“Evangelii Gaudium” [The Joy of the Gospel], an apostolic exhortation, written by Pope Francis in 2013, was the subject of discussion for the Convocation of Catholic Leaders in Orlando from July 1 to July 4. Pope Francis has clearly called all of the Church, lay and clerics alike, to ponder how we can be proclaimers of the gospel in the midst of the modern world. This was a monumental gathering of the Church in America. The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops consult with a body of lay advisers on a regular basis, asking them for their input on various topics. However, there was something different about this meeting. This was a first time for Catholics leaders to listen and converse on a plethora of topics to make sense of the gospel within the realities of life. The convocation challenged all of its participants to “Go to the Peripheries”, where we find Christ waiting for us. Bishops admitted openly that the Catholic Church has not done enough to make this a reality. The various keynote speakers said that Christ is waiting for us in the poor, the outcast, and the forgotten. They called on Catholic leaders to be missionary disciples in the important tasks to reach people on the margins of society.
The discussion points were clear and frank. Much discussion was given on the topic of embracing Spanish Speaking Catholics, African American Catholics, and Asian Catholics through the United States. Acknowledgments were made regarding ostracizing ethnic groups that live within the parish communities throughout North America. Some bishops acknowledged that diocesan offices were many times remiss in representing the varied ethnic groups in their administrative offices. There was a clear call to all of us to promote the beauty of the Gospel and Catholic Social teaching in the way that we lead our various communities. Following the example of Pope Francis in regard to the mission of mercy, we were being invited to engage ourselves in accompanying those living on the peripheries. This involves accompanying migrants, refugees, and their families as they flee poverty and try and establish a better life. Our parishes are being challenged to offer the hospitality that Christ calls us to (Matthew 25:38, 40) by offering generosity and support to the stranger. Our ministries are to reflect such hospitality, inclusion, and solidarity. After all, the Church in its essence is universal in nature, and reflects the multiplicity of communities.
The Convocation also dealt with topics addressing violence and racism, the reality of broken families and divorce, the disconnect of the youth from the Church, the growing number of those who do not identify with any faith, the growing number of fallen away Catholics, women who feel that their voice is not being heard in the Church, the discrimination and isolation of the LGTB community, and those who sit in the pews every Sunday feeling disconnected to the Church and her mission.
So, what did I take away from this meeting? This convocation reminded all of us that we need to go back to the beginning and become radical intentional disciples of Jesus. This means that we have to know Jesus and manifest his presence in the way that we deal with others. In concrete terms, it means that we follow the example of Jesus and his public ministry. Jesus accompanied the people who lived on the peripheries of his day, that is, the poor, the broken, the blind, the crippled, the leprous, the lost, the prostitutes, the tax collectors, the drunkards and the sinners. Jesus had the ability to meet people where they were at. He was gentle, merciful, and loving with those who needed comfort, healing, strength, and hope. Jesus afforded to those on the peripheries the chance for redemption and a new beginning. He said to those criticizing him for his outreach, “Go and learn the meaning of the words, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice’ (Matthew 9:13).
The example of Jesus has always spoken to me as one of Jesus’ disciples. Just as people did not measure up to the obligations of the religious Law in Jesus’ day, there are people today who fall short in the same way. Many people among us are struggling because of where life has taken them. Many people have gone through the heartbreak of divorce as a result of years of abuse or lack of love. The divorced try to pick up the pieces of their lives. Sometimes they find love in another who shows them the way in which God had intended them to be loved. There are some divorced situations that cannot be reconciled in the external forum of the Church (the annulment process) because of certain circumstances. These people find themselves in our pews invited to the Sacred Table, but feel rejected when they are told they are not permitted to receive the Sacred Meal (Communion). Many of these leave the Church. Families are broken and need support. Individuals who identify themselves as LGTB are looking for parents to accept them for who they are, and looking for support from their Church. Many feel disenfranchised by the way in which the Church deals with their situation. There are people in our community living with disabilities which the world often sees has weakness. Those with disabilities, whether they be mental or physical, are still part of our community and our parish structures need to embrace them. There are people of all ages inside and outside of the Church looking for that moment of encounter with God. Somehow and in some way, the Church in her mission must reach them. People among us feel isolated because of depression or the constraints of old age. Those who are single feel awkward trying to experience fellowship in their community of faith. Migrants around us feel rejected and ostracized because of the negative press given them by sweeping generalizations. The working poor feel all alone. Many live trying to figure out what their purpose in life is, while others are content going through life with eyes wide shut. Many of our brothers and sisters live with the reality of addiction and others mental illness. Their plights normally end in court, prison, or sometimes death. In all these situations, Jesus is calling us to live intentionally as his disciples. Just as he reminded the faith community of his day, “You impose on people burdens hard to carry, but you yourselves do not lift one finger to touch them” (Luke 11:46), he reminds us too that we have a responsibility as a Church to accompany every person with our help and love.
While doctrine and dogma will remain unchanged, our pastoral vision and approaches need to change. We live in different times and are challenged by new realities. People often fall short sometimes because of choice or other times due to no fault of their own. However, we have been blessed with the advances in science, development of thought, and the reflection of faith to respond to situations in new ways. Just as Jesus reminds us that approaching God in new ways by the new wine, new wineskins concept (Matthew 9:14-17, Mark 2:21-22 and Luke 5:33-39), Pope Francis reminds all of us that how we approach the law has to change. He states, ““what does this mean, that the law has changed? No!”. It means, rather, “that the law is at the service of man, that it is at the service of God, and for this reason man must have an open heart”. The attitude of those who say “this is how it’s always been done…”, in reality, is born from “a closed heart”. Instead, “Jesus told us: ‘I will send the Holy Spirit and he will lead you to the full truth”. Thus, “if your heart is closed to the newness of the Holy Spirit, you will never reach the full truth”. Additionally, “your Christian life will be a half-and-half life, a patched up life, mended with new things but on a structure that is not open to the Lord’s voice: a closed heart, because you are not capable of changing the wineskins”. (Pope Francis, Domus Sanctae Marthae, 18 January, 2016). This ministry of accompaniment means that we approach the mission of the Church in new ways by taking a risk. It also means that we might be criticized for doing it. Nonetheless, it is what Jesus calls us to do. It requires of us an open and generous heart.