One of the gifts of being part of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles is the annual Religious Education Congress.
For those who don't know, the RE Congress began 60 years ago as a series of workshops for those involved in what we used to call "CCD" (Confraternity of Catholic Doctrine), what we more commonly refer to as "Religious Education," or perhaps more appropriately today as "Faith Formation." What was born out of a desire for local CCD teachers to gather and share ideas on faith formation has grown into an international gathering of more than 40,000 catechists and ministers of all flavors to be re-ignited by the Holy Spirit to the service of their parish. I've been blessed to have attended this event regularly since the early 1980's, and I have yet to be disappointed. I believe that for anyone involved in Catholic education, catechesis, or church ministry, on any level... this is a must-attend event.
The Congress is, among other things, a living example of the universal nature of the Church. That our community extends beyond the four walls of our parish, and that we should be looking to each other for ideas, inspiration, and support. To the Archdiocese, to the US, to the world. Those Catholics who never venture beyond their parish walls are living in a bubble that can keep the Holy Spirit from enlightening their lives and their ministry.
The Congress, being such a large and visible gathering of Catholics is also, for better or worse, is a magnet for protesters. "Protesters," I hear you cry? What could they possibly be protesting about? For those who have never attended a Congress (or Youth Day) this can be a bit of a shock. It is, however, a fact of life in the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave, and if we believe in the First Amendment, we need to respect their right to say what they want as we gather on the "public" property that is the Anaheim Convention Center.
Having gone to Congress for some 30 years or more, I'm well familiar with these protesters. They generally fall within two categories: Catholic and non-Catholic. The Catholic protesters are those who feel the need to express their opinions on various aspects of our Catholic lives, from going back to the Latin Mass to the ordination of women. Most of these folks are non-confrontational, and while in some cases they can be a little misinformed, or misguided, on a certain level they do raise some questions we should be addressing as Church. Contrary to popular opinion, there is a healthy history of debate within the Church, and it is a tradition we should continue to foster... to as St. Pope John XXIII suggested for the Second Vatican council, we need to "open the windows and let in some fresh air." If their ideas have merit, they will work their way through the Magisterium. We have to trust that the Holy Spirit will guide us.
The non-Catholic protesters are another thing. Usually with large signs and bullhorns telling us, in short, that we Catholics are misguided and are going to hell. While engaging them is a mistake (which I will get into in a moment), I was intrigued by one exchange I overheard while passing by. The non-catholic protester was commenting about how Pope such-and-such (from the middle ages) had said such-and-such, which our protester considered to be heresy, explaining to their Catholic listener, that we Catholics needed to believe this heresy "because the pope said this, and the pope is always right." I have to say... it took a group of angels to keep me from stopping from stepping in to make this a "catechetical moment."
Let's unpack this little encounter a bit. First, by the protester saying that "the pope is always right," he was using "code" to refer to the Doctrine of Papal Infallibility... something any Protestant might take issue with. Unfortunately not only are many Protestants misinformed about this doctrine, so are too many Catholics. So let me be clear... not everything a pope has said is to be considered infallible. Let me explain:
To fully understand the Doctrine of Papal Infallibility one only needs to do a little research. While this doctrine followed on the tradition of the pope speaking ex cathedra (from the seat in Rome) for centuries, it wasn't formally defined until 1870 in one of the few documents promulgated from the First Vatican Council before it was forced to suspend activity due to the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War.
To be clear... not everything a pope says or has said is considered infallible. This is important point, so let me repeat it... not everything a pope says or has said is considered infallible. Many people, Catholic and non-catholic, being aware of this doctrine all too readily jump to the assumption that this is the case with everything a pope says and does. This is not, and has never been the case. If it were we would still believe that the Earth is the center of the solar system. When the pope speaks infallibly, he has to first say so (the doctrine needs to be invoked) ... and he can only do so under certain circumstances. These are all serious issues, and no pope want's to get this wrong, so when a pope does use this authority, he want's to make sure he's getting it right. Please, do a little research to better understand this: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Papal_infallibility.
Which leads me to another very important point... never trust anyone who says "you Catholics believe (fill in the blank)..." especially when that source is non-catholic. Many in the media as well as most non-Catholics are all too quick to tell us what we Catholics "believe" or what is Catholic "dogma" or "doctrine" (there is a difference in these two, by the way...). At best you're only getting a half-truth, and at worst you're getting utter hogwash. Again... do your own research. For clarification, talk with clergy, religious, or catechists. While tools like Wikipedia are fairly reliable, make sure to seek legitimate Catholic resources for further study.
Which takes me to the issue of how to deal with these non-Catholic protesters. The guys (and they're always guys) with the bullhorns and over-sized signs. Whenever I see this (starting back in my college days at Cal Poly Pomona), I cannot help but to think of Matthew 6:5-8:
“When you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, who love to stand and pray in the synagogues and on street corners so that others may see them. Amen, I say to you, they have received their reward.
But when you pray, go to your inner room, close the door, and pray to your Father in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will repay you.
In praying, do not babble like the pagans, who think that they will be heard because of their many words.
Do not be like them. Your Father knows what you need before you ask him.
These protesters with their bullhorns... "they have already received their reward." They have but one agenda... to hear themselves. They are not interested in hearing your side of the story. They are not interested in reason or logic, and are not open to alternative views. They fail to follow Jesus' command of ephetha (that is, to be open) which we celebrate in the RCIA. These people are trained to confront with the aim of conversion, or at best, to create confused discord. Their literal interpretation of scripture leads to inconsistent half-truths that later require convoluted justifications that fit their own narrow understanding. Not all of us are scripture scholars or theologians and they play on our insecurities and inexperience to bully us with their well-practiced script of opinion meant to push our buttons and make us feel stupid. Is that how Jesus taught? Of course not.
Engaging these types of protesters is a lose-lose proposition. You will not win. Their goal is to recruit you to their cause. Their view, in their minds, is the only correct view and they're not open to any alternative viewpoint. They're not interested in dialog. They're not interested in debate. Bottom line: They're not worth your time. Just keep walking.
Instead, we need to fully engage with the activities of the Congress. Not just the workshops, but the Masses, the sacred space, the opportunities for prayer and confession. To see the best our Catholic brothers and sisters have to offer us. To celebrate our faith and to reflect the theme of Unbounded Mercy inspired by our Holy Father Pope Francis. To ever grow in the Spirit and love.