The Convocation of Catholic Leaders of the US: The Perfect Storm for a New Mission

Part I by Fr. Carl Chudy, SX

Walking from the humid, hot weather of Orlando, Florida to the Orange County Convention Center, you are immediately struck by the large, diverse crowd of Catholics in many lifestyles and ministries, sisters in habits, those without, priests in colors, religious in habits, pectoral crosses,  colored banners, hi -tech booths, and multi-colored stage settings that indicate this was no ordinary Catholic meeting. The US Bishops gathered some of the most extraordinary Catholic leaders from across the country in an opportunity to read the signs of the times, in the light of the gospel, looking together as bishops, lay, religious, priests, and deacons. It was the National Convocation of Catholic Leaders of the United States, and it comes at the time of a perfect storm for a renewed mission.

In this unprecedented opportunity, we  gathered around the inspiration of Pope Francis’ encyclical, Joy of the Gospel, and its insistent call for missionary discipleship in a rapidly changing world. The gathering was remarkable because it was the first time on a national scale, that Church leadership is discussing the fruits of Pope Francis’ leadership, and that bishops, lay people, and others huddle together in numbers over 3,500 to look seriously and critically at the Catholic landscape in America, and begin a conversation on how to respond in the many ways we must.

Multicultural Catholic Life Today 

If you considered the faces of those who attended you would see one element of that landscape. Almost half of the Catholic Church speaks Spanish, most of whom are teenagers and young adults, with the fastest growing immigrant population being Asian, along with African Americans, Haitians, and many others. As culturally diverse as the Church is, the leadership of the Church does not yet reflect that reality very well, and that is an issue the church is grappling with. What makes the present landscape of the Catholic Church different from the past are many things. Here are a few:

  • Technology is everywhere, especially tools for faster and easier communication. This affects how we relate to one another and what our ideas and expectations of “community” are, even within the Church. It also means that the acquisition of information is often instantaneous, though not always accurate, and that events that occur across the world are known by everyone right away.
  • The societal, cultural, and political climate within the United States (and in many cases, around the world), has shifted dramatically, even in the last year.
  • Family life has been affected intensely by socio-cultural dynamics, technology, availability of work, high mobility, and so forth. Family structure and stability has experienced major shifts, and various challenges have arisen from or been associated with the sexual revolution, the erosion of sacramental marriage both culturally and legally, and socio-economic difficulties.
  • Geographically, the traditionally strong presence of Catholics in the Northeast has been shifting to the South and West.
  • Languages spoken in Catholic Churches in the United States have shifted over the last fifty years, with more Spanish, Filipino, Vietnamese, and Korean, for example.

The Catholic Bleed

Mass attendance is also greatly affected. Only 23% of Catholic adults actually attend mass weekly. The lower rate of mass attendance among the “baby boomers” of 32% is matched with their children and grandchildren attending mass in even lower numbers, around 24%. Here is even more:

  • For every Catholic convert in the US, seven Catholics leave the church
  • There are around 41 million ex-Catholics in the US
  • The largest fall out is the number of young people not only leaving the church, but in many cases disengaging from anything that smacks of a religious institution.
  • Around one third of adults in the US are unaffiliated with any faith.

The bottom line is that there are more people leaving the church than those who are actually entering overall. Of course, this may look quite different in local areas where there are often mixed pictures of the Catholic reality. As parishes and schools are closing are closing and amalgamating in the north due to a changing Catholic population, the church in the south and southwest is growing in leaps and bounds. The Catholic demographic nationally is shifting in part to the south in a enormously important historical shift.

These Peripheries of the Church 

Pope Francis has challenged the Church to continue to go out, to go forth, to the peripheries and fringes in search of those who are in need of the Lord Jesus Christ and of his mercy and grace through the Church, his Body: “Each Christian and every community must discern the path that the Lord points out, but all of us are asked to obey his call to go forth from our own comfort zone in order to reach all the peripheries in need of the light of the Gospel.”

In light of the Catholic landscape in the US, here are some peripheries pointed out by the bishops where new ways of evangelization are urgently needed and where the members of the convocation focused their attention:

  • The Church in the Current Political and Cultural Climate
  • The Landscape of Intercultural Awareness and Dialogue in the Church
  • The Rise of the “Nones” and Understanding Inactive and Disconnected Catholics
  • Catholic Social Thought: The Role of Business, Advocacy, and the Community in Reducing Poverty
  • Growing Isolation in America: Individualism and Indifference
  • Social Media and Digital Media: Their Impact on the Church Today
  • Addressing and Understanding the “Throw Away Culture”
  • Violence and Unrest in Our Communities
  • The Impact of Immigration on Catholic Life in the United States
  • The State of the Family and Human Sexuality: Struggles and Opportunities
  • The State of Catholic Education and Catechesis in the United States
  • International Solidarity: Our Role Within the Global Landscape
  • The Landscape of Popular Culture, Media, and News in the United States
  • The Needs and Contributions of Latinos in the US Church: A Primer for Encuentro
  • Dialogue, Relationships, and Encounter: The Ecumenical & Interreligious Landscape
  • Racism and Exclusion in America
  • The Landscape of Parish Life and Catholic Ministry Today

A Response of the Xaverian Missionaries USA

One of the most often quoted lines from Pope Francis during the convocation was the need for us to be “missionary disciples.” For the Xaverian Missionaries, those words have a very specific meaning that get at the heart of our men in the congregation who have given their entire lives over for almost 120 years. That sustained mission, the giving of one’s purpose and direction for the global mission of the church, today is understood in our specified role as a bridge of dialogue and engagement from the church to a world that is neither Catholic, nor Christian, which indeed is most of humanity. It demands that we overcome our “bunker Catholicism” that merely creates a small, Catholic “island” in the big sea of humanity with no real meaningful connection. This “missio ad gentes” has a new paradigm for the 21st century where violence and fragmentation pervade, and that is the paradigm of reconciliation. When we think of this mission of the church today, we are called to help reconcile humanity to itself, and in doing so, to the Lord of hosts.

Christian reconciliation has a specific thrust. It is not rooted, in the first instance, to an idealistic accord between human beings, an approach that might be found in other religious traditions. From a Christian perspective, what makes any kind of reconciliation possible is the fact that God is reconciling the world to God’s very self. This is done through the mediation of Jesus Christ. The need for reconciliation and the resources to achieve it, therefore, cannot be reduced to experiences of disintegration  that calls out for a renewed relationship.   The healing of the divisions of humanity and healing our relationship to God, through Jesus, are organic to each other. (The Ministry of Reconciliation: Spirituality and Strategies by Fr. Robert Schreiter, CPPS.)

Reconciliation is also repairing the damage that has been done between and among human beings.  The fragmentation of our country culturally, and religiously, are all moments waiting for the healing balm of the Gospel. Here the Letter to the Romans reminds us: (2 Corinthians 5:17-20)

“So if anyone is in Christ, they are a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! All of this is from God, who has reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.”

Interfaith and Intercultural Dialogue 

Practically for the Xaverian Missionaries, this translates to a strong interfaith and intercultural dialogue as a church, learning to see our religious and cultural diversity as one of God’s greatest gifts to humanity, among religious and non-religious alike. In this light, the problem of “Islamophobia” in our country has become particularly acute. Anti-Muslim prejudice and discrimination affect many people, both Muslims and those perceived to be Muslim. Islamophobia results from fear and ignorance, political and economic interests, and intentional campaigns to spread misinformation and fear about Muslims and their faith. All of this comes together to contribute to a climate of Islamophobia.

In a report issued in September 2016, Danger and Dialogue: American Catholic Opinion and Portrayals of Islam, only 14% of American Catholics have a favorable view of Muslims and Catholic media outlets tend to have a bias against Muslims, a study has found. The findings, carried out by the Bridge Initiative, a multi-year research project that focuses on Islamophobia at Georgetown University, conducted research on how mainstream and Catholic media consumption correlates to respondents’ perceptions of Islam.

In grappling with the issue of Islamophobia, a Georgetown University research group conducted an examination of conscience of sorts by looking at Catholic perceptions of Islam and how these views may have been influenced by Catholic news outlets and publications. The results are a mixed bag, showing how Catholics often have negative or limited views about Islam, but also giving catechists, church leaders and Catholic journalists a starting point for the work ahead, according to the study’s author, Jordan Denari Duffner.

The convocation clearly showed the work of developing opportunities for interfaith dialogue with Islam, and other faiths and religious and secular polarities throughout the world. In the United States we are especially aware of the climate of fear which can only be healed by bringing Catholics and Muslims, among others, together in dialogue and collaboration. The US Bishops are singularly dedicated to this in the interreligious dialogue that is done yearly throughout the country, and a new national Catholic Muslim project headed by Cardinal Cupich of Chicago. “As the national conversation around Islam grows increasingly fraught, coarse and driven by fear and often willful misinformation, the Catholic Church must help to model real dialogue and good will,” said Bishop Rozanski.

The Perfect Storm for Mission

In the beginning of this post I asserted that the convocation of Catholic leaders was about taking a hard, and critical look at the changing Catholic landscape, and that many of the reasons for these changes and challenges may be seen as the “perfect storm” of mission. The 1991 Perfect Storm, also known as The No-Name Storm (especially in the years immediately after it took place) and the Halloween Gale, was a nor’easter that absorbed Hurricane Grace and ultimately evolved back into a small unnamed hurricane late in its life cycle. The film, Perfect Storm, tells the story of the Andrea Gail, a commercial fishing vessel that was lost at sea with all hands after being caught in the Perfect Storm of 1991.

In one way, the optimism and hope of the convocation was to see the confluence of all of these realities in our changing church and culture as a recipe for a renewed and different approach to the proclamation of Christ that enables hope, builds bridges of solidarity, and slowly heals the divisions all around us. In doing so, we show the face of Christ. We proclaim Christ in our response to the prayer of Jesus, “Father, may they be one as we are one.” One speaker spoke of moving from “crisis” to “kairos”. Kairos is a Greek work often used in the New Testament to signify a propitious and unforeseen moment of God’s action. As Pope Francis urges us to reach out to the peripheries, we also acknowledge that the church itself is remotely present in the lives of many, particularly our young people today, the poor, LGTBQ communities, and so many others. May the sharing of our most precious gift, faith in Christ, truly reach to the “ends of the earth.”

O Holy Spirit, you who first enkindled in our hearts the joy of the Gospel, renew that same joy in those who are preparing for the Convocation of Catholic Leaders.

Enflame the hearts of our bishops and their diocesan delegations; leaders of national organizations and movements; clergy, religious and laity; all who make this event possible; and Catholic leaders across the United States.

Move us to welcome the word of life in the depths of our hearts and respond to the call of missionary discipleship.

O Holy Spirit, transform our hearts and enable us to enter into the perfect communion that you share with the Father and the Son.*

Mary, Star of the New Evangelization, pray for us.

Amen.

There will be two additional parts to this article to cover two important areas for missionaries of the 21st century: The global outreach of the American Catholic Church, and the Bridge between the church and secular culture, particularly regarding our young people, or the unaffiliated, who are leaving our church in significant numbers.

 

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