Catholic convocation: Combination pep rally, retreat inspires leaders

Delegates (from left) Carl Loesch, Jeff Boetticher, Stacy Noem and Lisa and Fred Everett of the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend attend Mass during the Convocation of Catholic Leaders that convened in Orlando, Fla., July 1-4. The retreat-style event intended to reinvigorate the evangelization efforts of those involved in diocesan leadership, and facilitated conversations about how to address the challenges to effective evangelization.

By Carol Zimmermann

ORLANDO, Fla. (CNS) — From July 1-4 the main floor of the Hyatt Regency Hotel in Orlando was transformed into a huge parish hall with places for worship, prayer, discussion, and even coffee and doughnuts during the “Convocation of Catholic Leaders: The Joy of the Gospel in America.”

At the convocation, 3,500 church leaders — men and women religious, bishops and laypeople — gathered to set a new course for the U.S. Catholic Church.

Following a retreat format, each day started and ended with group prayer. Mass was celebrated each day in the hotel ballroom, and there were plenty of scheduled times for the sacrament of reconciliation and private prayer in a large room turned into an adoration chapel.

Many of the keynote sessions took the form of pep talks encouraging delegates to share their faith boldly with the world at large and within their own families and parishes. The numerous breakout sessions provided the working aspect of the gathering: closely examining what the church is doing and where it can do more.

More than 155 bishops attended the gathering, sitting with their delegations for meals and breakout sessions. Cardinals and bishops who spoke at keynote sessions or in Mass homilies encouraged participants that this was their time, their moment, stressing the urgency to bring God’s message of love to a divided world.

The Fort Wayne-South Bend delegation to the convocation included a cross-section of individuals representing numerous groups within the diocese. In the front row, from left, are Jeff Boetticher, Office of Development; Joe Ryan, Business Office; Deacon Mel Tardy, Black Catholic Ministry; Marsha Jordan, Catholic Schools Office; Stacey Noem, University of Notre Dame; and Enid Roman-DeJesus, Hispanic Ministry. In the back row, from left, are Dr. Andrew Mullally, Catholic Medical Association; Stephanie A. Patka, Office of Communications; Matt Wood, Assistant to Bishop Rhoades; Gloria Whitcraft, Catholic Charities; Fred and Lisa Everett, Office of Family Life; Bishop Kevin C. Rhoades; Mary Glowaski, Office of Evangelization; Cindy Black, Redeemer Radio; Dr. Thomas McGovern, Catholic Medical Association; Carl Loesch, Office of Catholic Education; Msgr. Robert Schulte, vicar general/chancellor; Sean Allen, Young Adult Ministry; and Father Mark Gurtner, Office of the Tribunal.

At the final Mass, described as a “Mass of Sending,” Cardinal Daniel N. DiNardo of Galveston-Houston said the church is called to achieve great things in the face of the impossible — to unite people together by going to the peripheries of society and sharing the good news of Jesus through action rooted in faith.

“Sisters and brothers, we are in a very, very significant time in our church in this country,” said Cardinal DiNardo, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, and he urged the delegates to receive God’s grace for the work ahead.

None of the homilists or keynote speakers sugarcoated the challenges for the modern church and more than once speakers pointed out that Catholics are leaving the church in greater numbers, particularly young adults, than those joining the church.

But as Auxiliary Bishop Robert E. Barron of Los Angeles pointed out: “The saints always loved a good fight, and we should like a good fight too.”

The bishop, who addressed the crowd through a video hookup July 4, told them it was an “exciting time to be an evangelist,” but that they also should pick up their game to evangelize effectively.

Throughout the convocation Pope Francis was pointed out as a model for modern Catholics to follow in inviting others, especially those on the peripheries, to Christ. Speakers also were quick to quote his 2013 apostolic exhortation, “Evangelii Gaudium” (“The Joy of the Gospel”), which lays out a vision of the church dedicated to evangelization — or missionary discipleship — in a positive way, with a focus on society’s poorest and most vulnerable, including the aged, unborn and forgotten.

Two homilies during the convocation specifically quoted the pope’s admonition in “Evangelii Gaudium” that Catholics shouldn’t be “sourpusses,” but should reflect joy.

Washington Cardinal Donald W. Wuerl acknowledged that Catholics are not always comfortable with the idea of evangelizing, but said they need to be willing to step out of themselves and talk with people about their faith as part of an encounter the pope speaks about. Part of this simply involves listening to people, caring for them and leading them to Jesus, said speaker Sister Miriam James Heidland, a sister of the Society of Our Lady of the Most Holy Trinity.

Delegates were repeatedly encouraged to reach out to the peripheries especially to immigrants and the poor but also to all members of the church’s diverse family — people of all races, women and young people.

Hosffman Ospino, associate professor of theology and religious education at Boston College, said it is time for the church to start building a “language of communion” rather than dividing the church community into different groups and individually responding to those needs.

“It’s the church serving the church,” he said. “We all are the church.”

That message inspired Sister Kathleen Burton, a Sister of St. Joseph who is co-director of the Office of Faith Formation, Family Life and Lay Ministry Formation in the Diocese of Camden, N.J., who said: “The walls need to come down.”

“There’s a renewed sense of evangelization and re-evangelization,” the delegate told Catholic News Service. “We’re being challenged that we don’t wait for people to come to us, but we’ve got to go out to them.”

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

Bishop Kevin C. Rhoades engages in a roundtable discussion with local delegates to the convention.

Vanessa Griffin Campbell, director of the Office of Ministry to African American Catholics in the Diocese of Cleveland, said the key to embracing diversity and going to the peripheries will be teamwork among laypeople, clergy and diocesan staff.

The church should “not just open the doors on Sunday,” she said, “but make sure our doors are open Sunday to Sunday.”

At the end of the closing Mass, Archbishop Christophe Pierre, apostolic nuncio to the United States, who attended all four days of the convocation, congratulated attendees for the invigorating discussion.

He called it a “kairos,” or opportune moment, in the life of the U.S. church and said he would tell Pope Francis: “the Spirit is alive in the church in the United States.”

“I will tell him of the commitment of many missionary disciples and their love for the church,” he added.

Contributing to this report was Dennis Sadowski in Orlando.

Thoughts on a historic gathering

By Greg Erlandson

WASHINGTON (CNS) — The first century of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has concluded with its organization of an unprecedented and powerful gathering of Catholics in Orlando, Fla.

With the somewhat ungainly title of “Convocation of Catholic Leaders: The Joy of the Gospel in America,” it was nine years in the making. It brought together more than 3,100 people, mainly laity but also more than 150 bishops and 500 priests and deacons. It felt a bit like a class reunion for highly engaged Catholics, or as one observer put it, a World Youth Day for adults.

For four days of speeches, panels, Masses and much conversation, the convocation became a tangible expression of church unity and missionary zeal. There were many highlights, from the opening speech by Hosffman Ospino to the closing homily by Cardinal Daniel N. DiNardo of Galveston-Houston, USCCB president.

A tour de force was the final address by Archbishop Christophe Pierre, the papal nuncio to the United States. He called the gathering “a new Catholic moment, a privileged time to be renewed for the mission of evangelization in this country.”

Weaving together references to nearly every plenary talk, the archbishop showed that he had not just attended every session, but had listened as well.

The nuncio called the convocation a “journeying together” that strengthened “our common bonds.”

“This convocation has reawakened our collective conscience to the plight of the poor, the persecuted, and those at the peripheries,” he concluded.

Los Angeles Archbishop Jose H. Gomez spoke at length about the peripheries in our society. “America is pulling apart,” he warned. “We are people divided along lines of money and race, education and family backgrounds.”

For Gomez, as for many other speakers, the challenges we face in society demand missionary discipleship, a going forth to evangelize anew. This means not just converting others, but first converting ourselves. “We know the church’s mission is not just a ‘job’ for bishops and clergy and ‘church professionals,’” he said.

“You are here today,” he told the attendees, “because you have heard the call of Jesus: ‘Follow me!’”

The speeches and liturgies were accompanied by dozens of breakout sessions featuring more than 239 panelists, each with bishop facilitators. The emphasis was more on dialogue than lectures. What was most evident, however, were the constant conversations taking place throughout the hotels and gathering spaces.

This may have been the greatest gift of the convocation: opportunities for highly committed Catholics from chanceries and parishes, from Catholic apostolates and organizations, to mingle, to share, and to realize they were not alone.

The convocation brought together people not just from prolife and social justice areas of the church, but also people involved in education, evangelization, media and communications, liturgy, and youth and young adult ministries. In addition, there were those serving Hispanics, Asians, African-Americans and other communities.

This cross-fertilization of ministries may have been one of the great opportunities of the convocation, a breaking apart of the siloes that often impede the work of the church.

While there was a great sense of unity, the delegates were challenged to hear the voices of the poor and the marginalized: Ospino on the growth of Latino Catholicism, strong words from Ansel Augustine on the role of African-American Catholics, and much applauded remarks by Helen Alvare and Kerry Weber on the role of women and the church.

Patrick Lencioni, a famous management guru and founder of Amazing Parish, brought his analysis of successful teambuilding to the convocation, wittily skewering the kind of “nice” behavior that lacks trust, avoids conflict and ignores results in many church organizations. The knowing laughter and applause that accompanied many of his observations suggest where the church needs to get better.

So what next? That question was constantly asked. How does this energy get brought back to parishes and dioceses? The last day each of the 157 diocesan delegations huddled to propose their own answers to these questions at the personal, parish and diocesan levels.

One less obvious takeaway, however, is that the convocation underscored the value of the U.S. bishops’ conference itself. The conference was born in 1917 as a response to the demands of World War I and the realization by the bishops that they needed a national organization with a national voice.

This convocation was the fruit of several years of work by USCCB staff and a bishops’ working group. It is impossible to imagine another organization with the resources, the skill sets and the knowledge to pull off such a gathering.

Perhaps one fruit of the convocation will be that church leaders see their conference not only as a bureaucracy, but as a phenomenal tool for engaging our entire church in its 21st-century mission.


Posted on July 12, 2017, to: