I had the honor last weekend to attend the National Convocation of Catholic Leaders, an unprecedented gathering of diocesan, parish, apostolate, and institutional leaders from around the United States. The Bishops had been planning the convocation for years. Frankly, anticipation would have been high for me… if I had known what to expect. But I’m not sure anyone knew what to expect. A gathering of this kind had not been seen in the American Church in a hundred years. In 1917, a much smaller gathering convened (68 dioceses) to discuss the situation of the Church at the outbreak of World War I. Out of that gathering came an assembly of the bishops, the National Catholic War Council, precursor to our United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.
The Convocation brought together over three thousand Church leaders (160 dioceses), not simply to hear talks and take notes, but to discuss and brainstorm. It was not a conference where the attendees simply listened to their bishops, but a convocation where bishops sat among us and listened with us. We acknowledged the need for new energy and creativity for spreading the Gospel, while agreeing that the ultimate answer to all the problems of the Church and the world today is not a program or a new initiative… but is Jesus Christ.
As Archbishop Wenksi pointed out at the very beginning of the convocation, even disconnected, wounded, or angry Catholics often still identify with the Church. While this can at times seem mysterious, if we really believe the Church is who She says she is, it shouldn’t surprise us. We need a connection to the Body of Christ. But we also know this Body of Christ is wounded, and there is a strong sense today that we are in need of healing. This also means there is a strong need for the joy of the Gospel. So our bishops called us together, knowing that the engagement of the laity was key to moving forward. As someone put it, we should not drown in our sorrows, nor should we rest on our laurels.
Openness of the Bishops to Listen
While I’m still sifting through the experiences of the weekend and organizing my thoughts, when people have asked about my initial takeaway from the gathering, I have to speak about the openness and willingness of the bishops to listen. The most striking thing for me was to see the bishops among us. They were sitting with us at the talks, they were eating with us at meals, they were walking with us in the hallways, and they were listening. We need that. We needed to hear their hopes and desires for us, but we also needed to see them amongst us. It didn’t feel like they were giving us marching orders; it felt like we were acknowledging weaknesses and hopes together, and then working to see what we can do going forward.
Joy, An Infallible Sign of God’s Presence
The theme of the Convocation was the Joy of the Gospel in America, and I later heard criticism from someone not at the Convocation that it was not enough to tell the world you were joyful—that wasn’t going to solve the problems. Well, he is right. Luckily, the Convocation was not just about telling the world were joyful. If he had been there, he would have seen us confronting the issues of the Church (such as how do we better reach out to immigrants, minorities, women, homosexuals, single parents, the disabled, the isolated stay-at-home mothers, the elderly, and those hurt by the people in the Church) and asking the important questions, such as how to continue the work Christ gave us, namely, to form disciples who know him, who are rich in love and holiness, and who are filled with the spirit to spread the Gospel. He would have heard us calling each other to holiness and committing to beginning the work of Christ in our own hearts first.
It was not about announcing to the world that we were joyful, but hopefully it did that as well.
As Leon Bloy said, “Joy is the infallible sign of God’s presence.”
The joy felt throughout the convention center this weekend was not a false show, trying to prove to the world that Catholicism is still vibrant and relevant. It was the joy of Christ, a beautiful repercussion of 3,000 Catholic leaders being told that they are valued, they are loved, and they have work to do. The joy was real. And the needs are real, too.
On Monday night, it was my privilege to stand with people from across this beautiful country and sing with Matt Maher the words of his song, “Because He Lives.” The grace of the Holy Spirit was palpable, as cardinals and young adults, bishops and lay people, married women and religious sisters, Latinos and Vietnamese, stood and sang at the top of their lungs, “Because He lives, I can face tomorrow / Because He lives, every fear is gone / I know He holds my life, my future, in His hands.”
A Movement of Disciples
The Church is alive. And the Church is ready to work.
In 1917, a gathering of Catholic leaders faced the horrors of a world war. Out of that gathering eventually came an assembly of bishops. A hundred years later, that assembly of bishops gathered leaders again. We did not gather because we face the horrors of a world war, but because we are battered and wounded from the culture wars. As a Church we are wounded, but in those wounds we will find, like Thomas, Our Lord and Our God. Our gathering will not give birth to an assembly of bishops—we pray it will give birth to a movement of disciples.