I’ve not seen the budget for the July 1-4 “Convocation of Catholic Leaders,” a basically unprecedented gathering of almost 3,500 bishops, clergy, religious and laity, including five of the six residential cardinals in the country, hosted by the U.S. bishops and featuring delegations from more than 80 percent of the dioceses in the county and all 50 states, but I do know this: It cannot have been cheap.
We’re talking about renting a Hyatt convention center in Orlando for four days for an awful lot of folks, plus all the expenses of putting such an event together. The logistics were daunting – a member of the bishops’ conference IT team told me they’d brought down 60 laptops and 30 printers, just for conference staff, all of which had to be shipped there and back.
Theoretically, that expense of time and treasure was motivated by the lofty aim of the gathering: “To form leaders who will be equipped and re-energized to share the Gospel as missionary disciples, while offering fresh insights informed by new research, communications strategies, and successful models.”
After four days, did that actually happen? Time will tell, especially as the delegations who gathered in Orlando return to their dioceses and parishes and try to implement whatever it is they picked up here.
In the meantime, however, there are at least three immediate take-aways that suggest the event was significant, whether or not, over time, it lives up to the elevated billing.
First, I was struck by how basically apolitical the summit was.
For sure, topics with clear political relevance surfaced along the way, from immigration and the LGBTQ community to abortion and euthanasia. However, those were not the dominant notes, which were instead evangelization, mercy, formation in the faith, prayer and the sacraments, and the spiritual life.
No one thundered away from the lectern about political subjects, and during breaks and over lunches and dinners, there frankly wasn’t much buzz about them. You had a much better shot at stirring a good conversation if you asked someone about their parish than their Congressman.
Second, as Cardinal Joseph Tobin of Newark, New Jersey, told Crux in a July 4 interview, this was really the first time the bishops of the United States have brought people together to reflect explicitly on Pope Francis and his vision for the Church.
The touchstone for the convocation was Francis’s 2013 document Evangelii Gaudium, “The Joy of the Gospel,” and several American prelates – including Cardinal Daniel DiNardo of Galveston-Houston, the current president of the bishops’ conference, and Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York and Archbishop Joseph Kurtz of Louisville, both past presidents – told Crux that one soundbite way of stating the event’s aim is to figure out how to apply Evangelii Gaudium in the American here-and-now.
It remains to be seen what exactly bishops and other Church leaders will take away about the document, but all by itself the fact that the American bishops made a Pope Francis text the basis for one of their highest-profile initiatives in history is probably a helpful corrective to attempts to pit them against the pontiff.
It also may have the effect of undercutting the rather surreal tendency in some limited but vocal quarters to suggest that speaking positively about Pope Francis, on anything, is somehow a hallmark of suspect orthodoxy.
“What I think is the really novel thing about this meeting is that it’s the first time, at least that I’m aware of, that Church leaders in the United States have come together to reflect on Pope Francis,” Tobin said. “This is a noteworthy event.
Evangelii Gaudium, Tobin said, is Pope Francis’s “programmatic statement, and subsequent actions and words of the Roman pontiff have been consistent with that. I’ve been very pleased with the way people [here] have engaged with it.”
Third, while it’s impossible to say what else may result from this meeting, most people with whom I spoke in Orlando seemed to have a blast, and also seemed to feel energized simply by hanging out for four days with other Catholics from all over the country who are as committed as they are.
Bishop James Conley of Lincoln, Nebraska, who worked in the Vatican’s Congregation for Bishops from 1996 to 2006, probably captured that dimension of the experience best.
“It’s kind of like World Youth Day for adults, without the pope,” Conley said, laughing.
“You’ve got all these Catholics together in one place, you’ve got these great speakers, beautiful liturgies, time for prayer where everybody can be together, a very diverse crowd, and a cross-section of the church in the United States all here because of our Catholic faith,” he said.
Full story at Crux.