The absence of an Image Books booth and staff was keenly felt at this year's L.A. Religious Education Congress, the nation’s largest annual gathering of Roman Catholics and an increasingly important venue for Catholic book publishers held March 13-15 at the Anaheim Convention Center.

On March 9, the Crown Christian Publishing Group announced it would no longer acquire new titles for its Catholic-interest imprint, and the Image booth reservation was cancelled.

Vatican analyst John L. Allen, who was at L.A. Congress to promote his new book, The Francis Miracle: Inside the Transformation of the Pope and the Church (TIME Books), said “I don’t know what the business logic was, but the implosion of Image is a great tragedy, not just for Catholic publishing, but for the quality of conversation in the American Catholic Church. Image was always at the forefront, not only publishing established Catholic authors everyone wanted to read, but also searching for up-and-coming voices."

Asked via email whether Image would have a presence at future L.A. Congresses, Tina Constable, senior v-p and publisher of Crown Christian Publishing, replied, “We are still making decisions on which conferences we will be attending in the future. We will continue to focus our resources and creative energies to maintain and support the Image backlist. And, we will publish with full enthusiasm and support all Image books that are under contract.”

Only 21 of the 266 exhibitors at L.A. Congress publish books for the general trade. A half-dozen other publishers focus on curriculum products, while the remaining exhibitors sell devotional items or promote religious organizations. Still, the trade publishers’ footprint increases each year, with much larger and more elaborate booth spaces. Karey Circosta, v-p and director of sales and marketing at Ave Maria Press, said it is worth investing in the extra real estate “to get our books and authors in front of the people.” Added Bob Byrns, director of marketing and sales for Paulist Press, “The congress provides a platform for leading authors to get out among thousands of Catholics and to engage with the people who work in the trenches and use their products.”

The popularity of Pope Francis was a dominant theme across the show.

Jesuit priest Jim Martin, author of Jesus: A Pilgrimage (HarperOne, 2014) and known as Stephen Colbert's TV pastor, spoke on Friday to an audience of several hundred. To PW, Martin said, “After Jesus, Pope Francis is the number one topic of conversation. And you simply cannot ignore the effect of Pope Francis's five most famous words: ‘Who am I to judge?’....LGBT Catholics feel much more welcome in the church, not only because of that comment, but thanks to Francis's change in tone when reaching out to the LGBT community.”

Allen also drew a large crowd when he spoke on Saturday. Commenting to PW on the popularity of Pope Francis, he said, "You can find small pockets of ambivalence or outraged opposition on both the far right and the far left, but that’s a footnote to the big picture. This pope right now is as popular among American Catholics as Pope John Paul II was at his peak.”

About half of the event's 40,000 attendees come from California; the rest come from 47 other states and 20 foreign countries. Peter Dwyer, director at Liturgical Press, pointed to the value of “seeing the whole [Catholic] Church in one place—all its ministries and all its voices.” Adding an ecumenical flavor to this year's conference was a keynote address by Rick Warren, founder of the evangelical Saddleback Church and author of Zondervan’s 2002 mega-seller The Purpose-Driven Life.

Many Congress attendees, 70% of whom are women, noted the absence of high-profile Catholic women speakers. Martin said, "There were many amazing women speakers at Congress, but my dream list for next year would include women like Joyce Rupp, Elizabeth Johnson, Kathleen Norris, Joan Chittister and Amy-Jill Levine." Other speakers recommended by a handful of exhibitors and attendees in an informal poll: Franciscan sister and scientist Ilia Delio; activist Simone Campbell (A Nun on the Bus, HarperOne, 2014); and Mary Ann Glendon—the first woman president of the Papal Academy, the former U.S. Ambassador to the Holy See, and now a member of the Vatican Bank supervisory board. “Talk about somebody who knows where the bodies are buried,” commented Allen.

Still, some of the suggested speakers might be too liberal for congress organizers. Sr. Edith Prendergast, director of the archdiocesan Office of Religious Education and lead organizer for the Congress, stressed that all speakers are carefully vetted. Publishers are free to recommend whomever they wish, but ultimately the archdiocese decides whom to invite, she said.

L.A. Congress reconvenes February 26-28, 2016, with a new director. After nearly three decades of service, Sr. Prendergast is retiring; Fr. Christopher Bazyouros will take the helm of the Office of Religious Education.