The Joy of the Gospel in America
Winter can be long in Maine. Just about everyone eagerly awaits the 4th of July, the summer, and the good weather. When I first came to Maine, I was told that you don’t leave Maine in summer. It is too beautiful. And I have learned that is true. This year, however, the U.S. bishops decided to have a convocation at the beginning of July, an opportunity to gather Catholic leaders of many kinds from all over the country. It seemed to me that the occasion required an exception to the usual rule. I might have suggested that the convocation could be held somewhere other than Orlando, Florida, in the heat of July 1-4, but I was not part of the planning committee!
With a group of six representatives from our diocese, I headed off to the convocation. Its purpose was to renew the Church in its mission in a changing world. Catholic leaders were being called together to discuss the challenges and opportunities facing the Church in the U.S. in this particular moment. There were more than 3,000 people gathered for the convocation. It was a historic occasion. Only once before had the bishops of the U.S. gathered such an assembly. That was in 1917, when a similar, but smaller, group of leaders was brought together to help the bishops to respond to the needs of the country and its Catholic people as the U.S. entered the First World War. The times were changing then, and they are changing now. We believe the Gospel of Jesus Christ applies to every age and every people. How do we live it today in our changing world at the beginning of the 21st century? That was the question before this convocation.
The convocation asked us first to know where we are today in our Church. We live in a time of profound cultural shifts, many of which have not helped the mission of the Church. We are already well aware of some of these challenges. Family life has changed. Our society sees a push to the cultivation of the individual. In the process, there has been an erosion of our communal life as well as a weakened appreciation for the common good. There is an increasing secularization of our culture. Twenty-five percent of Americans identify as “nones,” that is, those having no religious affiliation. Some 20 million of those are Catholics.
We were not at the convocation, however, only to hear of problems. We were gathered together to seek a new grace, a new impulse of the Holy Spirit to move forward in the power of Jesus Christ and His Gospel. The guiding document for our discussion was Pope Francis’ Apostolic Exhortation, The Joy of the Gospel. There, he calls us to be missionary disciples, to carry the joy of the Gospel into our world. In prayer, in discussion, in learning, we were seeking to be equipped and reenergized to share the Gospel. From this, we were encouraged to take away fresh insights from our conversations. Those conversations were rich and varied. The issues discussed show the similarity of challenges we face across the country. We discussed what parishes might look like going forward and how we might minister better to various groups in our Church, such as our young people and our wisdom figures, the elderly. We heard about caring for immigrants, and ministering to the imprisoned and their families, and to those suffering with addictions.
Whatever the particular issue or problem, however, we were brought back to the central insight of Pope Francis in The Joy of the Gospel. As Archbishop Christophe Pierre, apostolic nuncio in the U.S., reminded us at the end of the convocation, the pope calls us to be a Church that goes forth to present Jesus to the world convinced that “the heart of the human person needs something that only Christ can give.” If we are to bring the joy of the Gospel of Jesus to others, it will only happen if we ourselves have encountered Christ and have committed ourselves to holiness of life. It is the personal encounter with Jesus that can change everything for the Church in the United States. “To be a missionary disciple implies – whether we are a bishop, priest, deacon, religious, or layperson – being a disciple first – learning from the Master and evangelizing using the method modeled by the Master.” Those whom we meet as we go forth “must know that ‘Life is Worth Living,’ discovering through our witness the ‘tenderness of God,’ the ‘Merciful face of the Father,’ which he showed us in His Beloved Son, Jesus, who is the answer to our hearts deepest questions and longing.”
We were all happy to get back to Maine late on the 4th of July, but, like all those with whom we spent the weekend, we knew ourselves as called to be missionary disciples. That is, of course the mission of all of us, to be ready and eager to bring the joy we find in the Gospel to others. Mary, Star of the New Evangelization, pray for us.
Most Rev. Robert P. Deeley, J.C.D.
12th Bishop of Portland