WASHINGTON — The U.S. Catholic bishops are convening a massive convocation of Catholic diocesan, parish and lay leaders of organizations, apostolates and movements all over the country for a strategic conversation that responds to Pope Francis’ challenge for the Church to form intentional missionary disciples.

The “Convocation of Catholic Leaders: The Joy of the Gospel in America” is an unprecedented, one-time gathering to discuss evangelization in the life of the U.S. Church.

In this interview with Register staff writer Peter Jesserer Smith, Jonathan Reyes, executive director of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Department of Justice, Peace and Human Development, explains how the convocation aims to create a national conversation that will energize Catholic leaders to help the local Church go forth boldly and respond confidently to the concerns, challenges and opportunities of modernity with the perennial joy of the Gospel. 

 

How did the idea for the upcoming convocation for Catholic leaders come about?

This is massive and unprecedented. I’m very excited, and so are the people I’ve talked to, which helps a ton. It’s been in the planning for over seven years — the notion of getting Catholics together started as an idea with my predecessor in the [USCCB Department of Justice, Peace and Human Development and the] pro-life office.

But it basically evolved, and became what it is today, with Pope Francis. Evangelii Gaudium (The Joy of the Gospel) was the sort of key moment, with this sense that the Church, facing the challenges of the age, was just called to missionary discipleship, encountering Christ, and [the need] to try to do something that was never done before — at least that we know of — of having the bishops call together specific leaders and say, “What do we do next?”

 

So Evangelii Gaudium was the real catalyzing event for this?

Very much the catalyzing event for this. The renewed call in Paragraph 3, where [Pope Francis] calls everyone to a renewed encounter with Jesus Christ … lays out this beautiful vision of evangelization, picking up on the themes of John Paul and Benedict XVI in so many ways. So it just seemed like a moment for the Church to really step up.    

 

What is the overarching goal of this unprecedented convocation?

To bring together Catholic leaders to talk about what it means to be missionary disciples right now and to act on it. Here’s what we’re finding: We have just been stunned by the number of apostolates, missions, ministries and services there are in this country that are all over the place — at the diocesan level, at the parish level, at the national level — and they are all doing good things.

They are all asking the right questions in their own different way, but they’ve never been together in the same room.

And we thought the bishops can call them all together for a moment of national unity — we need unity in a deep way, in both the Church and the wider culture — for a moment of confidence in the Gospel, to set out in the deep, and to just be called to be missionary disciples. And so we said: Let’s bring them all together. We’re talking people from everywhere — people who are working in inner cities, people who are running universities, people who are very successful as business people in supporting things, people who are working on the borders — I mean these people have never been in the same space, and we thought now is the time for that.

The framework is: What are the challenges we face? What does it mean to be missionary disciples in the midst of it? How do we go to the peripheries? And then action, action, action.

So we have a participant guidebook and journal; we’ve got takeaways; we’ve got things designed around best practices. We’ve designed a program where people who are in the country doing similar things are all going to be in the same space together.

 

Who are the people participating in this event?

There are roughly two ways people get invited to this — it’s an invite-only event — and the first is as a diocesan delegation. We’re up to 160 participating dioceses, which is pretty much all but a few. So the bishops themselves have identified who in their dioceses are sort of on the cutting edge of missionary discipleship in whatever area. They come as a group, and they will experience the convocation as a delegation.

The whole point is that whatever you get from this comes back home — whoever you meet, whatever contacts, whatever you bring back, whatever synergy — you bring it back to the diocese. This is about the renewal of our dioceses, our parishes, etc.

That is the key way, and we’ve got hundreds of delegations led by bishops coming to work with their people.

Then we’ve got organizations, national organizations or apostolates, ecclesial movements: We’ve reached out to them, and more and more emerge every day.

And so, we are just adding until we’re full, because we don’t want to miss any organizations.

It’s been a massive surprise of how many amazing things are going on.

And then there will also be some observers from overseas or different places. Because what Pope Francis actually called for was that the national Churches call together meetings to reflect on Evangelii Gaudium. And as far as I know — I’m not positive — I think we’re the first country doing it. And it is a direct response to him.

 

So the idea is to get the convocation’s synergy down to the local level. How do people committed to missionary discipleship, who aren’t at the convocation, tap into the fruits of what happens there?

The whole thing is televised — we’re partnering with EWTN — so all the plenary sessions and all the prayer together, a night of Marian devotion, a procession for the “Fortnight for Freedom,” a night of Jesus as healer [a reconciliation and healing service] … all that is going to be televised. Key pieces of content will be available to people, and they will be running commentary on it.

Then part of what the training will be at the end [for participants] is how you take this back to your dioceses.

The last day, one of the speakers is Patrick Lencioni, who has sold millions of books on leadership, such as Five Dysfunctions of a Team, and is a committed Catholic. This is precisely what he’ll be addressing: How do you take this home?

He’s one of the best of the best, and he gets paid lots of money by the top Fortune 500 firms to come in and assist with their planning and leadership. And that’s why he’s on the last day: implementation, implementation.

 

You have all these breakout sessions that cover a massive variety of topics. But there’s only so much manpower a delegation has. If a person is not there, how does he get information from that discussion?

We don’t have a plan for that, and that’s on purpose.

Because we want to make sure that these breakout sessions — and we told people there won’t be a public record of them — are an open and honest conversation. They’re meant to be a place to get work done, so people can honestly say, “How do we get the ball moving on this? Where are we failing? Where are we advancing?” We want those to be frank, open conversations among experts, who are hopefully becoming friends somehow, or at least becoming brothers and sisters in Christ in a deeper way through this experience.

So we’re encouraging delegations, “Break up your team and go represent” — if you have 10 people, get to 10 breakouts. And bring that back. That’s what we’re encouraging people to do.

 

Will the convocation be a one-time or recurring event?

This is just a one-timer. There’s just a sense of a particular moment, and hopefully [we can] turn this meeting into action, action, action.

One of the great emphases of Evangelii Gaudium is: Let’s turn our conversations into action. People are already doing that, so [the convocation] is just a way of consolidating synergy and getting people in touch with one another, and just being better at what we do, because we’re doing it together.

 

Do you think there has been too much analysis and not enough action?

I think a lot of national conversation can be analysis heavy. What I would actually say is that the sociology is not the actual story. That’s been the big lesson for me. We see the studies of Mass attendance and the rise of the “Nones,” and we think that is the whole story. But my whole point is that is not the whole story at all. There are amazing things going on, but they’re not above the radar, and they’re not in one place. So they haven’t been counted. That’s the difference. So I wonder if there isn’t a heck of a lot more people in action than I ever imagined.

But I do think we have some very good analysis. I don’t think we need a ton more energy worrying about modernity and things like that, because we have a great deal of great reflection on that — very sophisticated stuff; that’s what I did as a college professor for many years. I just think we want to multiply our efforts and get better at it.

 

We have a lot of different homegrown models or examples of holiness in North America that bishops have proposed for sainthood. But it is almost as if each cause is stuck in its own silo of awareness. Does making people more aware of these holy lives fit into the convocation’s process?

I would think so. I’m not speaking now for a bishop — I’m speaking as one of the key planners behind this — but the Church follows her saints. That’s who she follows in every age.

And the Lord gives the saints for the times in which they are needed. So I think seeing the diverse models of sanctity at this moment is precisely about leading the Church. That’s always how we go. When we wonder where the Church is going, [the saints are] who we look to.

Sociology isn’t our destiny — the saints are our destiny for where the Church is going.

 

Does this convocation represent a shift in our approach to evangelization?

I don’t think “shift” is the right word. This is how I would phrase it: It’s about invigorating the apostolic view of the world.

What do I mean by that? The story I tell is: Can you imagine 12 disciples in an Upper Room with Our Lady being told that they are supposed to evangelize the entire world? And they’ve got nothing. They don’t have any schools; they don’t have any built parishes; they’ve got 12 bishops; they’ve got nothing in the bank — no political help or clout, no cultural easy ways in; they don’t have anything. And their whole attitude is: “Okay, this is our mission. Let’s go!”

They went straight to the centers of power and to the peripheries: They went to where the people were, and they went to where there was suffering, fearlessly.

This is about recovering the apostolic spirit, as opposed to [being] in a time when your culture is genuinely Christian and things are going well, [when] you tend to get into a mode of caring for the Church as it is. This is about strengthening apostolic confidence and apostolic vision, and it’s out there. So part of the way of strengthening it is to bring it together.

 

What do you hope will result from this convocation ultimately?

My hope personally — just for me, and not speaking for the bishops — is that five years from now we can point to this moment and say that those hundreds and thousands of growing things out there, that are now above the radar and that are doing amazing things, were fed at this. And that one of the fruits [is that] the things that were under the surface are above the surface, and there are more of them: apostolates and ministries.

The bishops — one thing they stress over and over again is confidence and unity. I want to see unity out of this, and I want to see confidence in boldly proclaiming and living the Gospel.

 

Editor's Note: This is a longer version of the June 11, 2017, issue In Person.