Convocation of Catholic leaders

In the fall of 2013 Pope Francis issued the Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium to the bishops, consecrated persons and the lay faithful urging us all to proclaim the Gospel in the world. Pope Francis left it up to the bishops of the world to discern the needs of their own regions and to come up with a strategy to rekindle the fire of missionary discipleship that launched the Church at Pentecost.

As the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops stated, “More than five years ago, the full body of bishops in the United States called for a National Convocation that would convene, challenge, and motivate Catholic leaders to embrace the full vision of what it means to be Catholic and fully engage in the Church’s mission of evangelization and to proclaim the Church’s vision of the human person.”

After four years of planning, more than 150 bishops gathered together a variety of leaders from all aspects of the Church to renew our commitment to evangelization, and to re-energize the Church in the United States. On July 1 a delegation of 16 people from the Diocese of Fall River boarded a jet to Orlando, Fla. to accompany Bishop Edgar M. da Cunha, S.D.V., to the Convocation of Catholic Leaders: The Joy of the Gospel in America.

The goal of the Convocation of Catholic Leaders was to equip and energize Catholic leaders to spread the Gospel with joy, and also to engage in strategic conversation with our counterparts from across the country. The next step for this delegation is to bring back to the Diocese of Fall River fresh insights from research and others’ experiences and bring these tools, resources and renewed inspiration to the people in our parishes. It was evident that this gathering breathed the fire of Pope Francis’ determination to re-ignite the missionary ardor that the Church desperately needs today. The bishops who convened this gathering of more than 3,500 people made it clear that the joy of the Gospel is to be the blueprint for a renewal in the Church.

The delegation from Fall River was representative of the overall make-up of participants. Bishop da Cunha brought together parish and diocesan leaders, young adults, Latino, Pro-Life, Faith Formation, campus ministry, and social justice advocates. The diversity of the group allowed for a rich perspective that created a very effective diocesan team, and reflected the face of the Church in America.

Pope Francis exhorts us to bring the Gospel out to the peripheries to reach those people on the margins — not just of the Church, but of the world. This was the unifying theme that resonated throughout the four days of this extraordinary gathering. To be effective missionaries, it is important that participants understand the landscape of the United States and the people whom we are trying to reach. 

Boston College theologian Dr. Hoffsman Ospino presented a clear picture of this mission territory that lies right outside our doors. Though his talk was replete with statistics, his purpose was not to present sociological analysis, but to engage us in evangelical discernment. The Church is growing exponentially in the southern and southwestern regions, and contracting in the north and Midwest. In the coming years the Church will be 71 percent Hispanic, and 60 percent of this group will be under the age of 18. This is our Church, not the periphery, and unless we are fully engaged with our Hispanic brothers and sisters we will be ill-equipped to bring the Gospel to the margins. And yes, the marginalized is our mission. If there is one surprise that came from the convocation it was the focus on being a Church that is poor for the poor, not a Church that is desperate to keep seats in the pews just for the sake of numbers at Mass. The Church needs missionaries in the pews, not space holders.

Engaging missionaries for the sake of the Gospel is going to require innovative approaches to bring in the young adults who will carry the Church into the spaces where the marginalized are not being reached. We can no longer have an “us and them” mentality where we create a fortress in our own silos and stand ground against change. Pope Francis summarized his manifesto for reform when he stated, “We are not living an era of change but a change of era.” 

He went on to say, “Before the problems of the Church it is not useful to search for solutions in conservatism or fundamentalism, in the restoration of obsolete conduct and forms that no longer have the capacity of being significant culturally. Christian doctrine is not a closed system incapable of generating questions, doubts, interrogatives — but is alive, knows being unsettled, enlivened,” said the pope. “It has a face that is not rigid, it has a body that moves and grows; it has a soft flesh: it is called Jesus Christ.”

The capstone to the convocation was given by the papal nuncio to the United States, Archbishop Christophe Pierre. Quoting the head of the movement Communion and Liberation, he made the bold claim, “If you don’t think Francis is the cure, you don’t grasp the disease.” Pope Francis reminds us to “graft ourselves and root ourselves in Christ,” and allow the Holy Spirit to guide us so that “all will be possible with genius and creativity.” Our diocese needs all of our shared genius and creativity to bring about the renewal of the Church.

Anchor columnist Claire McManus is the director of the Diocesan Office of Faith Formation. 

© 2019 The Anchor and Anchor Publishing    †    Fall River, Massachusetts