Unprecedented Gathering of US Church Will Discuss Evangelization

July 1-4 event aims to put into action Pope Francis’ Evangelii Gaudium.

St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York City.
St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York City. (photo: Rolf E. Staerk/Shutterstock)

ORLANDO, Fla. — The Catholic bishops in the United States want to form a Church of missionary disciples on fire to spread the joy of the Gospel to their communities.

For that purpose, they are convening the “Convocation of Catholic Leaders: The Joy of the Gospel in America.”

To be held July 1-4 in Orlando, Florida, it will be a gathering of thousands of Catholic leaders working in dioceses, apostolates and movements across the country.

This appears to be the first national-scale response anywhere to Pope Francis’ 2013 apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium (The Joy of the Gospel), where he asked the faithful “to embark upon a new chapter of evangelization marked by this joy.”

Having the U.S. bishops bring together Catholic leaders from all U.S. states and territories into a single meeting place to discuss evangelization has no precedent in the life of the Catholic Church in the United States.

The convocation also reflects the social genius of the Catholic Church in a unique way, by using the principles of solidarity and subsidiarity. Although the U.S. Catholic bishops have convoked this gathering of Catholic leaders from across the U.S. and its territories to promote unity in proclaiming the Gospel, all the participants are there to learn from the experiences and insights of Catholic leaders in more than 300 organizations that are trying to spread the Gospel at the local level.

Jonathan Reyes, executive director of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Department of Justice, Peace and Human Development, told the Register that the event seeks to strengthen the “apostolic vision” of the Church by bringing its leadership together for this one-time event.

The idea of the convocation originated in the U.S. bishops’ Secretariat of Pro-Life Activities and the Department of Justice, Peace, and Human Development and has been in the making for more than seven years, Reyes explained. However, Pope Francis’ Evangelii Gaudium provided the needed push to put this plan into action.

Evangelii Gaudium 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,” he said.

“It just seemed like a moment for the Church to really step up.”


Who’s Invited

The convocation is by invitation only. All the U.S. Catholic bishops have chosen Catholic leaders for their diocesan delegations.

Approximately 160 out of 197 dioceses, eparchies and ordinariates are sending delegations, with an average of 10 delegates accompanying their bishop. The Archdiocese of Cincinnati is sending the most delegates, 52 persons, while the eight delegates for the Romanian Catholic Eparchy of St. George’s in Canton, Ohio, represent the greatest ratio of delegates proportional to flock size. With its 6,200 Catholics, that’s one delegate for every 775 Catholics.

The USCCB also disbursed more than $500,000 in scholarships to make sure the personal and geographic diversity of the Church, along with insights and contributions, was represented, including African-American and Native-American Catholics, low-income attendees and “Catholic Home Missions” dioceses. 

Some attendees are coming from as far away as the Marshall Islands in the Pacific.

The USCCB has also invited more than 160 Catholic organizations, covering a wide variety of Catholic-led ministries, apostolates and movements, dedicated to advancing the mission of the Church, Reyes said.

The convocation features 66 breakout sessions, covering a wide variety of themes in the Church. Reyes said the sessions are off the record, so people in the Church can have a frank and open conversation about where the Church is advancing and failing and how to create effectively a Church of missionary disciples.

Each delegation will have to strategically choose which breakout sessions its members wish to attend over the three days. However, the convocation will provide plenty of opportunities for networking to establish relationships with other Catholic leaders to continue gathering ideas and strategizing how to put them into action.

All the public events — such as the public presentations, Mass and prayer services — will be televised with commentary on EWTN, the Register’s parent company, so Catholics at home can experience part of the event.

Diocesan and organizational delegations will then have the task of disseminating the fruits of what they’ve acquired to the local parish and community level.

Sherry Weddell, author of Forming Intentional Disciples and a convocation presenter, told the Register that the real opportunity for the conference will be networking.

Delegates will not be going to find “silver bullets,” because each of their circumstances is different. But the breakout sessions and presentations will help start ideas and get the conversation going, meaning the real work — putting conversation into action — will be after the gathering. The convocation itself represents a real change in the U.S. Church she has seen gaining steam recently — going from a maintenance to a missionary attitude.

Evangelii Gaudium, she said, built on the call for missionary disciples honed by Blessed Paul VI, St. John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI, and the majority of the bishops have taken it to heart.

“The conversation has changed so dramatically in the last five years,” said Weddell.


Dioceses Engaged

The delegation from the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, one of the main sponsors of the convocation, has been preparing for the event by studying Evangelii Gaudium together.

Kathleen Buckley Domingo, associate director of the diocesan Office of Life, Justice and Peace, told the Register they have drawn their delegation from Catholics in the chancery, parishes and other organizations that reflect the diversity of Catholic ministries in L.A. — such as pro-life, homeless and immigration ministries — but also from different ages, socioeconomic backgrounds and cultures.

Domingo said they are looking forward to learning “new ideas and new approaches” from others on evangelization, since they have to fight a wide variety of attacks on human life and dignity.

At the same time, she said the archdiocese hopes to contribute its own experience of how having people engaged in life, justice and peace-building, “united for the glory of God,” can deliver a more effective witness.

The Diocese of Las Vegas is just 20 years old, but Connie Clough, director of faith formation, said they look forward to learning from similarly situated Catholic dioceses and eparchies about how they have effectively used their size and resources to proclaim the Gospel.

Clough said they are looking forward to learning the perspective of the Eastern Churches — delegations are coming from the Ruthenian, Ukrainian, Romanian, Melkite, Maronite, Syro-Malabar and Armenian Catholic eparchies in the U.S.

Las Vegas’ largest parish has 8,000 families, and its smallest missions have 25 families. But Clough thinks they will bring back new knowledge and networked contacts from the convocation and also a model for collaboration and learning between the diocese’s parishes and Catholic organizations.

The Archdiocese of New York has drawn its delegation from chancery staff, but also a “broad swath” of religious and lay Catholics involved in ministries in the field, according to Daniel Frascella, the archdiocese’s director of adult faith formation.

New York is known for its rich cultural and ethnic diversity, and Frascella said the archdiocese wants to see what “best practices” it can learn from others on how to communicate the Gospel in these different contexts, since their parishes also include rural, suburban and urban communities.

Frascella said the archdiocese is working on a plan to reconvene their 40 delegates after the convocation, discuss their takeaways, and consider how they can implement them practically in their ministries for the local Church.

Jaime Maldonado, a Connecticut seminarian with the Archdiocese of Hartford’s delegation, told the Register he is looking forward to learning how to engage more effectively with the “Nones” — the large segment of the U.S. population that no longer identifies as Christian — particularly millennials. Maldonado, 38, who has a scientific background — before seminary, he was a neuroscientist at Yale — said many times he was asked during his postdoctoral fellowship how he could believe in God and be a scientist.

Maldonado admitted his answers at the time were “not eloquent,” and he looks forward to learning from others in the breakout sessions about how the Church can provide a better witness in this area. It is critical for reaching out to millennials, many of whom seem to have the view that science and faith are incompatible.

“If you have a strong faith, you want to proclaim it,” Maldonado said. “Science is a tool, and we should know how to use it.”


Telling the Church’s Story

The “Convocation of Catholic Leaders” provides an excellent opportunity to get the Church in alignment for the challenge of proclaiming the Gospel in the 21st century, according to Curtis Martin, founder and CEO of the Fellowship of Catholic University Students (FOCUS).

Martin will be delivering two presentations about the “radical call to missionary discipleship” and about “engaging the Nones.”

But Martin said the Church needs to recover its own story, particularly in how the Church has been successful in communicating through the culture in order to proclaim the Gospel and raise up a generation of disciples on fire for Jesus Christ — Christians who understood that their faith required a “completely radical response to the most radical event of human history.” Martin pointed to the Jesuit missionaries of North America, who learned the language and culture of the Native peoples and helped them spread the Gospel.

In fact, St. John Paul II, in a 1984 address in Canada, called those early 17th-century Jesuit missions — which successfully raised up a set of native martyrs, saints and confessors still waiting for wider recognition in the Church — “an inspiration [for the Church] as we look to the future.”

He pointed to the Huron martyr Joseph Chiwatenhwa and his wife, Marie Aonetta, who dedicated themselves to raising a family of saints and took the initiative as lay Catholics to spread the Gospel, supported by St. Jean de Brébeuf and the other Jesuit priests.

St. John Paul II explained how Joseph and Marie of North America and their family members “witnessed to their faith in a heroic manner” and “provide even today eloquent models for lay ministry.”

This power that comes from a radical commitment to be disciples of Jesus “needs to be unleashed back into the Church, back into the lives of those of us practicing our faith, so we can share that with others,” Martin said. “Jesus is not looking for half-measures; he’s looking for people who are all in.”

The witness of the Coptic martyrs in Egypt, who recently gave their lives for their faith, drove home for Martin the importance of cultivating this kind of discipleship.

“Let’s hope that it doesn’t require martyrdom, but at least the energy that it would take to be martyrs is what we’re hoping for,” he said. “And if God calls us to martyrdom, at least the grace to be faithful.”


Peter Jesserer Smith is a Register staff writer.

This story was updated at 9:30am Eastern June 8, 2017.


Public portions of the event will be broadcast on EWTN and livestreamed online. Go to event.registerat.com/site/USCCB/Program.aspx.