A Reality Check from LA’s Religious Education Congress

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.

6 Responses

  1. Dear Jessica, I totally agree! In my workshop on Sunday, I recalled the history of RE in southern Ca. The first “CCD” class was held in a garage in Redondo Beach by lay woman! First CCD Program began by Verona Spellmire and other lay women. So I asked all the lay women in the room to stand and we affirmed their role – so often neglected and not affirmed……Catholic lay women, the backbone, where would parish programs be without you?????

    Blessings on your holy week! Don’t let it get you down! Sophia is powerfully present!

  2. Jessica,

    I agree 100%! If Vatican II taught us anything it was that we are ALL called to the ONE vocation of holiness. How we live out that vocation is left to God and our decision to answer it.

    I honestly believe the Church is creating scarcity in our ministerial life by choosing to only invite the people of God to pray and discern vocations to the priesthood, and “sometimes” religious life.

    It is great to see that there are young people in our Church who are in touch with the dreams and visions of the Second Vatican Council!


  3. You are absolutely on target. Many of the lay ecclesial ministers serving in parishes and other places today began their vocational journeys attempting to fit into priesthood or vowed life, only to realize that their vocations were not about those life choices, but included marriage and/or alternate lifestyles to fully live the life God calls them to live! The beloved people of God need to be affirmed in their baptismal priesthood where God’s call is found.

  4. I too was “surrounded by the Church as it really is.”
    In fact, one of the workshops reminded me of such a reality. John Allen presented a de-mythologization of the vatican in which we were reminded that our Church is not concentrated in the hierarchy or in the decision-makers, but in the people of God.

    It is unfortunate, however that Cardinal Mahony chose a prayer that reflected such a narrow understanding of the call to serve God’s people in ministerial roles. Furthermore, such would be the impression which will be left in the minds of the many who were gathered that day. Another reality check is that God knows the needs of God’s people and, as evidenced by Congress itself, the church continues to be nourished by the laity, the consecrated and the ordained alike.

  5. A historical note: The “Prayer for Vocations” that was read/prayed at Youth Day was written by Cardinal Mahoney and has been used through the years in the Archdiocese. While the term “vocation” can and should mean any call to service in the church; married, celibate, vowed, lay, or otherwise; the prayer is specifically for an increase in ordained ministers to serve the particular LA Archdiocese church, which is in need of more priests. I completly understand your reaction to the prayer, just wanted to clarify where it comes from….

  6. This March I’ll be attending the L.A. Congress for the first time and look forward to it. As a vowed Marianist brother and vocation minister, I share your fuller perspective about “vocation” (as Brian C. notes above). The Marianists are comprised of brothers (some of whom are ordained), sisters, and lay members, and it’s an ongoing part of our mission to live and work together in partnership. Thanks.

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