In an unprecedented gathering over the July 4th weekend, about 3,000 Catholic leaders in the United States were schooled in what it means to be missionary disciples in the world today.
The theme of the meeting and the inspiration for the content came from the words of Pope Francis in his encyclical The Joy of the Gospel (Evangelii Gaudium):
“I dream of a ‘missionary option,’ that is, a missionary impulse capable of transforming everything so that the Church's customs, ways of doing things, times and schedules, language and structures can be suitably channeled for the evangelization of today's world rather than for her self-preservation.” (Evangelii Gaudium 27)
Delegates to the Convocation of Catholic Leaders in Orlando began by looking at the history of the Church in America and how the world has changed during the past 50 years.
Society has moved from the relative religious “stability” of the mid-20th century to an explosion of those who now profess to have no religious affiliation. Along with the growth of secularization has come the loss of the priority to worship together. And the cultural wars have creeped into the Church in a matter that stifles dialogue and diminished respect for others.
The response proposed at the Convocation is a radical call to missionary discipleship. This entails both an interior holiness and the evangelization of the world – beginning with our own relationships in the Church.
Cardinal Donald Wuerl from the Archdiocese of Washington, DC, gave the outline of what a missionary disciple looks like: Speak the Gospel with boldness and courage; stay connected to the Church and understand Her teachings; have a sense of urgency; always demonstrate compassion and mercy; and, finally, be joyful.
Speaker after speaker emphasized the need for a strong interior spirituality that must “go forth” to the peripheries – including threats to life and dignity as well as spiritual poverty.
As Archbishop José Gomez of Los Angeles urged the crowd, “Jesus told us that if we love him, then we will go out and serve him — in the homeless and the immigrant; in the sick and the suffering; in the child in the womb waiting to be born; in the prisoner hoping for a second chance.”
In addition to inspiring plenary sessions, dozens of breakout sessions addressed specific problems in society such as our throw-away culture, violence in our communities and threats to religious liberty. Other sessions explored practical solutions such as improving parish life and reaching out to youth and the elderly. California Catholic Conference staff took part in one session on ministry to the incarcerated.
The Convocation culminated in a “planning session” by diocesan teams to examine how missionary discipleship will be infused in ministries throughout the Church. Expect to hear much more about the concept in the months and years ahead.