For convocation delegates, it’s about unifying in faith in a troubled world

Teak Phillips | teakphillips@archstl.org
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ORLANDO, Fla. — For some it was about keeping young people in the Church. Others wanted to hear about diocesan ministries in another locale and perhaps bring an idea home. A few more were glad they could be heard by a bishop or two.

Whatever their reason to travel to hot, humid Florida for four days in the middle of summer, the 3,500 delegates to the "Convocation of Catholic Leaders: The Joy of the Gospel in America" headed home July 4 with renewed energy to set a new course for the U.S. Catholic Church.

Years in planning, the convocation was the first time in a century that the bishops convened Church leaders — clergy, religious, seminarians, parish volunteers and professional staff among them — to respond to social and spiritual quandaries that have left millions of people drifting on the margins of society.

The convocation consisted of plenary sessions with a primary speaker or speakers, followed by a large number of smaller group sessions in which the delegates discussed opportunities and challenges facing the Church and shared ideas and opinions about how to address them.

Clergy — more than 155 prelates and 300 priests — recognize that the Church must respond to those quandaries. While cardinals, archbishops and bishops played leading roles throughout the convocation, they also were on hand to listen. They joined breakout sessions; some didn't speak at all. During the final gatherings of diocesan delegations and affiliated groups July 4, bishops quietly watched and took notes as conversations unfolded about practical steps to undertake back home.

Pope Francis fueled the impetus for the gathering. His 2013 apostolic exhortation, "Evangelii Gaudium" ("The Joy of the Gospel"), gave planners at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops another reason for organizing the gathering.

The pope's document lays out a vision of the Church dedicated to evangelization — missionary discipleship — in a positive way, with a focus on society's poorest and most vulnerable, including the aged, unborn and forgotten.

His call for a more merciful Church joyfully working on the peripheries of society to heal the wounded inspired the delegates throughout the convocation.

The convocation "exceeded expectations," and Jonathan Reyes, executive director of the USCCB Department of Justice, Peace and Human Development. He was among the event's lead planners."The joy of the Gospel is real," he said.

Meanwhile, more than 50 delegates interviewed by Catholic News Service said they felt the Church — in all its perturbations and ministries — began to emerge from its many silos and turfs. They said they realized that no matter their views, they were members of one family and that they would be of better service if they imitated Jesus.

"The walls need to come down," said Sister Kathleen Burton, a Sister of St. Joseph and co-director of the Office of Faith Formation, Family Life and Lay Ministry Formation in the Diocese of Camden, N.J. "There's a renewed sense of evangelization and re-evangelization. We're being challenged that we don't wait for people to come to us, but we've got to go out to them."

Delegates acknowledged that "missionary discipleship" won't be easy, but they indicated they were willing to move beyond their comfort zones in ministry and take risks to answer the pope's call.

They also acknowledged that the words of Hosffman Ospino, associate professor of theology and religious education at Boston College, at the convocation's first plenary session got them to begin thinking differently about Church.

Near the end of his presentation, Ospino called on the Church to begin "building a language of communion" rather than focusing on how to best serve specific groups of people.

"It's the Church serving the Church," he said. "We all are the Church."

That understanding is particularly important given that Hispanics make up about 40 percent of parish membership nationwide. Whites are at about 50 percent, with African-Americans, Asian-Americans and Native Americans encompassing about 10 percent.

For many delegates, seeing the Church's diversity — Latinos, African-Americans and Africans, Native Americans and Asians from across the continent — was an inspiring sight, helping them better understand the idea of the Church as family.

Michelle Boyd, a Turtle Mountain Chippewa and a member of the Congregation of the Great Spirit, a Native American parish in Milwaukee, called the diversity among delegates "really amazing." Such diversity gives Boyd hope for the Church's future.

The parish incorporates traditional Native American songs and prayers in liturgy, which inspired Boyd's return to the Catholic Church. She said similar practices along with outreach in social services, such as the parish's food pantry, show a Church going to the peripheries.

"The love is there," she said. "Why can't we all just exercise the love?"

For African-Americans, the convocation gave black participants a chance to address concerns of lingering racism both within the Church and society. Reynolds-Anthony Harris, representing the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, found the convocation an opportunity to discuss "doing things differently."

According to Vanessa Griffin Campbell, director of the Office of Ministry to African-American Catholics in the Diocese of Cleveland, the key in embracing diversity and going to the peripheries will be teamwork among laypeople, clergy and diocese staff. The Church should "not just open the doors on Sunday, but make sure our doors are open Sunday to Sunday," she said. 

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