The purpose of the USCCB’s Convocation of Catholic Leaders this year, was to reflect on Pope Francis’ challenging letter, Evangelii Gaudium (Joy of the Gospel). Over 3,000 Catholic leaders from around the country came together to reflect and to bring tools, resources and a renewed inspiration (to take the Gospel and the love of Christ to the peripheries) back to their respective ministries.
This blog is the second of several I will write to unpack the some of the lessons I gained from the gathering. I would love your comments or questions.
The second theme I observed running through the four-day gathering was “unity amidst diversity.” The Catholic Church is the Universal Church and this gathering included representatives from many different ethnic groups, many different age groups and many different religious orders, charisms and ministries throughout the US. What I appreciated was seeing all of us celebrating Mass together under one roof, worshipping our one Lord together! It was awesome!
Too often in our society our differences can separate us. We tend to surround ourselves with people who look like us, think like us, talk like us and worship like us. We are very quick to judge people who are different from ourselves. And it can be very uncomfortable and awkward to be with people who are different from us. I know there were times during the Convocation that I felt that awkward feeling, and I had to lean into the moment and be willing to join into discussions with folks who were not like me, who didn’t talk like me and didn’t look like me. And at the end of those discussions, I was often blessed and convicted. Blessed, because I heard perspectives and insights I had never thought of before. Convicted, because I was tempted to judge the group before I had even joined them.
One example for me occurred on the very first evening of the Convocation. I came into a large room and we were told to find a seat at one of the 50 tables there. I didn’t initially recognize anyone in the room, so I picked a random table where I didn’t know the individuals (eventually a few people I knew joined our table). We introduced ourselves. Several of the folks were from Southern California, and some of the women were from a religious order involved in education. When I asked where they were living, they said, “Whittier, California”. I said, “Oh really, I was baptized at St. Bruno’s Catholic Church in Whittier.” The two religious sisters broke out in smiles. They told me they were living on the campus of St. Bruno’s Catholic Church. What a small world! We ended up having a beautiful conversation and had a connection over the next four days. Every time we saw each other in the sea of people, we sought to exchange friendly greetings.
During a breakout session on “reaching the peripheries in rural communities”, I was pleasantly surprised to see a packed room of 70-75 people from all over the country wanting to discuss the challenges of rural ministry and how we can reach the poor and the vulnerable in our respective rural communities. Bishop Gruss of the Diocese of Rapid City, South Dakota, opened up the session and said he is really dealing with different worlds, even within his own diocese. He spoke of the poverty and the opioid epidemic throughout his diocese. He also spoke of the challenges facing some of our Native American brothers and sisters in South Dakota.
To be true “missionary disciples” as Pope Francis writes about in his wonderful letter, requires us first to seek to understand the peoples and cultures of those around us, within our respective dioceses; recognizing how our Creator God has created all cultures and peoples for Himself. Then, seek to love and to honor others, including their cultural heritages. Once we open ourselves to the marvelous beauty and diversity of God’s creation, then we are able to receive the blessings God has to give us through others who may be different from ourselves. Then, we may be able to develop real relationships. Then, we may be able to help each other, especially those on the peripheries.
–Jim Ennis is the Executive Director of Catholic Rural Life