ORLANDO, Florida – 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.
In a similar vein, it was also striking how essentially uninterested most people here seemed about Church politics.
At one point, my Crux colleague Inés San Martín and I were walking down a hallway with Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington, D.C., when someone came up who apparently once heard a talk Wuerl gave and wanted to thank him. As he was walking away, the guy turned around and said, “Good to see you, Father … Bishop … I don’t know.”
I turned to Wuerl and said, “Don’t worry, Cardinal, he’ll get there eventually … only two more stops to go!”
In other words, this guy – presumably a fairly committed Catholic in his diocese, or he wouldn’t have been here – barely knew what office Wuerl holds, let alone what his role was, say, on the drafting committee during two Synods of Bishops that led up to Amoris Laetitia, Francis’s controversial document on the family which, in a footnote, includes a cautious opening to Communion for the divorced and civilly remarried.
In the middle of the convocation I had to step out briefly to do a hit for CNN about recent shake-ups at the Vatican, with Australian Cardinal George Pell taking a leave of absence to fight sex abuse charges and German Cardinal Gerhard Müller being replaced at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. The host asked me if people were up in arms about all this in Orlando, and I had to choke back the instinct to laugh out loud.
“Listen, the vast majority of Catholics here don’t even know who those guys are, let alone care about what’s happening to them,” I said. “Sure, among bishops and some of the clergy there’s a lot of talk, but it’s just not a rank-and-file concern.”
That’s a useful lesson for journalists everywhere, who tend to assume that the Catholic Church is a debating society racked by political tensions. Sure, those tensions are real, and trying to gloss over them or pretend they don’t exist is silly, but they’re hardly the main event for most folks.
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.
“I think if somebody said, ‘Tell me in 30 seconds the goal of this,’ I’d say, ‘To make The Joy of the Gospel real, doable, in the Catholic Church in the United States, and to demonstrate that in fact it’s already happening’,” Dolan told Crux.
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.
“I think for a lot of our lay faithful, they’ve never been in place like this before with so many other Catholics, and it sort of recharges their batteries,” Conley said.
Over and over, I heard the same thing. Participants from dioceses around the country told me that quite apart from the formal program, the thing that most excited them was the experience of being with each other – sharing stories, swapping experiences and ideas, and just getting the sense that they weren’t in this alone.
Bottom line: Whatever else may result from the “Convocation of Catholic Leaders,” it lifted up a less politically charged image of what Catholicism is about, ratified Evangelii Gaudium as the blueprint for the Catholic future, and left almost 3,500 people with a positive and energizing experience of the Church.
All that, probably, wasn’t bad for four muggy days in Orlando.
As a footnote, it will be interesting to see if the U.S. bishops decide the event was valuable enough that it shouldn’t just be a one-off affair, but perhaps something that happens every two or three years. That was the trajectory for World Youth Day, after all, so why not for “World Youth Day for adults?”