Thoughts on a historic gathering

By Greg Erlandson

(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, Florida.

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 Archbishop 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

This cross-fertilization
of ministries may have been one of the great opportunities of the convocation,
a breaking apart of the silos 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


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