by Jessica Coblentz
There were thousands enthusiastic young people gathered for Mass at the Anaheim Convention Center last weekend. I was there, too, standing at the back of the dark arena praying with the masses.
It was Youth Day, the kick-off of the largest annual religious education “Congress” in the world. It was my first time at Youth Day, but I had heard a lot about it—about the crowds of teenagers jumping up and down to the sounds of the most popular Catholic music groups in the country, and the dynamic speakers who have mastered the art of holding the attention of young people through workshops on dating and peer pressure. Youth groups from all over Southern California—and the entire West Coast, really—make annual pilgrimage to this event.
The mid-day arena Mass had reflected the same enthusiasm and excellence I had come to expect from the day: amazing music, dancing, and engaged participants. As communion ended and my mind began to wander to the day’s next events, however, I witnessed something I did not expect from this teen-centered occasion.
The Cardinal stood up from his seat on the stage and addressed the audience, “Surely among the thousands of young people in this arena, God is whispering the call of vocation to many of you. If you are one of these young people who God is calling to become a priest, nun, or religious brother, please stand now.” As some teens rose above their seated peers, the Cardinal beckoned the crowds to applaud.
“What about lay ministers?” murmured some of the voices around me, “What vocations for lay people?”
The Cardinal proceeded to lead the congregation in a lengthy “Prayer for Vocations,” which was projected onto large screens at the front of the arena so everyone could follow it aloud. After quickly scanning the words, I turned to the women next to me.
“This prayer is only for men and priestly vocations!” I pointed out with shock. My voice was shaking. “They aren’t even praying for vowed religious vocations for women in this prayer!”
On a day so carefully orchestrated to be relevant in the lives of Catholic young people, how could something like this happen? How could so many people be overlooked? How could vocation be presented so narrowly—as something exclusively for men called to the priesthood, or, intermittently, something for men and women called to vowed religious life? How could this happen on a day directed at a demographic that considers volunteer and professional lay ministry in vastly higher numbers than they do vowed religious life of any kind? Shouldn’t we recognize and pray for the vocational discernment of all the Church’s young participants? I left the beautiful liturgy disheartened by the Cardinal’s concluding words.
Ironically, in the week since Youth Day and the rest of Los Angeles’ annual Religious Education Congress, I have realized that this moment of disappointment and frustration actually demonstrates why I love the Congress so much. You see, despite the fact that the Cardinal’s presentation of vocation fell vastly short of the reality of vocation in our Church, I left the liturgy to enter the sea of 40,000 other Catholics who came to Congress to learn and share about Catholic ministry today. Most of these ministers are lay people, representing many ages, races, origins, genders, sexual orientations, educational backgrounds, social classes and abilities. Many are nuns and priests and brothers, too. When I walked between social gatherings, educational workshops, and liturgies at Congress, I was surrounded by the Church as it really is.
Congress is an annual opportunity to glimpse the reality of our Church today. Just as in the global Catholic community, those with the most powerful, authoritative voices often appear out of touch with the Catholic lives the rest of the live. And just as in the global Catholic community, Catholic ministry continues to serve the world despite the imperfections of our leaders (and the rest of us).
Even after the cardinal’s insufficient presentation of vocation, 40,000 Catholics spent the rest of the weekend learning how to better fulfill their vocations as religious educators and ministers. And that’s the reality of Catholicism today. I need to remember this when I am outraged by newspaper headlines about the Vatican, or when insensitive homilies urge me to stand up and leave Mass. I am thankful for the reality-check and hopeful reminder that Congress brings each year.
Jessica Coblentz is an intern for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, where she works in Young Adult Ministry at the Office of Religious Education. For more information about their annual Religious Education Congress in Anaheim, CA visit www.recongress.org.