By Father Steven Henriksen
I was humbled to serve as part of the Archdiocese of Louisville’s delegation to the recent Convocation of Catholic Leaders: The Joy of the Gospel in America. This event was well-covered not only on EWTN as well as other Catholic media but also especially by The Record.
Designed as more than a trade show or your typical convention, the convocation certainly lived up to its billing. With 3,500 in attendance, the convocation featured plenary sessions and break-out opportunities, as well as enriching and renewing spiritual events.
But I left with this question: Now what? How is it that we live out the joy of the Gospel so artfully proclaimed in our Holy Father’s letter? My reflections, to date, on this question led me to prayerful consideration of three notions: engagement, encounter and dialogue.
The fact that the church has its challenges is not a surprise. Indeed, the “One, holy, Catholic and apostolic church” has always had its challenges.
The reality of lapsed, alienated or disaffected Catholics in the U.S. is evident. The finding that 50% of baptized Catholics of the millennial generation presently call themselves “nones” (not affiliated with any faith community) is well-known.
But what the convo-cation(ers) did was to engage these contemporary realities in a manner marked by encounter, engagement and dialogue. And it was through these discussions and spiritual events that each of us grew in our understanding and appreciation for both the challenges and opportunities in our church.
We are called to encounter by the living Christ to see “the other.” Often, our seeing is limited by parish boundaries, personal preferences and ways of “doing” church. The convocation allowed all to imagine a church that is authentically inclusive, doctrinally sound and spiritually enriching.
I recall the witness of Sister Miriam James Heidland of the Society of Our Lady of the Most Holy Trinity (SOLT), who reminded us that our loving and merciful God heals our wounds and calls us to follow him. Check out her website at www.AbidingTogetherPodcast.com.
The idea of serving the peripheries has been a prominent theme of Pope Francis’ pontificate. Here again, we are called to engage “the other” if we truly are to experience the living Christ who is at work among us.
In fact, “the other” are already among us in our parish communities: the poor and the forgotten; the lonely and the ill; the disabled or addicted; and those who, for one reason or another, have simply drifted away from church. The peripheries are not far from us. The convocation gave me hope that we see “the other” and are committed to reaching out to each one.
To encounter and engage another requires an open sharing of thought and convictions. The convocation provided space for delegates to engage in dialogue, often outside of the formal sessions, surrounding meta-level issues pressing upon our church.
Materialism, secularism, individualism — all of these “-isms” — are surely a real and present challenge.
But I wonder whether the most important dialogue lies in something more foundational: the development and nurturing of an ongoing personal and communal encounter with our Lord. Perhaps in keeping it simple — in prayer, worship and service — we can encounter, engage and dialogue with God in the most profound of all ways.
As folks of the modern age, we often look to structures and programs as the solution to meeting challenges. What if we saw opportunity in the hope, mercy and love offered freely by the Risen Christ? What if we met our challenges through encounter, engagement and dialogue?
St. Paul tells us, “Hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us” (Romans 5:5). The theological virtue of hope (along with faith and love) is a challenge to the problems confronted by our contemporary church.
Hope is a product of grace, an unmerited gift from God. And it is in that hope that we are called to action.
Now what? The Convocation of Catholic Leaders compels all of us, not simply those present, to ask this question.
Perhaps our answers lie in “The Joy of the Gospel.”
Father Steven Henriksen is the pastor of the Church of Ascension.