Friday, March 8, 2013


I was too excited to sleep Wednesday night awaiting what Thursday would bring. Romina and I were actually messaging each other from our respective bedrooms down the hall because the mounting sleepless anticipation just had to be shared.  What were we looking forward to, you may be asking yourself: A great party?  A tropical vacation?  Better.  It was the (drumroll)… Los Angeles Religious Education Congress! (pushes glasses up nose).  I definitely made the right life choice, didn’t I? 

Our house community, minus Peggy who we missed dearly, flew to Anaheim to join approximately 38,000 Catholics for a weekend of learning and celebrating our faith.  We’d been looking forward to it ever since Andrea attended last year and came back bursting with outstanding reviews.  I joke about my nerdy joy over attending, but it really is quite an impressive event!  It's not just for religious educators but really for anyone excited about their faith.  Staff in the L.A. Religious Education office work for 2 months of the year planning the over 200 workshops, 10 Masses, and other events and prayer experiences.

Tongan dancers at the opening of the Congress

The Congress opened Friday morning with a breathtaking ceremony.  There were Tongan dancers, an amazing choir, and a rousing discourse by Sr. Edith Prendergast, the director of Religious Education in the Diocese of Los Angeles and the engine behind the whole weekend.  The elation and wonder felt in those initial moments only grew throughout next three days.

I’m wishing that I could share everything with you, but I’ll try to give you a taste without writing a novel.  My number one piece of advice is this – read anything and everything written by the following people who I was lucky enough to see present in Anaheim:  Jack Jezreel, Kathleen Norris, Fr. James Martin, Fr. Greg Boyle, Fr. Richard Rohr, Fr. Ronald Rohlheiser, Fr. James Heft, Sr. Maureen Sullivan.  Trust me: your life will be significantly better if you get to know these modern spiritual geniuses.

Along with the imparted insights from the presenters, perhaps the most powerful part of being there was the palpable sense of community that is the heart of our faith.  Do you know what it feels like to go to Mass with probably 20,000 other dedicated members of the Body of Christ?  Looking around the packed arena left me with an overwhelming sense of gratitude for the tradition I was brought up in. 

The seats were filled with people of all colors and all ages from all over the U.S. and the world.  It was getting a real electrifying taste of the “Catholic”-ness of our Church.  We sang and read and prayed in many languages – English, Spanish, Tagalog, French, and Tongan.  Many offered their talents to fill the space with vibrant joy – dancers, singers, musicians, lectors, catechists, preachers, ministers.  Mass felt like the true celebration it is meant to be.

Mass at the Religious Education Congress
As a wonderful group of dancers and servers dressed the altar in the center of the Arena for the Liturgy of the Eucharist, the words of the good old John Foley church song, “One Bread, One Body” popped into my mind.  “Many the gifts; many the works.  One in the Lord of all.”  How awe-inspiring to think of each person at the Conference returning to their local community and living out what they learned that weekend.  THIS is Church, I thought.  Within that diversity of those gathered there were so many personalities, passions, and gifts.  And to be sure there was discord represented -  a slew of different ideas, opinions, political persuasions, and ways of expressing faith.  But when it comes right down to it, we can pull up a chair, side by side around the table of Lord, and break bread together.  This is the challenge and the marvelous gift of our “universal” Church.

Kathleen Norris said in her talk that Church is “inescapably communal.”  It seems that our salvation does not rest just in an isolated relationship with God but rather in letting that relationship open us wider and wider to our oneness with all of our brothers and sisters.  In the words of Jack Jezreel, founder of JustFaith ministries:  “The reign of God must be relational.”

All we had heard in the talks echoed this call to community that I felt clearly as the thousands present came forward to receive the Eucharist.  The “Amen” we were all saying was not just a rote, empty word.  It connects directly to a life of faith in action.  It is a commitment to communion with God and others; to taking that self-emptying way into our own strides and giving of who we are for others.  It is recognition that encountering the “Real Presence” is not some magical thing that happens once a week at Mass and stays there.  It MUST transcend our lives.  It is a willingness to seek out, revere, and serve the Real Presence experienced in Eucharist in every single person that we meet, in all of Creation, and especially in the poor.

Romina, Andrea and I with Jack Jezreel of JustFaith Ministries
Everything in our faith points us right back to the two Commandments that Jesus considered to be the most important: Love the Lord your God with your whole heart, soul and mind.  And love your neighbor as yourself.  As Sr. Maureen Sullivan put it, “We’re meant to be Sacraments to each other.”  At a rocky moment in Catholic history, I was reminded of the goodness, joy, and unity at the heart of it all.

I felt the same sense a few days ago as I sat in the Sacred Heart Social Ministry office with Hector.  We’ve gotten to know this dear elderly man well over the last months as he sought our support during his wife’s terrible illness.   She died yesterday.  Today, there were glistening trails of tears traversing his rough, sun and wind beaten face.  He was a bit dirty, smelled like sweat and smoke, and looked totally worn out, like a marathon runner who has finally crossed the finished line and must now catch his breath.

Hector fought so hard for his wife for the last few years.  They live in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, where she was unable to get the treatment that she needed.  Although he was a U.S. Resident, she had no U.S. documents.    He did everything he could to try to get her a humanitarian visa, but it was to no avail.  He eventually took the classes and spent the $600+ needed to apply to become a citizen himself and then petition for his wife. He sold much of what they owned to pay for this.  Even after all of that, his petition wasn’t approved.

Hector came to us to see if we could help pay for the funeral and burial, which would cost 10,000 pesos, or almost $800.  As I was filling out the paperwork required to give out emergency financial help, word about his story got around the office.  There were people sitting in the lobby, hoping to be picked up for a day of work through our job program.  There was also a Citizenship class going on in the Adult Education room.  Nobody there is well off, but people started scraping their pockets for whatever they might give, like the Biblical woman placing her treasured coins in the collection plate.

The volunteer Citizenship teacher, Mr. Benitez, brought in the envelope of the collected money and handed it to Hector with loving eyes.  “This isn’t much, but it’s a sign of support for you.  We know your story. You are such a good man.  We’re here for you.”

Just a moment after he left, another woman came in with a bit of money crinkled in her fist.  She handed it to him, and then embraced him.  “God bless you.”  Hector shook in her arms and cried, this time overcome with gratitude.

I asked if he wanted me to help count the money.  There were $35 in the envelope. Hector then opened his fist and found 2 dollar bills from the woman.  $37 was a small step toward the $800, but it meant far more than its quantitative value.  Hector clutched the money to his chest and lifted his watery eyes to the heavens, calling out to his wife.  “Mira, mi amor!  Diosito me esta ayudando!”  (Look, my love!  Our dear God is helping me).  Now it was my turn to cry.

Christian community.  Sacrament.  Real presence.

This is the vision of Church as the People of God.  Each of us called to the table and sent out in our own special way to be Christ’s hands and feet in this world.  During this time of transition in our Church, of course it is a moment to join in prayer for the election of a new Pope who will shepherd us with love, courage and integrity.  But it is also a good moment to remember that the Church's mission will never be fulfilled by one person.  It is up to each person to listen for and respond to God's call of Love.  Many the gifts, many the works.

The theme of the Congress was “Enter the Mystery,” and Sr. Maureen Sullivan, the Sunday morning keynote speaker, shared theologian Karl Rahner’s definition of mystery:  It is not that which I cannot know but that which I cannot exhaust.  What a wonderful thing to reflect on our Lenten journeys.  Our God is a God whose love and forgiveness cannot be exhausted.  Our oneness with God and neighbor cannot be exhausted.  Our capacity for transformation as we turn again to the Lord cannot be exhausted. That is the hope of Lent.  In God, there is always more, further, deeper.

Community helps us to know this inexhaustible Mystery.  The Real Presence of Christ imbued the gathering of Christians at the Anaheim Congress and the small act of love to a poor Mexican man in my office at Sacred Heart Church.  Can you imagine a world full of people committed to really loving God and neighbor?

"Many the gifts; many the works.  One in the Lord of all."  How will you be sacrament to others today?


  1. Trace,

    This sounds like a beautiful Congress. The question you pose at the end is one that I hope is on my mind every morning. Too often I find myself looking at faith in a vacuum. I go to mass, I meet with women from my parish every other Tuesday, and I read books on faith occasionally; but how can I be a sacrament to others in what I do every day? How can I respond to that person at work that I have difficulty with in such a way that I am a sacrament to her?

    Thanks, as always, Trace.


  2. Tracy, Thank you for sharing your story. I find it both relatable and inspiring. And I love this topic, it goes along with one of my favorite passages: 1 Corinthian, Chapter 12...where it talks about how each of us are given different gifts to share with the world but that they all come from one common spirit. Hopefully, we can all touch the lives of others like Hector through our own unique gifts and talents God has given us. Have a great week!

  3. Just forwarded this on to my JustFaith group. You have such a gift of being able to write so well!! I couldn't be happier for you Tracy!