A very unique and significant event for the Catholic Church in the United States occurred in Orlando, Florida, from July 1 through July 4. It was the Convocation of Catholic Leaders: The Joy of the Gospel in America – a gathering of Catholic leaders, including bishops, priests, religious and laity from all over the country, to reflect upon Pope Francis’ Apostolic Exhortation, The Joy of the Gospel, his call to embark upon a new chapter of evangelization marked by this joy of the Gospel. About 3,500 Catholics were present for the Convocation which included about 170 bishops and 350 priests from over 80% of the dioceses in the United States. The group returned to their home dioceses having examined the concerns, challenges and opportunities of today in light of the Church's mission and eager to engage their faith communities with the joy of the Gospel. It was the first time the bishops of our country have called together Catholic leaders to engage in such a manner and to reflect upon the teaching ministry of the Pope. It truly was a significant event and if the word "success” could be used for such an evangelical occasion, the Convocation was much more than that!
The Diocese of Palm Beach was well represented at the Convocation. Each Bishop in the country was directed to choose key leaders from his diocese who could enter into the program of the Convocation in view of formulating a vision for the diocese based on Pope Francis’ emphasis on evangelization and especially in regard to those who are on the periphery. Our representation included Mrs. Sheila Gomez, Director of Catholic Charities, Mrs. Cathy Loh, Director of Marriage and Family Life, Deacon Lester Loh, Cathy's husband who represented our deacons, Ms. Dianne Laubert, Director of Communications, Mr. Gary Gelo, Superintendent of Catholic Schools, Mr. Anthony Marchica, Director of Catechesis, Youth, Young Adults and RCIA, and Mr. Brian Doyle, Director of Development. All of our participants entered into the dialogue of the Convocation in a spirit that made very evident the faith and commitment to the Church which is so integral to our diocesan staff and faith community.
I was extremely pleased that our Diocesan discussions on the material for the Convocation demonstrated that our Diocesan vision is much in keeping with the spirit of The Joy of the Gospel and the vision of Pope Francis. Our Catholic Charities outreach continually seeks to serve the most vulnerable from the unborn child in a mother's womb to the elderly among us. Our outreach to the immigrants and migrant population of our Diocese is a priority for Catholic Charities, especially at the present time. Our Schools Office has undertaken new advances in ensuring the life of our Catholic schools even with a very important alliance with Notre Dame University. Our Marriage and Family Life Ministry continues to affirm the importance of family life in our present cultural context so much in need of the values of marriage and the family. In fact, one of the most impressive panelists of the Convocation, Mr. Damien Owens, had already been engaged by our Diocese to lead a new program emphasizing family life, of which more will be forthcoming in September. Our outreach to young people and young adults always looks to new initiatives to engage this most important part of our Diocese. Mr. Curtis Martin, another impressive panelist at the Convocation, is the Director of FOCUS, the team of young people reaching out to college students at campus life. FOCUS has already been engaged at Florida Atlantic University within our Diocese. These are but some of the outreaches which have been undertaken within our Diocese and continue to receive strength from the impetus given by the Convocation. We are so blessed by the Catholic lay leaders within our Diocese!
Also present at the Convocation were some of our fine seminarians. Deacon Daniel Daza-Jaller, Marc Gustinelli, Nicholas Zrallack and Maxwell Villwock participated in all of the sessions. They were a significant assist to us as they also took care of many of the needs of the Convocation including the welcoming of people and affording excellent liturgical assistance at the Masses and prayer services. Many commented so positively on the presence and assistance of our seminarians. This is a great blessing for our Diocese and for its future as we look to ordain the best priests that we can. I am deeply grateful to our seminarians for their presence and for their assistance.
The Convocation came about through the decision of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops five years ago in the context of the reformulation of the priorities and plans of the bishops. This unique calling together of the Catholic leaders of our country with their bishops present among them to lead a gathering was a new venture and challenge. I must admit that I was somewhat skeptical of the formation of such an ambitious agenda and less inclined to believe that we could get so many Catholics to attend. I was also skeptical regarding the limitations of the meeting being in the summer and in Orlando during the week of July 4. My skepticism was completely unfounded! The planning of the Convocation was so well done and also so intricate on the part of the staff of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. With so many speakers, panelists, presentations and liturgical functions, it was simply incredible how smoothly the days of the Convocation proceeded. It was also a very busy schedule, running from 8:30 in the morning until well after 9:30 in the evening. Nevertheless, everything went so smoothly and the turnout of the gathering was extraordinary.
One of the aspects of the Convocation that truly was an inspiration for me was the joy that was so present among all of the participants. The Convocation was meant to emphasize the joy of the Gospel, but that joy came with the wonderful Catholics who were present. Despite the packed schedule, every event was fully attended and the spirit that was present was one of great faith. The liturgical celebrations, especially that of the Mass, had a sense of tremendous devotion which is what the hallmark of the Church is all about. The devotion to the Presence of Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament definitely marked this event as a Catholic one. If one wanted to know what the Church is all about, one only had to be present during this unique Convocation. No one complained that there was too much to do, things went too long or that it was too hot of humid. The spirit was much in keeping with a new sign which is on the Pope’s door, "Complaining not allowed." It seemed as though you could not give the participants too much to do or of which to be part. The Convocation was a positive, joy filled and faith inspiring event. I came away from the event very pleased and proud to be a Catholic and very confident in the leaders of our Church, both the clergy and the laity, who give us great hope for the future as well as for the present.
One thing that became evident to me, which we discussed at our Diocesan gathering, is that while we gathered to reach out to those within our Church and in our society who are on the periphery, the Church certainly is becoming part of that periphery. I was surprised, during the Convocation and after it, as to how little media attention it received. During the Convocation and before it, a great deal of media attention was given to negative and sensational events in the life of the Church, perhaps over emphasizing them and swaying opinion in their regard. However, the Convocation, a very positive, powerful and unprecedented Catholic event within our country, emphasizing the faith and vitality of the People of God, was not given what I consider sufficient attention. The Church is being pushed to the periphery within our current culture and, unfortunately, for many of its central beliefs such as the dignity of life, the God-given aspect of family, the indissolubility of marriage and many other truths. The Convocation emphasized how we must live these truths but always with understanding, compassion, mercy and openness to others as well as to ourselves. Nevertheless, the teaching of the Church seems to be pushed to the periphery and the lack of attention given to the Convocation is indicative of this.
The Catholic Church is very much alive. That was so evident during the joyful days of the Convocation. We must never become discouraged by what the popular impression of the Church is all about. In fact, it is best for us simply to continue to live our faith and never to be hesitant to proclaim what we believe. At the same time, we reach out to all those who are at the edge and who need the Good News of the Church. While all must be compassionately included within our embrace and considered as part of our family of faith, we can never distort what the truth is but always proclaim it in love. At the same time we, as members of the Catholic Church, must be careful that our society does not push us to the periphery in a manner in which our basic freedoms and ability to live as men and women of faith is compromised.
As I said at the beginning of this column, if the Convocation can be considered in terms of "success," it went far beyond that because it went to the periphery and reminded us of what the Church in the life of its faithful people is all about.
Most Reverend Gerald M. Barbarito
July 28, 2017