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Post-convocation challenge: Translate event’s message into practice

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By Carol Zimmermann

WASHINGTON (CNS) — Many of the Catholic leaders attending the July 1-4 gathering in Orlando, Florida, have been to enough retreats or conferences over the years to know that the real challenge comes when they try to put what they heard into practice.

Inspired and a little overwhelmed could describe the follow-up reaction of some delegates from the “Convocation of Catholic Leaders: The Joy of the Gospel in America” who spoke to Catholic News Service near the end of the conference, when they returned home, or as was the case for one delegate — when she went straight to a vacation.

“I took 30 pages of handwritten notes and I’m trying to copy them while I can still read them,” said Deacon Christopher Ast, director of the Office of the Permanent Diaconate for the St. Louis Archdiocese.

He said he is still processing some of the breakout sessions he attended that took a close look at the work the church is doing and its challenges ahead. He also is convinced the archdiocesan delegation of 20 should “get together as a group soon than later” to figure out as “how to roll this out” to parishes and Catholic agencies and service providers.

The delegation met each night during the convocation to share what they were getting out of the convocation and they plan to meet in mid-July to discuss next steps.

Krisanne Vaillancourt Murphy, a parishioner from St. Peter’s Church in Washington and a delegate with the Washington Archdiocese, said she felt she was “still on a high” two days after the convocation ended.

She didn’t think the feeling would get put aside either because the delegation already met for two hours before heading home to “capture that emotion and analyze what the Spirit was doing,” she told CNS.

The group plans to meet again in a month, but she said that initial discussion showed how people were personally touched by the four-day event and also were asking tough questions about what they were “still wrestling with” — challenges for their parishes, the archdiocese and the broader U.S. church.

Vaillancourt Murphy, who leads a diocesan marriage prep program with her husband, said what she found most inspiring about the convocation was how church leaders seemed to be willing to try something new — “another way we haven’t tried.”

She said working out the details of how the church can better reach out to people puts convocation delegates at the start of something new akin to the closing words of Mass: “Go forth to love and serve the Lord.”

“Our story is just beginning,” she said.

Cindy Black, a delegate from the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend, Indiana, similarly felt that her delegation should be “very intentional about laying out a plan of how we will do things differently after this.”

Black, executive director of Redeemer Radio, a Catholic radio station based in Fort Wayne, said the delegation, like many other groups, talked about what they were getting out of the convocation during lunches. But she looks forward to a future follow-up to “unpack” the convocation’s message and not necessarily start new programs but instead simply find ways to integrate what they learned about being missionary disciple “into our lives.”

She said the number of people at the convocation — the 3,500 delegates, who gave up their time on a July 4 holiday weekend — said something too. “All those people were willing to sacrifice and go to learn and be challenged. They didn’t go to be patted on back but to learn: How can I share Christ better?” she said.

The next steps for many of the delegates remained unclear but they still knew something would come of the experience.

Amelia Jean, a 17-year-old delegate from the Diocese of Rockville Centre, New York, and maybe the youngest attendee, was advised by other delegates to take on a leadership role in the church after she spoke up at a breakout session called “Youth on the Margins” where she was surprised she was the only young person in the room.

Jean, who just graduated from high school and is starting college in the fall, said her primary church involvement has been as an altar server at St. Martha’s Parish on Long Island.

She told the delegates they would likely not survive in her high school as she spoke about challenges teenagers face. She also stressed that young people want to be heard, and in that same vein, she said they might see her on a panel at a future gathering.

Young adults also want to be heard, a group of young adult ministers told CNS July 3, pointing out they were glad convocation delegates were hearing tough challenges about the number of young Catholics leaving the church.

The challenge to reach the growing number of “nones” — those who claim no religion, even if they were raised Catholic — means church leaders will need to do things differently at the parish and diocesan level taking direction from “Evangelii Gaudium” — Pope Francis’ apostolic exhortation on the church’s mission to evangelize the modern world — and from the upcoming Synod of Bishops on youth and vocations, the youth leaders said.

“It will take time and there might be a period of mourning” as parishes learn to do things differently, said Jonathan Lewis, director of young adult ministry and evangelization for the Washington Archdiocese, but he added: “If you can reach young adults, you can reach everyone.”

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Follow Zimmermann on Twitter:@carolmaczim.

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