By Jennifer Mauro | Managing Editor
There were many takeaways from the historic Convocation of Catholic Leaders I was fortunate to attend in Orlando with my fellow delegates from the Diocese of Trenton.
After four days of hearing cardinals, bishops, and lay people speak on faith and evangelization, of attending numerous prayer services and Masses with thousands of faithful from around the country, and being able to engage in meaningful dialogue to address some of the most important issues of our time facing the Church and our world, it’s safe to say my brain was on Catholicism overload – in the most wonderful way.
But two themes based heavily on Pope Francis’ apostolic exhortation “The Joy of the Gospel,” which inspired the convocation, spoke to me personally: identifying and evangelizing those on the peripheries of society and being open to the joy of the Lord in order to recognize and utilize the gifts he has given me.
“It’s my hope that Catholics in the USA and pastors are discovering the treasure we have in Pope Francis,” Cardinal Joseph W. Tobin of Newark told me when I had the pleasure of running into him at the convocation. “He speaks a language that people can understand.”
As a journalist, writing in a way people can understand is a gift I believe Jesus has called me to utilize, though honestly, it wasn’t until I left secular media that I began to recognize it could be used for something other than telling a good story. “Is writing truly my evangelization tool?” I wondered for the umpteenth time since coming to The Monitor more than a year ago.
Turns out, fellow delegate Debbie Gaudino, executive director of the Diocese’s Catholic Charismatic Renewal, was thinking about her talents, too.
“There is someone out there who is waiting for what you have been given to give, and their life hangs in the balance … in God’s providence you are the one who has been anointed, who has been prepared and it matters that you say yes.” This statement, made during a plenary session by Sherry Weddell – author and director of the Catherine of Siena Institute in Colorado – struck her powerfully, Gaudino said.
“I immediately recalled those people in my life who fanned the flame of my faith when it was dim,” Guadino said. “I thought of friends and loved ones whose witness of heroic sanctity and sacrifice, often in the midst of the ordinary events of everyday life, provided an example of ‘normal Catholic life’ for me to follow.”
“Sherry’s quote also led me to look deep into my own heart and ask some probing questions,” she continued. “What gift have I been given that someone is waiting for? Where have I neglected to say yes to God’s call? … I wondered if I would ever be worthy of the lofty call to be a missionary disciple of Jesus Christ.”
It was while hearing a participant talk about illness that Diana Hernandez, a Bonds of Marian Love missionary from the Diocese, said she realized that sometimes she misunderstands evangelization.
“I fall into the trap of thinking that sharing the faith is like suggesting a good restaurant to a friend: ‘I like the Church [or this restaurant], so maybe you should check it out, too,’” Hernandez said. “This understanding turns evangelizing into an optional activity with little to lose if it is not carried out.”
Hearing the gentleman talk about not needing to face illness alone, she said, “made it clear to me that evangelization is less like recommending a restaurant and more like walking a thirsting person to an inexhaustible fountain of water. It is not an option but a duty that love demands from us. Helping someone discover God and his Church is the greatest act of charity, for it brings fulfillment to the greatest longing of the human heart: intimate closeness with its creator.”
Indeed, I could relate to both women. During the convocation, I had been asking myself, “Do I have enough joy to be a missionary disciple, to evangelize?”
Jeff Schaffer, director of campus ministry for Georgian Court University, Lakewood, meanwhile, had been experiencing that joy in others, meeting lay, religious and ordained ministers serving in chanceries, universities, parishes and a vast array of other ministries across the nation.
“What inspired me most was the fact that each of these leaders had responded to Pope Francis’ call to become missionary disciples: to share, by word and deed, the joy of our encounter with Jesus,” he said. “The joy of this encounter was evident in the good humor, the positive energy and the beauty of our time together.”
No Time Like the Present
Schaffer said one of the speakers that most inspired him was Dr. Carolyn Woo, who until recently served as the president and CEO of Catholic Relief Services.
“Dr. Woo spoke of evangelization as making God’s love real,” he said. “She insisted that we make that love concrete by the way we listen, the way we serve and the way we spend our lives for others. This necessarily includes care for the poor and marginalized.”
Josue Arriola, diocesan director of Evangelization and Family Life, was not only moved by that joy, but a sense of urgency as well.
“Washington Cardinal Donald W. Wuerl urged all of us … to take a look at each other and realize that we, as lay leaders in the Church, are responsible for spreading the Gospel message. This responsibility, it is not only for a few baptized people; it is for all,” Arriola said, adding that Cardinal Wuerl told the participants, “We shouldn’t waste any more time.”
“The cardinal stressed the sense of urgency of evangelizing,” Arriola continued. “Urgency is a key word that hit me hard; many people are moving away from God. As Christians, we can’t be passive and see all these people pass in front of us running away from God and not have a sense of urgency to do something about it, a sense of compassion.
“Every person needs to hear that someone loves them unconditionally, and this is the job of evangelization,” he said.
With such an important task at hand, it’s a good thing Angela Dodson, a writer and member of Blessed Sacrament-Our Lady of the Divine Shepherd Parish, Trenton, returned to New Jersey rejuvenated.
“It was an honor to be considered to attend a gathering of Catholic leaders. I found the experience inspiring and informative,” she said. “The speakers really challenged us not just to dwell in our faith but to act on it as missionary disciples – not just to be followers of Christ but doers of the work he commissioned us to do.”
Dodson and her husband, fellow delegate Michael Days, remained in Orlando after the convocation to attend the National Black Catholic Congress, which, she said, reinforced that message “while exploring how it applied to us as African Americans doing work in our communities. I came home renewed, refreshed and energized.”
Journeys of Faith
Meeting the needs of our communities is something I have been pondering even more since the convocation. On more than one occasion, I was challenged to redefine the periphery and ponder the types of articles I write and how they can reach those in need. In my opinion, the periphery can be anyone – from a single mother struggling to raise a family or a married woman who – for whatever reason – has no children, to the individual in a parish struggling with unseen problems or an entire congregation who has seen the doors to their church close. In the end, it’s all about walking with someone on their journey of faith.
Similarly, Cristina D’Averso Collins, Catholic campus minister in Monmouth and Rider Universities, said she was struck with the themes of pastoral accompaniment and missionary discipleship that underlined the various speeches at the convocation.
“In my own work, these issues are particularly poignant as our mission includes witnessing to students and assisting them as they seek to encounter Christ. It therefore seems especially necessary to define properly and expound upon the terms of ‘accompaniment’ and ‘missionary discipleship,’” she said.
“When we speak of accompaniment, we mean guiding individuals along their journeys to a life-changing encounter with Christ. We do so with empathy and understanding, cognizant that many face great suffering and mindful that there is also true charity in truth, for Christ challenges us to “go and sin no more” (John 8:11),” she said.
“For my campus ministry students, accompaniment and missionary discipleship may mean inviting a friend to Mass or encouraging healthy behaviors among peers. For me, these may mean simply being present on campus and listening to student needs and concerns,” D’Averso Collins said, citing as an example St. Thérèse of Lisieux, who lived as a cloistered nun and devoted herself to “hidden little acts of virtue.”
“We need not feel unnecessarily burdened by the call to ‘make disciples of all nations,’” she said, “for each one of us, by living out his or her particular vocation, can work to follow St. Thérèse’s ‘Little Way’ (Matthew 28:19). Perhaps in doing so, we too, will work toward sanctity.”
Laura Rivas, associate director of evangelization and adult faith formation for the Diocese, was also moved by these themes, citing how Cardinal Wuerl reminded those present that missionary discipleship is more than an idea – it’s an encounter with the person of Jesus Christ.
“The true missionary disciple of the Lord must have a deep knowledge about Jesus and his Gospel, but above all, one has to ‘get to know Jesus Christ’ so that one’s personal life can bear witness to the Gospel,” she said.
“During this encounter, the missionary disciple maintains an intense life of prayer and communication with Jesus. Nurtured by the grace of these frequent encounters, the disciple experiences the ardor of the apostolic zeal and hastens to share the wonders of the Lord, radiating as well with the witness of a Christian life to all those around them. Let us remember what the Samaritan woman, the disciples of Emmaus, and many others did after encountering Jesus. Let us also remember this can happen to us today when we encounter Jesus.”
After hearing how half of U.S. Church members today are non-European, with about 40 percent Latino, I would be failing in my mission of evangelization if I didn’t mention that Rivas wrote a reflection in English and Spanish, both of which are available online.
“¿Arde también nuestro corazón cuando le escuchamos? ¿Damos auténtico testimonio de vida cristiana? ¿Corremos a compartir con los que nos rodean, nuestras experiencias de fe? Quien escucha su llamado y le acepta, comienza con entusiasmo el recorrido hacia el Reino.”
(“Do our hearts burn within us when we listen to his words? Do we give authentic witness of Christian life? Do we run to share our experiences of faith with those around us?” Rivas asked. “Whoever listens to his call and accepts him, begins with enthusiasm the journey toward the kingdom.”)
Pray for Us
I am honored that our Bishop, David M. O’Connell, C.M., chose me as a delegate to this convocation. After having the pleasure of getting to know the 11 other members on this trip, I can honestly say I am humbled. Talk about gifts! From the art of conversation and listening, to the blessings of patience, joy, thoughtfulness, friendship and intellect they exhibited, I was surrounded by wonderful people July 1-4 in Orlando. Please pray for these evangelizers of our Diocese in their various missions.
Speaking of which, I lay claim to having a gift for writing, but I don’t have that market cornered by a longshot. I don’t think I could sum up the convocation more beautifully than my friend, Josue.
“Two thousand years ago in the Upper Room in Jerusalem, 12 leaders heard the same message, and those 12 changed the world,” Arriola said. “Imagine what 3,500 could do. Let’s pray that one day, history will look back at this convocation as the moment that the ‘urgency’ to evangelize became the internal mission of all believers.”