More than 3,500 Catholics from across the United States arrived in Orlando, Florida, for the first day of the “Convocation of Catholic Leaders: The Joy of the Gospel in America,” the first ever gathering of Catholic leaders who help guide the Church in the United States in dioceses, apostolates and communities.

The literally unprecedented and invitation only gathering, being held from July 1-4, is a direct response to Pope Francis’ 2013 apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium (“The Joy of the Gospel”) and is intended to equip the Church in the U.S. for a new era of evangelization in the 21st century.

The attendees will spend three days in prayer and discussion, hearing from a series of plenary speakers and then using a large number of breakout panels to engage fully in the host of opportunities and challenges facing American Catholicism.


A renewal of Joy is Essential

The tone of the convocation was set by the Opening Mass of the Holy Spirit, “Unity, Joy, and Evangelical Discernment,” celebrated by Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York who declared in his homily that this “a ripe moment to welcome and acknowledge even more the name Jesus Christ.” The Cardinal was joined by nearly 75 bishops and the energized and enthusiastic attendees. He urged them to embrace the central themes of the convocation: discipleship, unity, joy and mission, adding that we must find “a model for those four magnificent virtues” and that “a renewal of joy is essential for the Church at this moment in history.”

The first day was concluded with evening devotion dedicated to Mary, Mother of Evangelization, with the prayer led by Archbishop Gustavo Garcia-Siller, MSpS, of San Antonio and Bishop Martin Holley of Memphis. It was an intense devotion, placing the convocation under the intercession of the Blessed Mary.

The next few days will follow a pattern of plenary sessions and breakout panels, punctuated by Masses and prayer. On Monday, July 3, Archbishop William Lori of Baltimore will lead a Eucharistic Procession to remind the participants to give witness to the world, and to be a “a Church that goes forth.” That night, Archbishop Lori will also be the celebrant in a Mass bringing to a close the Fortnight for Freedom which calls on Catholics to remain engaged in the struggle to maintain our religious freedom at a time when faith is being pushed out of the public square.


An Unprecedented Event

The Convocation of Catholic Leaders comes at a time of immense division and spiritual crisis in the country, and it requires the full commitment of the resources, leadership, vision and joy-filled zeal of all Catholics.  And while this has never actually been attempted before, the moment comes on the 100th anniversary of another singular Catholic moment.

Almost exactly 100 years ago, in August of 1917, Catholics from 68 dioceses and 27 national Catholic organizations assembled in Washington D.C. to craft a strategy for the Church in the country at another moment of crisis: America’s entry into the global conflagration of World War I.  More than the specific response to the war, the gathering led to the National Catholic War Council (NCWC), the predecessor of the modern United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.

As the USCCB has stressed in the lead-up to the convocation, there is a significant sense of continuity between the 1917 event and today, especially in the way that the 27 national Catholic organizations at that gathering are still around in some form or another and are part of the 2017 convocation, including the Knights of Columbus, St. Vincent de Paul Society, Catholic Charities and Catholic Communications Campaign.

A century on from the birth of the NCWC, Catholics can look with some pride at the growth of American Catholicism. The convocation brings together representatives of 160 dioceses and 185 national Catholic organizations. There are 155 cardinals, archbishops and bishops, 125 deacons, 330 priests, 175 women religious and 10 religious brothers.


Repeating History

But the pertinent question is whether the same spirit of zeal and energy can be harnessed today to the same remarkable effect as 1917. America’s Catholics were barely a decade removed from the 1908 declaration by Pope St. Pius X, in Sapienti Consilio, that the dioceses of the United States should no longer be listed as mission territory.  

To be sure, Catholics faced severe tests, including rampant anti-Catholicism and struggles to welcome, assimilate and provide pastoral care to the immigrant tide that while having been slowed by U.S. immigration laws still represented a massive increase to the Catholic population. In the decades that followed, however, Catholicism in America enjoyed a period of numeric and institutional growth that remains unmatched in the storied history of the faith in this country.

Today, American Catholics encounter anti-Catholicism and similar tests of assimilation and pastoral care for the booming immigrant population. But there are also problems and crises of materialism and secularization, the steady encroachment on religious freedom and a collapse of a baseline understanding of what it means to work for the common good.

In a recent interview with the Register, Jonathan Reyes, executive director of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Department of Justice, Peace and Human Development and one of the key organizers  of the convocation, spoke about the expectations and hopes for the gathering:

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 stakes for the Church in the country and for the nation are immense. The convocation will strive to equip Catholic leaders with tools, knowledge and a common purpose to meet the next years with confidence but even more with the joy of true missionary disciples. The convocation is the chance for all of them to talk, share ideas, network and pray together. What follows, the bishops hope, will be a time of apostolic zeal equal to the crises. “This is about recovering the apostolic spirit,” Reyes said, “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.”

The next few days will be both intense and most illuminating.