Nearly 3,500 participants, including 150 bishops, participated in an invitation-only gathering of Catholic leaders from across the United States held in Orlando, Florida, July 1-4. This was the first such gathering in 100 years, recalling a similar convocation in 1917, when leaders of the Catholic Church in the United States met to address the needs of the country following World War I.
That meeting set the tone for much of the past century, and the bishops hope this meeting will do the same for the present one. Archbishop Gregory M. Aymond of New Orleans described the Convocation of Catholic Leaders as a “powerful experience” and said that the meeting “renewed our faith and our intent to evangelize others to be missionary disciples.”
Missionary discipleship was the overarching theme of the convocation, titled “The Joy of the Gospel in America” after Pope Francis’ 2013 apostolic exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium. Participants were given four questions to consider throughout the convocation: 1) What is the nature of this current historical moment in the Church and in our nation? 2) How do we respond to this moment as missionary disciples? 3) Where are we called to go? To whom are we being sent on this mission? 4) What will we do when we get there? How will we engage the mission?
These questions framed the conversation across four daily themes: “National Unity,” “Landscape and Renewal,” “Work and Witness” and “A Spirit of Mission.”
Going to the peripheries
Several participants pointed to the July 3 focus on ministering to the peripheries — people who often feel disconnected from the Church — as a key moment in the convocation. Cheryl Whapham, director of catechetical services in the Diocese of Dallas, said she felt the convocation awakened delegates to the reality that “the periphery is not that far away. The periphery is in our own families ... in our parishes.”
Janice Benton, executive director of the National Catholic Partnership on Disability, agrees. Benton facilitated a panel discussion titled, “From Inclusion to Belonging: Persons with Disabilities and the Deaf Community.” When asked about the goals of her session, she said, “We wanted people to understand that we are all Church, so if we are in the peripheries, it’s because we are put there.” She recalled the statement of Bridget Brown, a panelist with Down syndrome, who said: “When I have had the chance to be part of the Church, to be active, it’s because I’ve had to ‘push open the doors.’ It wasn’t easy.” For this reason, Benton said, her panel “wanted people to know that people with disabilities are part of the Church and need to be active.”
She said the panel focused both on the challenges of persons with disabilities and positive steps that have facilitated their inclusion. “We were really glad to be a part of the convocation because it’s important in terms of the future movement of the Church to be recognized as an integral part,” she said.
The increasing cultural diversity of the U.S. Church was also an important topic of conversation at the convocation. Hosffman Ospino of Boston College, in his July 2 keynote on “Charting the Landscape and Mission Field,” highlighted the importance of engaging with the Hispanic/Latino community and forming Hispanics as leaders. He pointed to studies showing that 60 percent of Catholics in the United States under age 18 are Latino. Following the lead of the U.S. bishops, Ospino also encouraged more openness to immigrants. “Immigrants are neither an enemy nor a threat,” he said. “They are the face of Christ, the living Gospel.”
Whapham feels one important step in welcoming those Catholics who are at the peripheries is being more relational and “less businesslike.” Instead of “checking off boxes and jumping through hoops,” Whapham said, “we have to just sit with families and say, ‘Welcome. What brought you here today? What do you need from the Church? What can I help you with?’”
One unique aspect of the convocation is that it was envisioned as a collaborative dialogue rather than a typical conference where participants primarily would be listening to speakers. “The expectation was that we would listen to each other,” said Sharon Perkins, director of the Office of Evangelization and Catechesis in the Diocese of Austin, Texas. She described the convocation as a “gathering of people who don’t normally get to gather at the same time ... the clergy, the laity, religious, people in business and people in Catholic publishing.”
Archbishop Aymond echoed this sentiment, saying, “I was touched and impressed by the large number of lay leadership who were there.” He added that the convocation “showed a high level of collaboration between laypeople and the clergy.” Archbishop Aymond himself has been a pioneer in involving the laity in collaborative ministry in both dioceses where he has served.
Perkins expressed her hope that the convocation would serve to augment the collaboration that is already ongoing in the Diocese of Austin. “In the chancery, and in the diocese itself, it’s really about building a collaborative culture,” she said. “We have a lot of cross-departmental and cross-disciplinary creativity, and so I think that for us, this was another piece of that.” Perkins expects the convocation will help her team continue to “move forward with building a different culture of leadership.”
The schedule on the final day of the convocation included an extended goal-setting breakout session in which people gathered with their own diocesan and organizational delegations in order to strategize about how to take the message of the convocation back home to the places in which they minister.
Benton expressed her hope that the convocation awakened people “to the beauty of the diversity of our Church, both culturally and with folks with disabilities” and pointed out that both people of different cultural backgrounds and persons with disabilities sometimes “experience Church a little differently” than others. Whapham said she hopes her delegation from Dallas can leave the convocation with a strengthened trust for one another and share that with other leaders back home, “so we can engage in active dialogue ... challenging one another and really wrestling with what is the best direction forward.”
Years of planning went into the convocation, including local preparation and reflection by diocesan delegations in the past few months.
“This has been looming so large for months,” Perkins said. “I wasn’t sure quite what to expect, and what it would mean for me personally, so at the beginning of the convocation I prayed to the Holy Spirit, ‘Take me where you want to guide me for the benefit of the Church.’ The Holy Spirit has really come through.”
Joseph D. White is Our Sunday Visitor’s national catechetical consultant.