By Laura Ieraci
About 3,500 Catholic leaders, more than 150 bishops and 300-plus priests participated in an “unprecedented” national event in the life of the U.S. church last month.
The “Convocation of Catholic Leaders: The Joy of the Gospel in America,” held in Orlando, Florida, July 1-4, was chock full of sessions, discussions and workshops, urging delegates, the majority of them laypeople, to share their faith boldly in their families, parishes and communities.
The event was about five years in the making. According to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, the convocation was intended to “convene, challenge, and motivate Catholic leaders to embrace the full vision of what it means to be Catholic and fully engaged in the church’s mission of evangelization and to proclaim the church’s vision of the human person.”
The convocation consisted of a number of plenary and break-out sessions with well-known and expert Catholic speakers and panelists, elaborating on an array of themes related to building a missionary church. Other activities included a Holy Hour, a Eucharistic procession, Mass and prayer services, and a Christian music concert.
Among the presenters were two alumnae of The Lay Centre. Sandra Keating, associate professor at Providence College in Rhode Island, took part in a panel presentation with the theme, “Dialogue, Relationships and Encounter: The Ecumenical and Interreligious Landscape.”
Susan Timoney, secretary for pastoral ministry and social concerns at the Archdiocese of Washington, led a panel that reflected on the mission of the parish in relation to Pope Francis’ apostolic exhortation “Evangelii Gaudium” (“The Joy of the Gospel).
Father Frank Donio, a Pallottine Father and a friend of The Lay Centre, was the lead panelist for a breakout session on the theme, “Illuminating the Landscape and Challenges according to ‘Evangelii Gaudium.’” Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington and Bishop David Ricken of Green Bay, among others, presented with him.
Father Donio, who is also the director of the Catholic Apostolate Center, said the convocation was “an unprecedented gathering,” bringing together “Catholic leaders who might have differing viewpoints and focused their attention on our common mission as baptized to be missionary disciples of Jesus Christ.”
He underlined that Pope Francis’ exhortation “Evangelii Gaudium” was “the blueprint” for the gathering.
“Many meetings and conferences associated with the church in the United States either address specific issues or draw groups that are often of a similar way of thinking,” he said. “The convocation was unique because it was called by the bishops of the United States and drew a cross-section of diocesan delegations, associations, movements, and organizations.”
He noted that 156 of the 196 U.S. dioceses were represented. “The last time that the bishops of the United States called such a meeting was 100 years ago,” he said.
Among his many contributions to the convocation, Father Donio was in the program planning committee and was a writer of the Participant Guidebook and Journal.
The Catholic Apostolate Center, which was one of the event sponsors, collaborated in creating participant webinars and web resources. The center was also involved in the development of a special webpage of resources, as well as a new USCCB document called “Living as Missionary Disciples: A Resource for Evangelization,” which is one of the follow-up materials for the convocation.
Timoney said the event was “a very important moment” in the life of the U.S. church. It “represented a new moment in the implementation of the New Evangelization,” whose success “is dependent on a mature and committed laity to be co-responsible for the mission of the church,” she said.
Timoney said she believed the convocation will contribute to a shift in the way pastoral ministry is done in parishes “with a greater emphasis on accompaniment and going out beyond the boundary of the parish grounds to invite people to ‘come and see.’”
Every panel and plenary session included bishops, priests, consecrated men and women and lay leaders. Timoney said she was struck by the way the bishops gave presentations, participated in workshops, and spoke with and listened to other participants during breaks.
“I thought it really was the church in dialogue,” she said.
Both Timoney and Father Donio remarked on the wide age range and cultural diversity of participants. “It was so exciting to see how many people under the age of 40 were present and are leaders in their local parishes and dioceses,” said Timoney.
Father Donio added that his most significant take-away from the convocation was “the great unity around missionary discipleship and the need for us all to witness Jesus Christ in our daily lives.”
“This group of Catholic leaders from across the United States was not focused on the negative or the issues of pundits and bloggers, but on the issues, concerns, and needs of church and society and how we can respond to them as faith-filled witnesses of Christ,” he said.