“The Catholic Church is convinced that the light for an adequate solution can only come from an encounter with the living Christ, which gives rise to attitudes and ways of acting based on love and truth. This is the decisive force which will transform the American continent,” Pope Benedict XVI said just months before stepping aside as pontiff, during a meeting of Catholic leaders in the Americas — “Encounter with the Living Jesus Christ: The Way to Conversion, Communion and Solidarity in America” — in December 2012 at St. Peter’s Basilica.
At the time I remember being there and feeling struck by the Holy Father’s seeming sense of urgency in his fraternal correction/warning/plea. It seemed that he was sending a clearer message about this when he astonished the world with his news about stepping aside as pope. This is the year of faith, he seemed to be saying, and yet where is our faith? How is the world seeing it? Does the world see Christ in us? Do we know Christ?
Fast forward to Orlando, Florida, Independence Day weekend 2017. One diocesan official from a major U.S. city might have put it best: “I was dreading it.” A veteran of many Church conferences, he, as you can see, did not have high expectations for the U.S. bishops convening of 3,100 laypeople, bishops, priests, deacons and consecrated men and women. But from the start the “Convocation of Catholic Leaders: The Joy of the Gospel in America” lived up to the title. Part retreat, part listening session, part working group, part reunion, the meeting — nine years in the making — had as its focus not bishops, not grand evangelization strategies, but Jesus Christ.
At that same meeting in Rome in 2012, I sat in a working group on families, culture and young people, and person after person talked about how no plan can work the wonders that a little time with eucharistic adoration can. And the convocation in Orlando honored this! It was an exercise in the best that we are: humble servants of Jesus Christ, whom we adore. Everything must begin there, and so people would get up in the morning and process with the Eucharistic Lord one conference morning and end the day with him another night. The makeshift chapel made beautiful by the Magnificat Foundation was typically packed with millennials and bishops and religious sharing worship space.
The whole elongated weekend has been dubbed a World Youth Day for adults and there’s something to that. Leaders in various work got an immersion in prayer with homilists and speakers pointing to the necessity for contemplative joy as our witness to the world. I moderated a panel on media and culture, and the main takeaway may have been the need for silence, the ability to unplug in order to even know what is human. There’s no taking any fundamentals for granted in trying to share the joy of the Gospel, other than maybe the fact that people are overwhelmed and may not be feeling joy or know the Gospel.
To give you more of a sense of the heart of the endeavor, in the closing convocation “Mass of Sending,” USCCB president Cardinal Daniel DiNardo of Galveston-Houston focused on the Gospel reading from St. John. As Jesus prayed to the Father, the cardinal and everyone else seemed to be right there with him as the bishop asked: “Have you ever seen a more humble first person singular?” He urged participants — and his brother bishops — to go forth fueled by “the most contemplative passage of the Bible. It’s one about truth and it’s not to be missed that Jesus Christ himself relies on God the Father in humble submission.”
Before ending his homily with the prayerful plea, “Come, Lord Jesus,” Cardinal DiNardo said, “Never are you more active than when the Word of God is overpowering you. And so it must be for the world of missionary discipleship in the field hospital of the Church in a world so in need of selfless, gratuitous merciful love.” Understanding that you can’t give what you don’t have, the convocation was an infusion of eucharistic grace with no small emphasis on conversion. The talks that happened weren’t the most important part of the convocation. Christ was.
There was no mistaking, though, that is was not lost on Archbishop Christophe Pierre, the papal nuncio to the United States, that it was a gathering where Peter and his mission and priorities were unmistakably present. Joy and encounter and peripheries and mission were not only frequently used, but were calls to contemplative action and reminders about what Christian identity looks like in the world today, looking at every single person with the eyes of the heart of God and never looking away from the pain that wrecks men’s hearts.
In short, it was not just another meeting. Not if we go out and live it, already. It’s the work of the baptized, not just upward of 3,000 Catholics in America.
As Carl Anderson, head of the Knights of Columbus, put it in his own address: “In Redemptoris Missio, St. John Paul II said this, ‘The call to mission drives, of its nature, from the call to holiness. ... It is not enough to update pastoral techniques, organize and coordinate ecclesial resources, or delve more deeply into the biblical and theological foundations of faith. What is needed is the encouragement of a new ardor for holiness among missionaries and throughout the Christian community.’”
And, as he reminded, we do that with plenty of witnesses who came before, including in the recently canonized by Pope Francis during a Mass in Washington, D.C., St. Junípero Serra. One of his extant homilies is on tasting and seeing the goodness of the Lord and being propelled to deeper conversion because of it. That’s the message. One that can’t leave us idly checking our screens for new news but on fire for the mission of the good news of the Gospel.