Reflecting on the “testimonies of love generously given” amid a pandemic, Pope Francis emphasized familiar themes of fraternity, hope and conversion in his address during Thursday evening’s opening ceremony of the 65th Los Angeles Religious Education Congress.
“In this age, we must recognize the dignity of every human person, and together bring to rebirth a universal aspiration to fraternity,” Pope Francis said in remarks broadcast from the Vatican.
Sitting behind a desk with a white blotter emblazoned with the papal insignia, Pope Francis read his speech in Spanish, which was captioned in English during the livestreamed hourlong opening ceremony.
Introduced by Sister Rosalia Meza, the senior director of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles’ Office of Religious Education, Pope Francis told the virtual audience that during a time of crisis, it was fitting that they had gathered for a congress that has as its theme, “Proclaim the Gospel.”
“We need to proclaim and remember that we have God’s promise, and that God always keeps his promises,” said the pope, who added that the novel coronavirus pandemic has “impacted the lives of every person” and their communities.
“We never come out of a crisis the same,” Pope Francis said. “One comes out better or worse, but never the same. In crisis, one’s heart is revealed: How solid it is, how merciful, how big or small. Crises place before us the necessity to make a decision and commit to that decision.”
The COVID-19 pandemic, which has infected more than 107 million people worldwide and killed 2.4 million globally, prompted Los Angeles’ annual Religious Education Conference, a popular event that has drawn thousands of attendees in prior years, to move entirely virtual in 2021.
“Who could have imagined what we would have experienced after seeing each other at the Anaheim Convention Center last year,” said Sister Rosalia, who echoed the pope’s remarks that the pandemic has “been difficult for everyone.”
“But how pertinent is the invitation of this congress to proclaim God’s promise!” Sister Rosalia said. “We need to announce and remember that we have the promise of God. This weekend will be a unique opportunity to be filled with hope for a new future.”
The pandemic’s impact was not only noticeable in the event’s move to the online realm, complete with a virtual exhibit ball, remote workshops, livestreamed liturgies and pre-recorded presentations. COVID-19 was also a source of spiritual reflection in speeches and musical presentations throughout the opening ceremony.
The opening night featured a video that combined a reading from Genesis 9, telling of God establishing his covenant with Noah, with spoken word poetry, music and dance that connected themes of suffering and rebirth, the struggle for justice and the beauty of creation, God’s faithfulness and unconditional love.
“This is our duty, our beautiful mission, to proclaim the beautiful promises of God, to proclaim his great plan of love for our lives and our world,” Archbishop José H. Gomez of Los Angeles said in remarks earlier in the evening.
Archbishop Gomez, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, said he was excited about the “historic” program for the 65th Religious Education Congress, which will close with a liturgy that he will celebrate virtually on Sunday. Archbishop Gomez said he was also grateful for “the blessing and gift” in Pope Francis’ addressing the conference.
“We need to be like the good Samaritan, which means letting myself be struck by what I see, knowing that suffering will change me, and with the suffering of another, I must commit myself,” Pope Francis said, echoing insights from his encyclical, Fratelli Tutti.
Also borrowing themes from his new book “Let Us Dream,” Pope Francis spoke about the importance “to dream together and look forward.” He described how “dreams are built together,” and referred to the youth participating in the congress as “the poets of a new human beauty, a new fraternity and friendly beauty.”
“Let us dream as a single human family,” Pope Francis said, “as fellow travelers sharing the same flesh, as children of the same earth that is our common home, each of us bringing the richness of his or her beliefs and convictions, each of us with his or her own voice, all of us brothers and sisters.”
Brian Fraga is a contributing editor for Our Sunday Visitor.