By Bishop Joseph Kopacz
The United States Catholic Conference was born in 1917 as a response to the demands of WW1 in order to have a national organization with a national voice. In anticipation of the anniversary of the centenary, nearly 10 years ago the planning began. Providentially, the Conference of Bishops really found their stride in the planning stages with the publication in 2013 of the Apostolic Exhortation of Pope Francis, The Joy of the Gospel. The convocation discovered its name and its purpose. Convocation of Catholic Leaders: The Joy of the Gospel in America.
Over the four-day convocation, July 1-4, there were nearly 3,500 participants, representing the face of the Church in America. There were approximately 3,000 religious and lay leaders across the spectrum of church ministries and organizations. There were 155 bishops, mostly Latin Rite, but also Eastern Rite, representing their dioceses from around the nation, and nearly 500 priests and permanent deacons. In total, there were 185 national Catholic organizations on hand. Some described it as a World Youth Day for adults, something resembling a retreat and a pep rally. It was a well-balanced event. The keynote addresses were inspiring and engaging, and the panels that immediately followed them enlarged the depth and breath of vision of the speakers. Perhaps, even more valuable were the break-out sessions that were not lectures but conversations on an array of topics addressing the reality of modern society and how to respond as the Lord’s disciples in the spirit and conviction of the Joy of the Gospel.
In fact, conversations were the hallmark of this Convocation, and in whatever direction one turned bishops were speaking with their diocesan delegations, and in every corner and at every table, participants were in animated dialogue. The drumbeat throughout was the call to missionary discipleship for all who define themselves as Catholic in the 21st century. We are to go to the margins, to the peripheries to encounter and accompany the poor and marginalized. This could well be a family member, the young, the old, the poor, those close at hand, those out of sight and mind. This is the apostolic leadership of Pope Francis, the mind and heart of Jesus Christ.
Archbishop Gomez of Los Angeles powerfully unpacked this reality in his Keynote Address. “The peripheries are parts of our cities and rural areas we never visit, the other side of the tracks. They are where the poor live. They are prisons and the tent cities in our public places. They are all the places our society is ashamed of and would rather forget about, where people are wounded and feel their lives have no meaning and make no difference, trapping themselves in sin, addiction, slavery and self-deception. The pope is saying these peripheries are growing in the modern world, and these peripheries are new mission territories. The Church has always been present in the peripheries, but we can do better; we are called to do more.”
Overall, the Convocation was a great sign of unity in the Church in the United States and people were there for the right reasons. In this gathering the Bishops experienced their national conference not only as a bureaucracy, but also as a phenomenal tool for engaging our entire Church in its 21c mission. Church leaders seemed to be trying something new, another way that hasn’t been tried. All of the people were willing to sacrifice their leisurely 4th of July holiday and go to learn and be challenged. They didn’t go to be patted on the back but to learn. How can we share Christ better?
A cross fertilization of ministries, a great sign of unity for certain, and all were challenged to hear the voices of the poor and marginalized. The Convocation lit up social media for four days, which meant that the Joy of the Gospel was pulsating through cyberspace, plantings seeds of faith, hope and love. In the Diocese of Jackson the implementation of our vision and Pastoral Priorities is well underway. The path ahead is to inspire disciples, to serve others and to embrace diversity by being inviting and reconciling communities, by being intentional about life long faith formation, and by proclaiming Jesus Christ and our Catholic faith.
The Convocation of Catholic Leaders, the Joy of the Gospel in America enlarges our vision with the exhortation to be missionary disciples who break out of our comfort zones and go the poor and marginalized with ever renewed vigor in the work of proclaiming the crucified and risen Lord by living the Gospel in all of its truth, goodness and beauty.