BOGOTA, Colombia  Three themes quickly emerged during the “Celebration of the Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy on the American Continent” event that took place in late August, as participants got talking: Truth, joy, and unity.

After a thirty-minute video message from Pope Francis on August 27, some of what was on the minds of bishops, priests, and laypeople throughout the Americas began to emerge.

“America” here refers to North, South, and Latin America as one continent is consistent with John Paul II’s proposition in Ecclesia in America. True to that tradition, the prominence of bishops from Canada and the United States has been notable at a gathering convened by the Pontifical Commission for Latin America (CAL) and the Latin American Episcopal Conference (CELAM) happening on Latin American ground.

Sunday Mass was celebrated by the president of the United States Bishops’ Conference, Louisville Archbishop Joseph E. Kurtz.

There was an overwhelming sensitivity to the deep wounds suffered by people throughout the continent.

At the same time, Pope Francis set the stage with what might be the first takeaway from this gathering—one known but often forgotten, individually and institutionally: You can’t give what you don’t have.

As Pope Francis said, you have to have the memory of the joy of being forgiven by God Himself to be able to truly be merciful, showing God’s generosity to others. It is here where that joy that seems impossible to so many is found.

And, while Francis might often be misunderstood, the imagery and direction of the Jubilee of Mercy has been quite clear: It points in the direction of confession, which much more than implies, but requires, a desire to change, for conversion away from sin.

As the pope put it in the message:

“To understand and accept what God does for us – a God who does not think, love or act out of fear, but because he trusts us and expects us to change – must perhaps be our… our mode of operation: ‘Go and do likewise’ (Lk 10:37).”

While no one dwelled on the “s-word,” Pope Francis’ first interview, where he said he identified himself as a sinner, seemed to fuel both the conversation and the prayer. Thus an opening-day penance service. CAL president Marc Ouellet, from Canada, talked about the importance of telling the truth about what we are facing individually and as a Church.

In a session the next day, he would talk further about the existence of diseases that sometimes can’t be cured, but can lead people to extraordinary spiritual lives.

Ouellet seemed to underscore this all Saturday night during Mass after a long procession through the Jubilee Holy Door of Mercy at Our Lady of Lourdes Cathedral. He used the Spanish word for apocalyptic to describe these times where men and women so urgently need, yes, works of mercy, but also sacramental mercy, from the heart of the Church.

That all baptized Catholics have a duty to open doors to this as they tend to wounds, was prominent in the proceedings.

The challenges of mercy – that is, of the very Gospel of Jesus Christ – are heightened in a secular society that can be hostile to what the Church has to offer. Especially if the Church wants to – as it is mandated to — go beyond merely providing social services.

Pope Francis has talked repeatedly about how the Church is not a non-governmental organization. And in this spirit, Christian Lepeni, archbishop of Montreal, talked about the spiritual hunger homeless people in his archdiocese have – a need that is harder to meet when both the culture and government are hostile to religion. This becomes especially problematic when the Church takes public funding for its social-welfare ministries.

He seemed to echo the now-canonized Mother Teresa in insisting that the Church give men in need all that they need. That means homeless ministry can include a rosary if a man wants to pray, he said.

Ouellet was visibly moved Monday night, after a day that involved visits to ministries throughout the city, including those working with the hungry, recovering addicts, prisoners, and the elderly. He observed what the pope had dubbed a “celebration” of mercy these days had truly brought people together.

Ending the night with Eucharistic adoration, a palpable sense of the Body of Christ, alive in America, did come across as fact.

In a closing session Tuesday, Los Angeles Archbishop Jose Gomez said that “secularization and de-Christianization” being dominant realities in the countries of the Americas and throughout the West” pose “an existential threat to our institutions and the consciences and even the souls of our faithful.”

As Ouellet agreed with him, it was hard not to walk away wondering — especially with the backdrop of a mess of a presidential election with no good options for Catholics and many other people of good will — if we’re seeing a clear symptom of greater, deeper problems: Is this where any hope of future renewal lives?

Maybe hope is to be found in a prayerful unity that re-proposes the joy of the Gospel, as Pope Francis would put it, in countercultural living as a continental Christian community. And not exclusively or even primarily as combatants in political or legal battles (though these are important, too), but as lights in darkness — witnesses of mercy — tending to the needs that no government, never mind secular regimes hostile to religion, could ever meet.

That doesn’t require more meetings for discussion, but prayer and action – in that order — now.