For the past 20 years, Dr. Matthew E. Bunson has been active in the area of Catholic social communications and education, including writing, editing, and teaching on a variety of topics related to Church history, the papacy, the saints and Catholic culture. He is faculty chair at Catholic Distance University, a senior fellow of the St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology, and the author or co-author of over 50 books including: The Encyclopedia of Catholic History, The Pope Encyclopedia, We Have a Pope! Benedict XVI, The Saints Encyclopedia and best-selling biographies of St. Damien of Molokai and St. Kateri Tekakwitha.
Having placed the “Convocation of Catholic Leaders: The Joy of the Gospel in America” under the guidance of the Holy Spirit and under the intercession of Mary, Mother of the New Evangelization on Day One, Day Two of the gathering in Orlando, Florida, began the process of looking more closely at the current situation facing the Church in the United States. Where Day One was given the title of “Unity,” day two looked at “Landscape and Renewal.”
The first full day of plenary and breakout sessions, Day Two provided two general meetings and a remarkable set of breakout panels for smaller groups looking for specialized themes relevant to their pressing pastoral needs. The plenary session, broadcast on EWTN television and streamed by the USCCB, presented several keynote speakers and panelists who are recognized nationally for their expertise.
The convocation planners sought on day two to chart the landscape of the missionary field and then to examine the radical call to missionary discipleship. The first recognized that the United States today must be viewed as mission territory at a time when the country is increasingly post-Christian or more realistically pre-Christian. As Pope Francis notes in Evangelium Gaudium, what is needed at this moment is “evangelical discernment,” and a true commitment to “missionary discipleship” with awareness that every Christian is a missionary to the extent that he or she has encountered the love of God in Christ Jesus. Francis notes, “we no longer say that we are ‘disciples’ and ‘missionaries,’ but rather that we are always ‘missionary disciples.’”
Five Characteristics of the Disciple
The assessment of the missionary field brings with it the demand to be frank and honest. The first plenary, then, relied on sometimes hard findings by brilliant researchers, including keynote speaker Hosffman Ospino, associate professor of Hispanic ministry and religious education at Boston College.
Ospino proclaimed “What a wonderful time to be a Catholic in America,” but he was also straightforward in addressing the challenges facing the Church at this moment in history. He lamented the reality that 14 million Hispanics – mainly young and born in the U.S. – do not identify with the Church, that growing individualism is threatening communal worship and that churches are closing around the country even as the Catholic population grows.
His solution, anticipating the second plenary session of the day, is for Catholics to declare themselves in a permanent state of mission and that we must be missionary disciples going out to the peripheries. This is, however, a special time for Catholics. “What kind of community of faith will our children and grandchildren inherit,” he asked.
The call to missionary discipleship was taken up by the afternoon speakers, with a keynote delivered by Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington. Meditating on key themes in Evangelii Gaudium, Wuerl urged the several thousand attendees to “take that good news and simply live.” It is a living invitation, he said, to make Jesus present in our lives, within a context in which the situation is always changing, but the message does not. The Washington archbishop then described five characteristics of the evangelizing disciple: Boldness, connectedness, urgency, compassion and joy.
In the breakout sessions, panels of experts on a variety of topics explored the current landscape and missionary field more deeply. More than 22 panels covered the most pressing topics of era, such as the current political climate; the rise of the “nones”; social media and digital media; singleness in the Church; the “throwaway culture”; the impact of immigration; the state of the family and human sexuality; racism and exclusion; and the state of the Catholic parish.
Where the plenary sessions were broadcast, the breakout sessions were not, to permit the participants – both panelists and attendees – to speak freely in sharing their experiences. The breakout sessions on Day Two, while programmed carefully, proved more intentionally free to allow space for the speakers to grapple with the challenges and opportunities facing American Catholicism.
A Life of Its Own
The hope of the bishops and the organizers of the convocation was that this event would truly be a time of listening and encounter, when everyone gathered in Orlando would embrace the chance to share their own perspective, in the plenary sessions, in the breakout sessions, and in the conversations, meals and in the chance meetings with others.
Events under the best of circumstances can take on a life of their own and surprise its own organizers. It remains to be determined whether the U.S. bishops who have placed so much effort into the convocation have been surprised. Nevertheless, several notable features began to assert themselves in Day Two.
First, the participants from across the entire U.S. Church arrived in Orlando with a serious commitment to listen, learn, pray and reflect on the state of affairs in American Catholicism and culture and to embrace the aspirations of Pope Francis’ exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium. The plenary sessions and especially the breakouts revealed a level of engagement that will bear potentially great fruit as the convocation finishes its work over the next two days.
Second, the breakouts demonstrated something important about the state of American Catholic life. There are nearly 4,000 Catholic leaders in attendance, from every possible background, serving in a vast tapestry of ministry and service. They bring a rich treasury of talents and expertise, and their skills, training and zeal will be needed in the years to come.
Finally, there is a universal sense in the halls and sessions that something important might come from this, equal to the challenges facing the country and especially the Church. The list of crises and problems is very long, but the joy of the Gospel is also very real among the participants. And there is a sense of the historical nature of the gathering. As Dr. Ospina noted in his keynote, “We are here at this convocation to set the course for what can be a new Catholic moment in the United States.”
Tomorrow, the participants will focus on “Work and Witness,” with a Eucharistic Procession and sessions on a Church that goes forth and to the peripheries.
(Addie Mena, of the Catholic News Agency, contributed to this story.)