appearing in the May 2, 2005 issue




Of Many Things

"THIS IS MY FIRST TIME in Los Angeles," I said to a crowded ballroom at the L.A. Religious Education Congress a few months ago. An audible gasp came from the mostly West Coast crowd.

After the talk, a Hispanic woman sidled up to me. She identified herself as a pastoral associate at a local parish, and then said with a smile, "You really should get out of New York more often."

It didn't take more than a few minutes in California to see that she was right. I'll spare you a description of the pleasure of stepping off the airplane into 65‑degree weather in February, and the wonder of passing under so many palm trees (the climate reminded me mostly of Nairobi, where I lived for a few years), as well as the thrill of staying in an actual hotel (only the third time since entering the Jesuits) that even had room service. And I won't mention a brief but moving trip to the new Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels in downtown L.A., where I was able to pray underneath the spectacular tapestries of the saints that line the walls of the church. Because as enjoyable as all those things were (did I mention the room service?), the congress itself was even more enjoyable.

The sheer size was enough to fill even the most pessimistic American Catholic with hope: almost 39,000 people attending dozens of seminars on the liturgy, on music, on catechesis, on spirituality, on ministry to various ethnic groups and on and on. Added to that were an additional 14,000 high school students at the congress's Youth Day. As for the gathering's justly famous liturgies, well, let's just say it's a relief being at a Mass where everyone sings and no one avoids shaking your hand at the sign of peace.

The congress was based at the Anaheim Convention Center, a Brobdignagian complex surrounded by what seemed like every hotel chain in the universe, like Priceline come miraculously to life. Gathered in the main hall was a gobsmacking array of Catholic publishers, magazines, religious organizations and even handicraft makers. To me, it was a reunion of sorts, as I met not only friends from the world of Catholic publishing, but also companies where I have spent way too much of my limited Jesuit budget. Thus, I assiduously avoided The Printery House booth, as I am constitutionally unable to resist buying their products. Each year I limit myself to cards for Christmas, Thanksgiving and Easter, but no sooner do I receive their alluringly colorful catalogues that I start to think, "Yes, maybe I should send out religious‑themed Arbor Day cards this year."

The crowds were astonishing. As a sometime lecturer, it is always an exercise in humility wondering if anyone will show up for your talk. (My general rule is: If two people show up, I'm happy.) But because of the size of the crowds in Anaheim, even I had almost 800 people at one talk, which made me feel like a rock star‑albeit a rock star with glasses and a clerical collar.

But the high point was meeting scores of dedicated Catholics from across the country. To be fair, most came from the West Coast, but this, too, was a tonic. Somehow their Catholicism, perhaps because of the influence of the burgeoning Hispanic and Vietnamese communities, seemed fresher, more vital. In any event, as I met this director of religious education from Van Nuys, this pastor from San Francisco, this catechist from Alameda, this campus minister from Portland, I realized more and more that for all its problems, the Catholic Church in this country is in pretty good hands. While it is important to be concerned about the church's problems, it is just as important to trust in the Spirit at work in the People of God.

It reminded me of Pope John XXIII, who once wrote about his remedy for worries that kept him awake at night. He would ask himself: "Who's in charge of the church, Angelo? You or the Holy Spirit?" His answer: "The Holy Spirit, of course!"

Then, even in the midst of worries, he could be at peace.

James Martin, S.J.


America, Vol. 192 No. 15,
Whole No. 4690 MAY 2, 2005


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