BRISTOL – The Archdiocese of Hartford Office of Religious Education and Evangelization (OREE) presented its annual Faith and Evangelization Congress on Nov. 15 at St. Paul High School in Bristol. This year’s theme was titled “Making God Known: Sharing the Stories of Faith.”
Keynote speakers and workshops on faith formation were held in both English and Spanish, drawing an increased number of mostly religious educators, as well as laity statewide. OREE assistant director Ryan Hinton noted a 33 percent growth in attendance and that the added “Evangelization” component of the office’s name is relatively new.
“Last year, we were making a splash into evangelization,” he said. “This year, we dove full-in.” Mr. Hinton emphasized that the congress wasn’t shying away from its base of religious educators, but was encouraging catechists to make the case for both catechism and evangelization.
Celebrating Mass for his first congress, Archbishop Leonard P. Blair focused on Pope Francis’ call for evangelization by people who become “missionary disciples” who bring encounters with Jesus Christ to others. He said that when one lives in the joy of the Gospel, one spreads that Good News to others in word and deed.
The archbishop encouraged attendees to pray that the Holy Spirit would soften hearts to the message of the Good News.
Tom Peterson’s keynote address, titled “Our World Needs Catholic Heroes,” continued the theme. Mr. Peterson is the founder and president of Catholics Come Home (catholicscomehome.org) and the author of a book and EWTN program with the same title. His work promotes returning to the church, Christmas, marriage and pro-life messages.
Mr. Peterson said that in the United States, only 24 percent of baptized Catholics attend Mass on a weekly basis. Worldwide, 800 million rarely set foot in church. Mr. Peterson was one of them until he had a “profound spiritual awakening” at a men’s retreat.
He gave examples from his life when he simply invited people back to the faith. One young man needed several invitations before returning to church. Mr. Peterson gave a flight attendant his Catho-lics Come Home business card with a note, “The hope you seek is in Jesus Christ.” She, too, re-turned to the church, he said.
“Our culture produces ‘nice’ people, but few heroes,” said Mr. Peterson. “God calls us to go the extra mile and lead a more heroic life.” He suggested ideas to pro-mote the New Evangelization. When someone asks, “How are you?,” answer, “I’m blessed, how are you?” Mr. Peterson said this “plants the seed of God in them.”
Additionally, if someone tells you their problems, ask, “How can I pray for you?” and offer to pray with them on the spot. He also suggested reading his book, which “is written for us Catholics to evangelize to the world.”
Catechetical leader David O’Brien, a Loyola Press national speaker and former faith formation director, focused on Pope Francis’ taking such issues as divorce, homosexuality and birth control into the media.
“We take our cue from the pope and what he’s prioritizing,” Mr. O’Brien said, noting that the pope suggests that the faithful start from the perspective of Christ’s mercy and love rather than focus on who lives up to church rules.
“People are paying attention to us,” he said. “We share the love of God with people. We have a gift. Let’s live in that gift no matter how hard.”
Rose and Kim Gilberto are mother and daughter, respectively, and both have taught religious education at St. Augustine in Hartford for about 15 years. Rose Gilberto thought Mr. Peterson’s talk was “very good; he’s trying to help people.” She said she provides her own outreach, not just to her first Communion students, but also to her son’s friends who have fallen away from the church.
Kim Gilberto teaches fourth and fifth graders at St. Augustine. “This has been the best [congress] I’ve been to overall,” she said. She said she came away with the thought, “When you talk about being Catholic, don’t be embarrassed about it.”
During the English presentations, Martin Zavala of Defiende Tu Fe (Defend Your Faith) spoke to Hispanic attendees. He is a cofounder of www.defiendetufe.com, a website full of bilingual resources for apologetics.
More than 200 Spanish-speaking people attended Mr. Zavala’s presentation, which focused on standing up for one’s faith, said Miriam Hidalgo, coordinator for Hispanic catechesis.
Ms. Hidalgo said, “People were excited to learn how to defend their faith, where to find answers in Scripture and how to articulate answers to the most common critiques used by other reli-gious/Christian denominations. Participants spent the day learning, laughing, praying and sharing their own personal stories.”
Mario Alicea, a parishioner at St. Mary’s in New Britain, said, “I’ve seen [Martin Zavala] before in New Britain. He’s awesome; he inspires me a lot. He brings a lot of people to the church.”
Father Christopher Tiano, OREE director, said of the day, “I like the fact that we gather groups of similar ministries and hear Archbishop Blair affirm [them],” he said. “It’s them, every day, teaching children and adults, and proclaiming the faith.”