Cloutier, a professor of moral theology at The Catholic University of America in Washington, provided the following reflection to Catholic News Service on last July’s “Convocation of Catholic Leaders: The Joy of the Gospel in America.” More than 3,200 Catholic leaders gathered for four days in Orlando, Florida.
Just about a year ago, the U.S. bishops held an enormous convocation in Orlando. I was invited to be on a panel discussing the environment and “Laudato Si’,” but I was not quite prepared for what I encountered.
As I stepped off the public bus from the airport, I saw the enormous convention center in which the convocation was being held. This was no tiny theology gathering, I realized!
What was it? For me, what I discovered there was the enormous and enormously diverse energy that the laity are bringing to the church. Among the most striking things were the huge number of exhibitors. They not only filled a large space in the main center, but a whole other set ranged along the walls of the gigantic dining space elsewhere in the center.
Hundreds of groups, all putting energies into so many different (Catholic) things. I had a spontaneous lunch with a guy who had started Creatio, more or less a Catholic outing club, with planned hiking trips and the like, but intertwined with Catholic beliefs and practices. You might call this a “Catholic start-up” and there were so many of them, almost all being run by idealistic young people trying to find new ways to live out their faith and help others do so, too.
While the large-group sessions were also effective, I found some of the breakout sessions particularly vibrant. The fact is, it is all too rare to have the various ecclesial stakeholders in a room together, really talking and listening to one another. The speakers in all the sessions were a mix of clergy and laity, with different interested bishops facilitating. We were instructed to keep presentations brief — they were a jumping-off point for discussion and shared wisdom. Each session I attended certainly lived up to that.
The 90 minutes on “Laudato Si'” were filled with laity ask tough questions about how to get better implementation of the encyclical. But possibly the most impressive session I attended was a full house on ministry to the LGBT community. Everyone knew the parameters of the discussions. So I was unprepared for the enormous honesty about the struggles involved in so many people’s lives — the bishops facilitating, the panelists and most remarkably the audience. People shared stories with a candor and honesty that I simply have never seen in any other church venue on this topic.
To do so in a room of 250 people with plenty of clergy and bishops — well, I just left thinking, we need more of this, much more! And it was all conducted with genuine respect and sensitivity — completely the opposite of the uncivil twitter battles that too often are seen to dominate the discourse of national Catholicism on difficult topics.
We need to have all the people of God gathered together, in joy, in mission, and in a face-to-face setting that both leads us to more charity and energizes us for more work on behalf of the Gospel. We don’t need to go to a national gathering in Orlando to do it, either. But we do need to gather as a people, in sustained and deeper ways.
One example in which I recently participated was the “Though Many, One” conference on overcoming polarization in society, sponsored by the Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life at Georgetown. Over three days spent together — talks, meals, socializing and Mass every day — a group of 75 Catholics, clergy and lay, bishops and women religious, practitioners and academics talked through our divisions. The gathering was intentionally ideologically diverse, and enabled productive conversations to happen in the future because we met and talked and prayed and ate together face-to-face.
But this sharing need not even require big-university programming. The point is to get committed people, people who are clearly committed to working in the church at all levels, and have them meet one another as members of the same Body.
One wonders if mini-convocations could be had for groups of dioceses, where we could cross over our usual communication groups in the local church, and experience some of that same energy. In the same way, lay and clerical and professional leaders could gather — preferably for more than just an afternoon or an evening — to pray, learn, and connect.
It might not have the initial visual impact I had stepping off the bus in Orlando and seeing that convention center. But it would continue to spread the energy for mission that I discovered inside that center — and that spiritual energy is what the convocation was really about.