During the first week of July lay leaders from dioceses across the country were called to gather with the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops in Orlando, Florida to discuss the current state of the Church and how to be Missionary Disciples.

A delegation of four from the Diocese of Juneau attended the convocation. Here is what they have to share from their experience.

Nicole Miller, Administrator of Holy Name School

There are many things that make Pope Francis’ Apostolic Exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium (The Joy of the Gospel) unlike anything we as a Church have ever received from the one who occupies the Chair of Peter. Francis’ style of writing, the imagery he uses, and his ‘down to earth’ writing style makes this document refreshingly approachable. In fact, Evangelii Gaudium reads much like a playbook for Catholics in a world that prefers to place God on the B team and park Him safely on the furthest bench.

It appears that from the moment the last page of the exhortation was read, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops set in motion a plan for an unprecedented gathering of Church members to take place in Orlando Florida in July of 2017. Cardinals, archbishops, bishops, priests, religious, and lay leaders from all across America were invited to three days of dialogue and discernment regarding not only the current state of the Church, but also a look into what needs to be done in order for the Church of the United States to truly be a reflection of the joy of the Gospel, a joy that comes from Christ and His Good News. Simply put, the Bishops saw this as an opportunity to stir the delicate embers of a Church that can often come off as less than enthusiastic about the truth it professes to believe.

While the incredible insight offered to us at this convocation could fill an entire edition of the Southeast Alaska Catholic, I would like to share with you a few gems that stood out to me as simple yet life changing truths.

In paragraph 85 of Evangelii Gaudium, Pope Francis officially becomes the first Pope to use the term ‘sourpusses’ in a church document. While referring to lackluster Christians, he proclaims, “One of the more serious temptations which stifles boldness and zeal is a defeatism which turns us into querulous and disillusioned pessimists, “sourpusses” or, he puts it another way by saying, “There are Christians whose lives seem like Lent without Easter.” This statement stirred up the feelings I have whenever I look at photos of myself that I did not know were being taken; I was often photographed with a sourpuss. I then recalled how often people would ask me “What’s wrong?”, when in fact I was feeling the opposite. It was a revelation, an acceptance of an area of my life that I had to change; my resting face did not reflect joy, let alone a welcoming spirit, or at best, a content one.

I began to take notice of those around me, especially when I was at Mass, anywhere my travels would take me. Our Pope is right! We ARE a Lent people without Easter, at least by what we are communicating with our outward selves.

Google the sentence “Saint quotes on smiling” and you will find an array of quotes that claim a smile has the profound power to change hearts; sayings such as, “A word or a smile is often enough to put fresh life in a despondent soul” by St. Therese or “Let no one ever come to you without leaving better and happier. Be the living expression of God’s kindness: kindness in your face, kindness in your eyes, kindness in your smile” by Mother Teresa.

If we’re being honest with ourselves, our lack of positive facial expressions is just the beginning of an iceberg of improvements we as Catholic Christians need to make in order to truly be a reflection of Christ in this world. Yet, we have to start somewhere, so why not here?

At one point during the Convocation, a priest sitting on the panel of presenters shared a favorite saying from his mother that could easily be applied to our churches; “If you are going to invite people to your home, it better be clean, have enough food, and be ready to welcome guests as family.” Patrick Lencioni, the author of the new book The Amazing Parish, took this concept a step further when he stated that the goal of every parish, school, Christian organization, and even family, must be to ensure that everyone who walks through their doors encounter people who are so filled with the love of Christ that they leave proclaiming “Those were the most amazing, kind, and humble people I’ve ever met, I want to know more…”. He countered with a humorous, yet sadly all too real image that, on the contrary, our visitors often feel like they are walking into an insurance company or, heaven forbid, the DMV!

It’s time we take an honest look at our “resting faces”, the cleanliness of our house (churches), and whether or not the joy and humility of Christ is communicated in our actions to those we come across both in our parishes as well as in public. Can we honestly say we are fulfilling Christ’s proclamation that “by this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another”? Do our greetings on the phone, in person, or when it is inconvenient, awkward, and trying, witness to the saving love of Christ?

I’d like to leave you with the words of Cardinal Wuerl of Washington; “We have been given this one moment to proclaim that which we are absolutely certain of; Christ has died, Christ has risen, and Christ will come again.” May the joy of Christ fill your hearts now and always!

Joe Sehnert, Director of the National Shrine of St. Therese

Going to Florida in July is not something someone does without hesitation. The heat and humidity is like a wall. This is what ran through my mind when I was asked to participate in the Catholic Leadership Conference based on Evangelii Gaudium. It shouldn’t have been my fist thought, but honestly, it was.

The fact that being asked to go to such an amazing gathering should have been humbling…which it was…but only second thought, mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa.

Sitting on the tarmac in Juneau, seeing the beautiful mountains with snow made me think again, why am I going to Florida in July?

But as the plane taxied – I picked up my copy of “The Joy of the Gospel” and dove in.

My head was in that book until I landed in Florida, not to tarry my time away, but because the book is riveting, powerful, challenging, and easy to read. It felt as if Pope Francis sat with me on the plane and spoke to me, person to person in plain talk about how we as a church must go forward.

If you worry about your fallen away children, your brothers and sister who have lapsed, people who have been put off by the church, those who have suffered abuse by a church person, and look around and see empty pews, closed churches, dying schools, a church in free-fall, you need to read this book.

If you have sat through boring homilies, horrible music, and experienced murmuring lukewarm parishioners, you need to read this book.

If you wonder where is Jesus in all this you need to read this book.
Without holding back anything about our reality, the Pope shows us a way forward. Not a way to some nostalgic church that was, but a way to a church that is.

Not a church that is focused on herself, but one focused on bringing Christ to others and seeing Christ in others.

So, I walked off the plane and stepped into the oppressive wall of humidity with joy in my heart and a sense of purpose, a sense of calling, an understanding that Jesus called me to this place, at this time, to listen, study, talk, share, worship, and be present to people who share a common love for this One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church, but see her crumbling everywhere around them.

The masses were spectacular. The music awesome. The prayer deep. The people joyful and the passion for Jesus real in every person I met.

Dominique Johnson, Director of Communications

I didn’t know what to expect when I was asked to attend the convocation last winter, but once I arrived for the first day of the convocation I knew that this gathering could help spark change and revitalization to the Church in the United States. With 3,000 Catholic lay leaders in attendance, from different walks of life in the same room, we were able to share our concerns as well as what was working in our different dioceses and parishes.

The biggest takeaway I had from the four-day convocation is that everyone has a role to play when it comes to evangelization and that we need to help each other realize that there is more to being Catholic than attending Mass on Sunday. We need to build better relationships with the people we sit next to in the pew on Sunday and share the joy of God with our fellow parishioners. If we are unable to be joyful with fellow Catholics, how are we able to share the joy with non-believers?

“We do not live better when we flee, hide, refuse to share, stop giving, and lock ourselves up in our own comforts. Such a life is nothing less than slow suicide.” – Pope Francis, Evangelii Gaudium

During the Convocation, I met with Communication Directors from other dioceses. One of the recurring conversations was about using new technology and how embracing technology will help the Church communicate better with youth and young adults. If we are unable to share information about the Church in modes where people are, such as social media, we may not be able to reach Catholics that have left the Church or may be interested in Catholicism.

As we move forward from the Convocation, I plan to work with our parishes to better utilize social media platforms and websites to communicate with their parishioners and people in the community who may have fallen away from the Church.

You can watch the keynote talks from the Convocation of Catholic leaders at http://www.usccb.org/issues-and-action/get-involved/meetings-and-events/convocation-2017/convocation-2017-live-stream.cfm