About 2,000 years ago, the New Testament tells us, the apostles gathered in the Upper Room in Jerusalem. Emboldened by the Holy Spirit, they and the disciples set out to bring Christ’s Gospel to the world.

Next summer in Orlando, between 3-4,000 Catholic leaders from across the United States – including bishops, heads of national Catholic organizations, lay movements, religious orders and diocesan ministries and outreach programs – will meet to discuss ways to realize Pope Francis’s call for all Catholics to be missionary disciples in today’s world, and to strategize on how the Church can unite its efforts to engage the culture in promoting human dignity and the common good.

“This really is an unprecedented event,” said Jonathan Reyes, executive director of the Department of Justice, Peace and Human Development at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, in an online video message about the gathering.

The upcoming event, titled the “Convocation of Catholic Leaders: The Joy of the Gospel in America,” will be held in Orlando, Florida, July 1-4, 2017 and has been planned since the nation’s bishops approved the idea six years ago.

Its theme is drawn from Pope Francis’s 2013 apostolic exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium, (Latin for “The Joy of the Gospel), in which the pope emphasized the responsibility of the faithful to be Jesus’s disciples and be evangelists living and sharing their faith in today’s world, in the mission territory of their own homes and communities.

“We aim to assemble the most influential and effective Catholic leaders in the country to share best practices, expand networks and share resources and tools for advancing the Gospel of Jesus Christ,” Reyes said.

A key question they will address, he said, is “what are the challenges and opportunities we face at this time, at this moment in our culture and in the Church in the United States.”

The invitation-only event will include teams of leaders invited by bishops from their dioceses and programs, and also national leaders of Catholic groups invited by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, which is sponsoring the gathering.

Other sponsors of the event include the Knights of Columbus, the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, the National Council of Catholic Women, Catholic Charities USA, and Catholic Relief Services.

Reyes noted that the gathering will included “some leaders who would not be among the usual suspects,” like people who are emerging leaders in dioceses, parishes and Catholic agencies or programs, but who may not have titles like diocesan officials do.

Those invited leaders, he added, will include Catholic business leaders, ministry leaders, educators, neighborhood organizers, directors of charitable works and leaders of religious communities and lay ecclesial movements.

In a country and a Church that is often divided, Reyes said a key goal is to bring together people who do different work, like the pro-life and social justice communities and those engaged in evangelization efforts, to pray together and learn from each other, and then bring strategies for best practices back to their own dioceses and programs.

“The Church in the United States needs to be reminded we’re one family with one mission,” said New York Cardinal Timothy Dolan in an address at November’s meeting of the nation’s bishops in Baltimore, who previewed the upcoming convocation, joined by Boston Cardinal Sean O’Malley and Buffalo Bishop Richard Malone.

Dolan – who chairs the bishops’ Committee on Pro-Life Activities – noted that the gathering will bring together Catholic leaders from across the country, from different backgrounds and experiences, who are united in their faith and in their belief in the dignity of all human life and the need to work for justice.

He said he initially had some concerns about the gathering’s timing around July 4, but he said that was an economical time to schedule the meeting, and a time when many participants could attend. He also noted that it would not conflict with the Fifth National Encuentro of Hispanic/Latino Ministry scheduled for September 2018 in Dallas.

“The Convocation will be a great antipasto for Encuentro the next year. It’s going to set the table for it,” he said.

The gathering is the bishops’ first such national meeting of Catholic leaders in 100 years, he said, noting that they called a gathering a century ago during World War I that was held at The Catholic University of America.

O’Malley also agreed that the time was right for such a gathering.

“I too am convinced this is a time for a national conversation on how to better fulfill our mission,” Boston’s archbishop said.

Buffalo’s Malone, who chairs the bishops’ Committee on Laity, Marriage, Family Life and Youth, noted, “The Convocation will gather a cross section of leaders who’ve never been in the same room together.  This will be a chance to encounter one another across Church silos,” including geographic regions, and social and economic differences, he said.

A key question examined by the gathering is where the Church should go with its outreach, Malone said, noting Pope Francis’s call for Catholics to get out of their comfort zones and bring Christ’s light and love to the margins of society.

“We’ll explore the peripheries in our church and nation, and ask what more can we do here,” Malone said.

The bishops will lead the gathering and host the plenary and break-out sessions, but he added that speakers would include a variety of Catholic leaders. The Convocation’s program schedule and roster of speakers is still being finalized, but the preview at the bishops’ meeting indicated that the speakers will include:

  • Los Angeles Auxiliary Bishop Robert Barron, the founder of the Word on Fire Catholic Ministries and the host of the award-winning PBS documentary, “Catholicism”.
  • Atlanta Archbishop Wilton Gregory, who was president of the bishops’ conference when it implemented the “Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People,” and who has written extensively about the liturgy, particularly in the African-American community.
  • Sister Norma Pimentel, a member of the Missionaries of Jesus who is executive director of Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley, and whose extensive outreach to immigrants in the Diocese of Brownsville, Texas’s border region with Mexico drew special praise from Pope Francis before his 2015 visit to the United States.
  • Helen Alvaré, a law professor at George Mason University’s Antonin Scalia School of Law who earlier served as the U.S. bishops’ spokesperson for pro-life issues.

More information on the 2017 Convocation of Catholic Leaders can be found at www.usccb.org/convocation.