NEW YORK – When about 300 Catholic leaders gather Thursday, June 23 to Sunday, June 26, in Chicago for the U.S. Bishops’ Conference’s “Journeying Together” initiative, they’ll have completed almost two years of virtual meetings and dialogues that weren’t originally planned, but which laid a foundation for them to build upon.

“Alive in Christ: Young, Diverse, Prophetic Voices Journeying Together” is the first in-person gathering for the “Journeying Together” initiative that was launched in July 2020. The goal from the start has been to dialogue and listen to culturally diverse Catholic young adults in the U.S. on the challenges they face and their perspectives on how the church and society can become more inclusive and just.

The U.S. Bishops’ Conference Committee on Cultural Diversity in the Church leads the initiative.

Archbishop Nelson Perez of Philadelphia, who led the committee through the process until his term as chairman ended this past November, told Crux that it was “fascinating” to see the process unfold in a positive way after COVID forced alterations.

The original plan for the initiative was a convening of U.S. bishops and about 400 or so culturally diverse Catholic young adults in Cleveland for four days in July 2020. After the pandemic hit that event went virtual, and since then more than 60 Catholic bishops and eparchs, and the apostolic nuncio to the U.S., Archbishop Christophe Pierre, have met virtually with about 2,000 young adults in different formats and settings.

“It was just extremely fruitful, and I think it could’ve never happened on a weekend that way,” Perez said.

“All of these young adults met online and now a group of them are going to meet in person and they were exposed to the process and to the prayerfulness of it, to the sharing of their own personal and cultural stories, their joys of the church, and the challenges of the church,” he continued. “The faith sharing that happened throughout those almost two years is coming full circle now as we gather in Chicago.”

Those virtual sessions were separated into three steps. The first was the virtual event. The second was a series of intracultural conversations between participants of different culture groups, including Pacific Islanders, Hispanics, African Americans and European Americans. The third step was intercultural conversations where the participants came together with those from other culture groups.

Perez said participants highlighted the challenge of being a minority in their local community. In particular, they spoke of sometimes not feeling accepted in both secular and church settings, especially in terms of finding a voice and a sense of belonging in a local parish.

“Diversity in church and society is in one way its strength and it’s a richness, and it’s a gift, but it’s also a challenge and sometimes brings conflict,” Perez said. “The universality of the church is certainly a gift, but it’s also a call to have a big heart, a welcoming heart, and that doesn’t always come that easy, and certainly, that came across as young adults from different cultural families talked about very different experiences of trying to find a place in the community.”

The culmination of these virtual sessions and the perspectives heard is this week’s meeting in Chicago that will include Catholic bishops, ministry leaders and young adults. Archbishop Jośe Gomez of Los Angeles, the USCCB president, will preside over the opening Mass on Thursday, and deliver the closing remarks at the general session. Pierre will deliver the keynote address.

Perez said his hope for the event is to develop some “pastoral trajectories,” or some roads to continue the dialogue they have all shared for almost two years.

“My hope and my prayer is that this isn’t just an event, and I don’t think that it will be,” he said. “This isn’t just an event that will have a beginning on Thursday and an end on Sunday, but it will be a stop, or a moment, along the way of an ongoing process of dialogue and sharing with each other, and learning, and growing with each other.”

The archbishop also emphasized the importance of young adults to both the church and society. He did so through a sports analogy, saying that if life were a game he’d be in the fourth quarter, meanwhile young adults would be in the middle of the first.

“My generation is handing on a world to them that we hopefully tried our best to make it a better place, and now they have to take it and try to make it an even better place,” Perez said.

Follow John Lavenburg on Twitter: @johnlavenburgUS