PROVIDENCE — Eleven delegates from the Diocese of Providence joined 3,500 participants from throughout the United States in celebrating the Gospel and recommitting themselves to the Church’s mission of evangelization at the Convocation of Catholic Leaders in Orlando July 1–4.
The first of its kind, the convocation was convened by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops and gathered leaders from dioceses and Catholic organizations across the country for four days of prayer and discussion on the state of the Church in the U.S. Participants attended breakout sessions, shared best practices and heard plenary sessions from some of the country’s leading cardinals and bishops as well as lay leaders and members of religious orders.
Inspired by Pope Francis’ 2013 apostolic exhortation, “Evangelii Gaudium,” or, “The Joy of the Gospel,” the conference focused largely on the spirit of joy necessary to effectively spread the Gospel message in the world.
“A big part of the reason behind this promising convocation, folks, is that we, your pastors, believe with Pope Francis that a renewal of joy is essential for a deepening of Catholic vitality and confidence today,” said Cardinal Timothy Dolan, archbishop of New York, during the July 1 opening Mass, as reported by Catholic News Service.
For delegates from the Diocese of Providence, the convocation provided an opportunity to not only renew their joy for evangelization, but learn new methods and approaches from speakers and each other. Deacon Gregory Albanese, youth minister at Mary, Mother of Mankind Parish, North Providence, and religion department chair at La Salle Academy, found the challenge to minister to those on the peripheries of society particularly inspiring.
“The challenge that this conference brought out is [that] the new evangelization that Francis is asking us to do is really to encounter people and bring Christ to others. We’ve got to go out to people where they are and accompany them on their journey of faith,” he said during a phone interview following his return from the convocation.
According to many of the speakers at the convocation, ministering to those on the “peripheries” is a growing mission and an area where the U.S. Church needs to rise to the challenge of serving those in need.
“For Pope Francis, the peripheries are more than a physical location or a social category. They are places where poverty is not only material but also spiritual,” said Archbishop Joseph Gomez of Los Angeles, vice president of the USCCB, during a plenary session.
“The pope is saying these peripheries are growing in the modern world and these peripheries are new mission territory,” he added.
Dennis Sousa, director of religious education at St. Philip Parish, Greenville, said he was pleased to see the extensive participation in the conference by clergy and bishops, including those at the highest levels of leadership in the U.S. Church.
“One of the refreshing things to come out of this conference is that the leadership, the USCCB, recognizes and realizes that we’re in a very serious time in the Church and that they’re taking it serious, but it’s not a panic,” he said.
In addition to Cardinal Dolan and Archbishop Gomez, speakers included Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, archbishop of Galveston-Houston and president of the USCCB, Cardinal Donald Wuerl, archbishop of Washington, D.C., Archbishop William Lori of Baltimore, Auxiliary Bishop Robert Barron of Los Angeles, and Archbishop Christophe Pierre, Apostolic Nuncio to the United States. Participants also heard from leading religious sisters and directors of lay organizations, including representatives from the Knights of Columbus, Sisters for Life, Catholic Relief Services and the Fellowship of Catholic University Students.
“The bishops are concerned and they’re willing to listen to the people who are in the trenches every day,” said Deacon Albanese. “It was that willingness of the bishops and the leaders of the Church to listen to what we had to say and engage in dialogue.”
Javier Gallego, a parishioner and lector at St. John the Baptist Parish, Pawtucket, attended the convocation with his wife, Varsobia Acosta de Gallego. Serving in a predominantly Hispanic parish, he found the sessions on the growing influence and spiritual needs of Hispanic Catholics to be especially applicable to the life of his parish.
“The state of the Catholic Church in the United States lies heavily on the Hispanics,” he said. “Sixty percent or more of what happens in the Church is being done by Hispanics in the sense that it is the Hispanic youth who need to step up and continue the work of the Church that has been done until now.”
Gallego said the convocation inspired him to become more involved with assisting the youth group at his parish, as it is young people who must receive guidance to serve as leaders of the Church in the future.
“If we don’t take action in terms of preparing them, empowering them, both in terms of the parish point of view and the diocesan, I think we’re going to be doing a disservice to the Church.”
As the delegates returned home from Orlando, several said they looked forward to sharing their notes from the convocation with Bishop Thomas Tobin and offering what they learned to the people of the diocese. Sousa recalled the final “Mass of Sending” with Cardinal DiNardo and the feeling of renewal among the delegates as they prepared to resume their ministry back home.
“The thought of coming home to enter that fight again was daunting, but after that Mass of Sending everybody was excited to come home and share that there is good news in the Church today,” he said. “Oftentimes we feel alone, but we’re not alone.”