National convocation inspires unity
Sharing a spirit of unity, accountability and optimism, 22 representatives of the Omaha archdiocese returned from a nationwide gathering of Catholic leaders with fresh ideas and goals for spreading the Gospel.
They joined about 3,500 others from dioceses across the country July 1-4 in Orlando, Fla., at the "Convocation of Catholic Leaders – the Joy of the Gospel in America" to discuss the concerns, challenges and opportunities facing the church in the United States.
"This was an unprecedented gathering of the vast majority of bishops, and lay and clergy leaders from dioceses around the country," Archbishop George J. Lucas said.
Led by the archbishop, a group of priests, deacons, heads of archdiocesan offices, staff members and parishioners attended the event with more than 300 priests and 155 bishops, including Nebraska’s other two bishops – Joseph G. Hanefeldt of Grand Island and James D. Conley of Lincoln.
Sponsored by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), the event was inspired by Pope Francis’ 2013 apostolic exhortation, "The Joy of the Gospel," which stresses evangelization and missionary discipleship.
"I enjoyed the opportunity to pray, listen and reflect with the group from our diocese on what Pope Francis is encouraging us to do in the ‘Joy of the Gospel,’ and how that is in harmony with our own diocesan pastoral vision," Archbishop Lucas said.
Announced in October and continuing to take shape through discussions and planning, that vision is summed up in the phrase, "One church: encountering Jesus, equipping disciples, living mercy."
For Father Michael Eckley, pastor of St. Pius X Parish in Omaha and a leader of a pastoral vision planning team focusing on mercy, one major takeaway from the convocation was a sense of personal accountability.
"In this particular time in the church’s history and our nation’s history we need to ask, how do we continue to proclaim this Gospel of joy to a culture that is disconnecting from religion? How do we bring the Gospel to the fringes of society?"
"It’s got to start with me," he said. "It’s got to start with my own response to that challenge, and an openness to going beyond where I’m comfortable – to take those risks."
Convocation themes stressed national unity, renewal, and a spirit of witness, with a special focus on reaching out with mercy to people on the margins of society.
"When we evangelize, it’s not just social work," said Father Jeffrey Lorig, director of pastoral services for the archdiocese and a leader focusing on evangelization as part of the pastoral vision planning teams. "It’s an opportunity for people to encounter Jesus."
"There’s a renewed movement in the church about making missionary disciples – a renewal of the original commission," he said. "It’s a movement of the Holy Spirit – a springtime."
"It was a great event – an event of unity for the church," Father Lorig said. "It felt like we were one church."
That sense of unity was felt within the Omaha archdiocese’s group.
"We went with the goal of being on a pilgrimage together. That was really the archbishop’s vision – that we would be together, we would eat together, we would wrap up the evenings together," Father Lorig said.
Father Eckley said the real fruit of attending as a delegation rather than individuals is "… that we come back having had that common experience together, hearing the same message and putting it into action."
Another highlight was the side conversations with people from other dioceses, Father Lorig said. "It was a real opportunity to let the Holy Spirit encourage us through one another."
The convocation, an initiative of the USCCB’s Working Group on the Life and Dignity of the Human Person, was in the planning stages for several years.
It proved to be timely for the archdiocese as it implements its pastoral vision and priority plan.
Many other dioceses and archdioceses are going through a similar process, Father Lorig said.
"When we came back, we felt that our vision really put us in the right place to move forward … with the mission of Jesus Christ," Father Lorig said.
"It was perfect timing for us," Father Eckley said. "We’re on the right path and this gives us an opportunity to put flesh on what we’re already doing and the direction we’re already headed."
The archbishop said he is grateful to the delegates from the archdiocese who took the time to participate.
"I hope they will be a leaven or an influence in their own parishes and their own good works, bringing back the enthusiasm and the hope of the convocation that we can present the Gospel in a fresh way," he said.