I'm still processing the many wonderful presentations from last week's MidAtlantic Congress in Baltimore, whose theme was Witness Hope. But I'd like to share a few highlights while they're still fresh in my mind. Suffice it to say that overall it was an extremely positive experience.

It was a very diverse congress, which I appreciated, because I went there with the full, active intent of sampling the variations of viewpoints within the Church, and getting a clearer sense of my Catholic family's current state of being. I did hear a lot of ideas, and found much of value to take home with me.

As you know from last week's column, I'm trying not to be so judgmental toward my fellow Catholics but yes, I had some criticisms, especially the assertion by the last plenary presenter that the hierarchy of the Catholic Church is a "boy's club." I feel very strongly that we Catholics should be setting an example of respectful disagreement, as we do in our homes. I know it's hard. I absolutely struggle with this, myself. But it's important to keep trying.

That said, the conference was an overwhelmingly positive experience. On the first day, Dr. Michael Carotta, an expert in adolescent spirituality, gave a truly superb workshop that was sponsored by Our Sunday Visitor and called, "Reclaiming Religious Education."

He identified several critical skills to be mastered by the religious educator:

1) naming the adaptive challenge (the goal);

2) regulating the "heat" of the discussion (some topics need gentle handling, some need more intensity);

3) protecting all the voices in the room (giving everyone a chance to be heard respectfully);

and my favorite,

4) using powerful questions.

I've always wondered how really great teachers get everybody in the room buzzing and really moving the discussion deeper. Dr. Carotta does that so naturally that you almost feel like you're helping him teach the class, you're so engaged. For Dr. Carotta, one way is to ask powerful questions, like: "What have you learned by heart?"

Once the question is asked, Dr. Carotta advises, don't leap in to fill the silence. Ask a powerful question and then shut up. If you are quiet after asking a question, it pulls a response from the listener. "Let silence do the heavy lifting," he says.

And if someone gives a powerful, emotional response to your question, follow it up with some respectful silence. He explains, "Some insights and emotions can only find you in silence. The stronger the emotion, the more silence is deserved." Protect the person and the response by not allowing anyone to jump in too quickly with another comment.

He shared a Native American quote that I really liked, because it is so apt for our culture:

"Where in your life did you become uncomfortable with the sweet territory of silence?"

(I'd like to pause to recommend a resource for all of us who are inundated with noise, especially electronic distractions like social media, cell phones, and email. Matt Swaim, producer of the Son Rise Morning Show with Brian Patrick, wrote a terrific book, Prayer in the Digital Age, which goes into depth on the question of our spiritual need for silence.)