Historic event ignites energy in local leaders, brings challenges to light

On the heels of a four-day gathering of 3,100 people at the Convocation of Catholic Leaders, in Orlando, Florida, Bishop Donald Kettler is convening a follow-up discussion with the 10 delegates from the Diocese of St. Cloud who joined him at the unprecedented event in early July.

The convocation, which some are calling a “pep rally” for Catholic leaders or an “adult World Youth Day,” has him and others eager to re-examine the changing face of the church in the United States, and especially in the St. Cloud Diocese.

The event took an in-depth look at Pope Francis’ message in his apostolic exhortation “Evangelii Gaudium” (“The Joy of the Gospel”) and discussed ways in which the themes might be put into action.

Delegates pray during the opening Mass July 1 at the “Convocation of Catholic Leaders: The Joy of the Gospel in America” in Orlando, Fla. Leaders from dioceses and various Catholic organizations are gathered for the July 1-4 convocation. (CNS photo/Bob Roller)

“Pope Francis’ message is really important and the messages and discussions that took place at the convocation were very good,” Bishop Kettler said.

“But if you’re going to make use of any of this, you have to do something with it. What can we do with this to move it forward? I think this gathering energized us to look at answering that question.”

Delegate Joe Towalski, director of the Office of Communications and editor of The Visitor newspaper, said the convocation strengthened his desire to think about the future of the church.

“It helped me realize that we are doing some things well and there are some things we need to be doing better. There needs to be a concerted approach to make this a vibrant, vital church. And it’s exciting to look at the landscape of the church, to see where we are reaching the peripheries within the church and outside the church, and where there is still work to be done.”

Towalski will assist Bishop Kettler in facilitating the follow-up discussion in mid-August with the delegates as well as a group of Catholic educators, parish staff and liturgists, priests and religious, youth and young adults, individuals and families from around the diocese whom the bishop invited to participate in the convocation by watching the plenary sessions online.

Missionary discipleship

The gathering, organized by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, was held July 1-4 and featured a retreat-style format, starting and ending daily with group prayer. Mass was celebrated each day and there were opportunities for adoration and the sacrament of reconciliation.

Minnesota was one of the top 10 states to send delegates to the convocation. Delegates from the St. Cloud Diocese included: Bishop Kettler; Towalski; Father Robert Rolfes, vicar general; Jane Marrin, chancellor; Linda Kaiser, director of Catholic Education Ministries; Mayuli Bales, diocesan director of multicultural ministries; Chris Codden, director of the diocesan Office of Marriage and Family; Timothy Johnston, director of the Office of Worship; Father Tony Oelrich, pastor of Christ Church Newman Center in St. Cloud; Deacon Lucio David Hernandez and Diocesan Pastoral Council representative Darrell Welle.

Packed into just four days, the schedule included four keynote, or plenary, sessions as well as multiple breakout sessions with a range of diverse Catholic speakers and panelists including Bishop Robert Barron of Los Angeles and Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston, Helen Alvaré, professor of law at the Antonin Scalia Law School of George Mason University and personalities like recording artist Matt Maher and the Chastity Project’s Jason and Crystalina Evert.

“All the good, dedicated, committed lay faithful present truly touched me,” said Bishop Edward Burns of Dallas, one of the event’s emcees, in an interview with Catholic News Service, “especially knowing that they are the Catholic leaders in their dioceses and Catholic organizations.

“It was powerful to see them engaged in conversation on how we can be missionary disciples,” he said. “In addition, seeing the authentic faith of every person on stage and how they shared it so honestly. It was incarnational — we definitely encountered the word made flesh.”

Hosffman Ospino, associate professor of theology and religious education at Boston College, presented a landscape of the Catholic Church in the U.S., discussing the increasing diversity and the opportunity it presents to accompany one another on the journey of faith Pope Francis envisions.

He said half of U.S. church members today are non-European, with about 40 percent Latino, 5 percent Asian and Pacific Islanders, 4 percent African-American and 1 percent Native American. The numbers contrast with the church population of 50 years ago, when 80 to 85 percent of Catholics were of European descent, he said.

“The question is do we see those faces in our faith communities? Do we see them in our diocesan offices? Do we see them in our Catholic schools, universities, seminaries? Do we know their concerns?” he asked.

He said the changes in the landscape are a sign of strength and present new opportunities to welcome newcomers into the church family.

“It’s OK if we wrestle with diversity and pluralism,” he said. “This is where we need to exercise the pastoral practice of mutual accompaniment.”

Washington Cardinal Donald Wuerl stressed the sense of urgency of evangelizing and inviting others to Christ, noting that Catholics have a perfect role model for this in Pope Francis, who has continually presented the church as inviting and open.

Cardinal Wuerl also acknowledged that Catholics are not always comfortable with the idea of evangelizing but they need to be willing to step out of themselves and talk with people about their faith as part of an encounter often spoken of by Pope Francis.

An encounter is not meant to tell people “they can be as wonderful as we are,” the cardinal said. It is about telling them about Christ. He also noted taking the Gospel message out to the peripheries doesn’t just mean economic peripheries — but spiritual ones as well.

Archbishop Jose Gomez of Los Angeles explained that the pope sees the peripheries as both a physical place and existentially speaking. The peripheries are places that reflect a society that has determined that some people can be pushed aside or discarded.

“They are places on a map, places where people live,” he said. “The peripheries are parts of our cities and the rural areas that we never visit. The other side of the tracks. They are where the poor live. They are the prisons and the tent cities in our public spaces. The peripheries are the bitter fruits of neglect, exploitation and injustice. They are all the places our society is ashamed of and would rather forget about.

“But for Pope Francis,” he said, “the peripheries are more than a physical location or a social category. They are places where poverty is not only material but also spiritual,” he said.

The archbishop called such locations places where people “are wounded and feel their life has no meaning and makes no difference,” trapping themselves in sin, addiction, slavery and self-deception.

“The pope is saying these peripheries are growing in the modern world, and these peripheries are new mission territory,” he explained.
Archbishop Gomez, vice president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, admitted some of these places are “where the church does not like to go, where we do not like to go.” Yet, he reminded the 3,500 delegates, Jesus is at the margins, and that as people of faith, they are invited to go where Jesus exists.

“The church has always been present in the peripheries, through our schools, our parishes and our ministries. Sometimes we are the only ones serving these communities. But we can do better, we are called to do more. That is our challenge,” Archbishop Gomez said.

This story contains information from Catholic News Service.

Local reaction

Eleven delegates attended the convocation and other participants watched the sessions online. Below is a collection of their reactions.

Mayuli Bales
Director of the diocesan Office of Multicultural Ministries

Q: Was there a message that particularly stirred your heart?

A: There are two concrete messages I heard: One was from Dr. Hosffman Ospino, professor at Boston College, reflecting on the actual reality of the U.S. Catholic Church. He said we need to consider a “language of communion,” because “the church exists to serve the church,” “all of us are the church,” and we are “a church that goes forth!” His words let us know that the church in the United States is adopting and adapting to Pope Francis’ ecclesial vision.

The second message was from Bishop José H. Gómez, vice-president of the USCCB. He talked about going out to the people’s peripheries, not only the geographical ones but the existential, to “go to the places where people’s wounds exist, where people feel that their life has no meaning.” The church is called to be present with them in accompaniment.



Timothy Johnston
Director of the diocesan Office of Worship

Q: What is one concrete message you heard that excites you about the future?

A: Rich Curran, a national speaker who has been helping teenagers and adults find meaning and purpose in their lives for 15 years, spoke beautifully about the notion of “parish.” He claims that we need to redefine a parish, its structure and its methodology (e.g. hiring and forming people properly). It wasn’t about changing canonical structure but thinking about how we do “parish.”

We are still using a model that worked in the 1950s. There’s a methodology problem — we aren’t strategic in how we are crafting leadership teams in our parishes that are going to help move us forward into the future. How do we shift our methodology so that the whole parish becomes everyday evangelizers, that the whole parish can begin to be alive with the diversity of the gifts that they have and can call forth and discern their gifts within the community?

I think he’s onto something and it would be very good to explore parish dynamics, expectations and lack of joy.


Chris Codden Director of the diocesan Office of Marriage and Family

Q: Was there anything you heard at the convocation that surprised or challenged you?

A: Patrick Lencioni, founder and president of The Table Group, a management consulting firm specializing in organizational health and executive team development, talked about how we need to be engaged in conflict and that conflict can be healthy. He said that scar tissue heals stronger than skin that has never been scarred. It takes trust first to be open enough to disagree with someone so that we can come to a compromise that will be productive and bear fruit.
Also, Bishop Robert Barron talked about the culture of “Meh” or “Whatever,” a culture with no objective good or truth. He said the reason our culture is floundering is because we have no boundaries. A river that has banks (or boundaries) on each side is strong with energy from its current. But a river with no banks (or boundaries) becomes a lazy lake, with no energy or drive, no purpose. We must become a river with strong banks to lead people to Christ.


Darrell Welle
Chairperson, Diocesan Pastoral Council

Q: How might you share what you gleaned from the convocation with others?

A: Several speakers spoke of the need to do all ministries — all programs we are involved in, and every time we reach out to someone — with love and with joy. Even when conflicts arise, our goal should be to bring everyone closer to Jesus Christ. One way to do this is to stop the “doom and gloom” talk of our church today and instead talk about the positive. We are a young church in the U.S. and we are a growing church. Our churches in the South and West are growing faster than they can build new churches and schools.



Linda Kaiser Director of the diocese’s Catholic Education Ministries

Q: What would be the first step a diocese should take?

A: The Convocation for Catholic Leaders for me was about how to bring back vitality for the U.S. Catholic Church and looking to the future of the church and who the leaders will be. A statistic given at the convocation was that for every one Catholic entering the church, six leave. Are we OK with that? Why are folks not staying? If we are to draw folks back into the Catholic Church, what are we drawing them to? A diocese needs a reality check. Can we continue to be the church of the past or do we start envisioning the church as St. John XXIII envisioned at Vatican II, the church in the modern world? How can we be church in 2020, 2040? Is closing parishes the answer? Can we allow the clergy abuse crisis to define the church or do we say, “Enough of all of that.” The Catholic Church is about living the Gospel and proclaiming the Good News of Jesus Christ.




Kevin Powers
Superintendent, Catholic Community Schools

Q: How will you take to heart Pope Francis’ message of “The Joy of the Gospel” in your new role as superintendent of Catholic Community Schools?

A: We are called to go out and spread the Good News to all those in our schools and community. It is the responsibility of our Catholic schools, teachers, parents and students to reach out into areas where we haven’t before, to find, educate and attract new families and students in our schools and churches. I hope that we can strengthen our call to be a welcoming community and welcome many new students and families into our schools.



Author: Catholic News Service

Catholic News Service is the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ news and information service.

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