anaheim Convention Center for L.A. Congress. It was, to put it simply, a blast.
L.A. Congress (official name: Los Angeles Religious Education Congress) is a yearly conference that pulls together speakers on all kinds of topics of interest to Catholics. Are you curious about social justice issues, education, religious music, multicultural ministry, or tips to deepen your prayer life? You’ll find all of it and more in palm-lined, sun-drenched Anaheim.
If you want to get a feel for the crowds, check out this view of the convention center:
In addition to over 300 workshops, L.A. Congress offers an exhibit hall selling everything from books to T-shirts to rosaries to magazine subscriptions. It also has liturgies like you’ve never seen before. Want to attend a Jazz Mass, a Mayan Mass, a Celtic Mass? You can find them all under the roof of the Anaheim Convention Center.
Have I sold you? I hope so. If I haven’t, let me share a few more specifics about why this past weekend was, as a friend of mine would say, awesome with awesome sauce.
1. The speakers. That was only a cardboard cutout of the Pope, much to my seven-year-old’s disappointment. But L.A. Congress routinely pulls together lots of terrific speakers. James Martin was there (if you’ve never read any of his bestselling books, you’ve probably seen him in his role as “Official Chaplain” of The Colbert Report. Fr. Robert Barron, who did the gorgeous “Catholicism” series a few years ago, gave the Saturday keynote to a packed arena.
And I got to attend a workshop led by two of my favorite Catholic mom bloggers: Lisa Hendey, founder of CatholicMom.com, and Sarah Reinhard of SnoringScholar.com.
I’ve gotten to know Lisa well over the years and she always inspires me with her generosity and vision. She has two sons currently in college, which proves that one actually can raise two boys and keep one’s sanity intact (sometimes I wonder). I got to know Sarah shortly after I started blogging in 2008, one of the very first bloggers I connected with online. This was actually my very first time meeting her in person, which was super-fun because she is both super-energetic and hilarious. Love those ladies!
2. Re-connecting with the good folks of Loyola Press. I met a bunch of them last year, and hanging out with them again was a highlight of the weekend. It’s hard to imagine a more talented and just plain terrific group of people.
And — this shows you how awesome Loyola is — they had a photo booth. Take a photo and you get a free Pope Francis poster! (or “popester.”) Here I am with Becca from marketing (with whom I’ve exchanged about a zillion emails) and Vinita Hampton Wright, who edited Random MOMents of Grace and who wrote the “Fall” section of Daily Inspirations for Women (along with lots of other terrific books that you really should check out sometime).
Later that day, at dinner with Becca, Vinita, and the social media manager Rosemary, I laughed so hard I cried. Twice. It was that kind of good time.
Oh, and it was a thrill to see my books in their display. Sometimes I still have this “pinch me” feeling about the whole writing thing. I guess this picture will help with that. (Random MOMents is middle of the middle aisle, Daily Inspiration is far left of second-to-last aisle. Shameless product plug!)
3. Celebrating how global this Church really is. ”Diversity” is the name of the game at L.A. Congress, and it’s beautiful. Every year, the different cultural and ethnic groups of the Archdiocese of L.A. do displays. Here is the Vietnamese community’s table:
And the table from the Lithuanian community:
A few tables down, I was drawn to this beautiful statue of Saint Kateri Tekakwitha.
I started talking to one of the two Native American women behind the table. She invited me to the Native American liturgy on Saturday night (we left Saturday afternoon, alas). I was captivated by their gorgeous crucifix.
I was taking a photo of it when the woman told me it was actually a first-class relic of Saint Kateri (there’s a tiny piece of her bone in the little square window you see at the bottom of the photo). The relic tradition of Catholicism is something I’ve always found sort of odd and medieval, but standing face-to-face with it (or face-to-bone, I guess), I was suddenly extremely moved. The woman’s obvious love for the saint touched me.
“I sort of want to touch it, but I shouldn’t,” I told her. ”But then again, I guess that’s the whole point of a relic?”
“Go ahead!” she said. ”Touch it. Say a prayer.”
I did. It was uncanny: me, this forty-one-year-old woman in a glass-paned convention center with a Smartphone in one hand, making a tangible connection to a Mohawk woman who lived in the seventeenth century. It was meaningful in ways I didn’t expect. I’m still processing it.
4. The liturgies. Scott and I attended the Urban Fusion Mass, which featured liturgical dancers in jeans and T-shirts (it totally worked) and a tinge of hip-hop in the music and a great homily. It was in the arena, and there were probably about ten thousand people there. The music was wildly different from what you usually hear on Sundays, and the whole experience was energizing and profoundly moving. This was the view from our perch:
“I could so do this every week,” said Scott.
5. Some alone time with my guy. I say “alone time” with a certain irony, because we were with 40,000 of our closest Catholic friends. But it was great to know that all the fabulous things I was seeing, he was seeing too.
6. Lunch on Saturday. Lunch on Friday was a hastily-grabbed bite among the hordes at the convention center café. They actually ran out of clam chowder (don’t they know their audience?).
But on Saturday, I got to meet up with my sister Amy, who lives not far from Anaheim. We had a great time at P.F. Chang’s before catching the plane home. My visits with her are simply never long enough. (Why did we waste all that time arguing over the bathroom when we were teenagers? I’d love to have that time back just to hang out.)
7. Getting inspired. It’s exhausting, this weekend, because there are crowds everywhere and so much to do and see and hear and process. But it’s exhilarating, too, because it’s a celebration of the thousand faces of Catholicism. Everywhere you see people who are full of joy, energy, a desire to learn more and share more. And that’s what faith is really all about, when you get right down to it.
I think L.A. Congress is going to have to be a yearly thing for me. It’s just too dang much fun not to do as often as I can.