By JOANNE FOX
Lisa Muller confessed to not immediately saying “yes” to attending the Convocation of Catholic Leaders because she felt “unqualified.”
“But after thinking on it for a few days, I decided it was something I needed to do,” said the Algona St. Cecelia parishioner. “I am on the parish evangelization team and the convocation theme was centered on forming missionary disciples and utilizing evangelization in our churches.”
Nine individuals represented the Diocese of Sioux City at the July 1-4 convocation in Orlando, Fla. In addition to Muller, other delegates were Bishop Walker Nickless; Father Brad Pelzel, vicar general; Amy Block, executive director of Catholic Charities; Jill Boisjolie of Algona St. Cecelia; Jon and Liz Flattery of Fort Dodge Holy Trinity and Dr. Mark and Renee DeMay of Sioux City Holy Cross – St. Michael Church.
Sponsored by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), the convocation brought together more than 3,100 lay and religious leaders from 160 dioceses and 185 national organizations. They gathered to explore the current challenges and strengths of the church and its evangelization efforts.
The event, which marked a first in U.S. church history, had as its theme, “The Joy of the Gospel in America.” It was designed as a national response to Pope Francis’ 2013 apostolic exhortation, “Evangelii Gaudium” (“The Joy of the Gospel”), according to organizers.
The exhortation lays out a vision of the church dedicated to evangelization – or missionary discipleship – in a positive way, with a focus on society’s poorest and most vulnerable, including the aged, unborn and forgotten.
In addition to lay delegates, attendees included 155 cardinals, archbishops and bishops, along with 380 priests, 175 women religious, 125 deacons and 10 religious brothers.
Bishop Nickless explained the USCCB invested about five years in putting attention, time and preparation into the event.
“Their hope was to aid Catholic leaders in becoming evangelizers,” he said. “About the same time the bishops were discussing how that might take place, Pope Francis’ apostolic exhortation was published and they knew it was exactly the key to bring all together – to empower those in the pews, in the parishes, in the dioceses.”
Muller had wanted to learn strategies from others who have worked through some of the same issues her parish was experiencing.
“I also hoped to network with parishioners from parishes around the United States to learn from them as well,” she said. “I wanted my time to be fruitful, for me, personally.”
Bishop Nickless praised the keynote speakers, masters of ceremonies and panelists who helped to inspire participants.
“Our diocesan group met several times, shared meals and discussed strategies,” he said. “Each of us tried to go to as many different sessions as possible, to become more knowledgeable and to bring as much as we could back to diocese to share.”
Bishop Nickless was head of a breakout session on “Feminine Genius,” the role of women in the church, and one of the largest sessions in attendance.
“I spoke about eight minutes during the hour and a half session of the need to evangelize young women, especially teenage women, ages 10-14, using our Blessed Mother as a model,” he said. “It was very interactive with a panel of women and many opportunities to share insights.”
Muller’s “aha” moment occurred when she realized it wasn’t a conference to teach those in attendance, but a convocation meant “to spark us.”
“There is no magic program, book or retreat that is going to fill the pews each Sunday and there is no quick fix,” she insisted. “We were encouraged to just go, talk, do, live and to influence those in your circle and encourage them to do the same.”
Muller outlined the characteristics of a missionary disciple as one who goes out, encounters, engages, accompanies and is “present” for others.
“We need to invite people into a relationship – not to just join a group or Bible study,” she said. “We have to let others see us living our faith first before we can teach them, and we need to walk with them on their journey, wherever they may be.”
At the final Mass, described as a “Mass of Sending,” Cardinal Daniel N. DiNardo of Galveston-Houston said the church is called to achieve great things in the face of the impossible – to unite people together by going to the peripheries of society and sharing the good news of Jesus through action rooted in faith.
“Sisters and brothers, we are in a very, very significant time in our church in this country,” said Cardinal DiNardo, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and former Bishop of Sioux City from 1997-2004.
Bishop Nickless echoed those sentiments, particularly in light of Ministry 2025, pastoral planning for the Diocese of Sioux City.
“We have to return to our dioceses and set people on fire with the Good News,” he stressed. “The worst thing we can do is to put all of our hard work on the shelf. We must find ways to implement the strategies we came up with in Florida.”
None of the homilists or keynote speakers sugarcoated the challenges for the modern church and more than once speakers pointed out that Catholics are leaving the church in greater numbers than those joining the church, particularly young adults.
But as Auxiliary Bishop Robert E. Barron of Los Angeles pointed out: “The saints always loved a good fight and we should like a good fight, too.”
Catholic News Service contributed to this article.