The Convocation of Catholic Leaders: The Joy of the Gospel in America was held in Orlando, FL from July 1-4, 2017.
I participated in the Convocation, representing The Station of the Cross Catholic Radio Network, and here I offer you an honest reflection on my experience.
Truly there was much good to be affirmed at the Convocation: Daily Mass, a Eucharistic Adoration chapel, a Eucharistic procession on one of the mornings, Confessions available, morning prayer (lauds) was chanted each day, there were prominent devotions to our Blessed Mother Mary (namely a large statue of Our Lady of Fatima on display next to the stage in the middle of the main gathering room, and an evening of Marian devotion that included the Rosary).
There was also much good to be affirmed in what was not present. I didn’t see any agenda of sneaking in any new agey practices, which I have seen and heard about at various Diocesan and USCCB events in the past. I didn’t see any prayer labyrinths or workshops on centering prayer or eneagrams. I also didn’t notice any major liturgical abuses (although the option for announcements at the beginning and the end of Mass was definitely stretched, at one point even bordering on a late-night comedy talk show format, but I digress).
Additionally, many of the speakers were great, one example being Patrick Lencioni, a lay Catholic expert in leadership and organizational health who strongly encouraged the freedom to disagree with ideas in open and honest conversations as we pursue the truth together, which in my opinion is a tremendous need within the Church.
It seems to me that in all these good respects, there are many ways in which the human leadership within the mystical Body of Christ, the Catholic Church, has improved in recent years within the U.S.
The remarks by many of the U.S. Catholic Bishops who spoke were very general, full of unhelpful platitudes, and even often ambiguous. People listening to these remarks could certainly walk away from much that they heard with the impression that our effectiveness as a Church in our mission to evangelize depends on a method of smiling more and getting people to like us more. I also took note of an insidious false idea: that we should downplay any talk or witness of Magisterial teachings that are unpopular in order to be more likeable, because after all, if we can just get people to like us enough then they will become Catholic.
This is utter nonsense.
It is not likability that our effectiveness as evangelizers depends upon, but rather our authentic love for Jesus, His Catholic Church, and for those in greatest spiritual and material need. We don’t need to become shiny, happy people. We need to become true lovers deeply rooted in Jesus and His Catholic Church.
Please don’t misunderstand me: I am very much in favor of being joyful, of smiling, and in having a friendly, welcoming attitude that is naturally likable. These are all good. But joy is not something to be manufactured. Joy is a fruit of the Holy Spirit.
One of the greatest proofs of a life in the Spirit is a deep interior peace and joy that becomes more and more the norm of one’s life, even as various storms batter us. Of course, it is also important to point out, that moments and periods of spiritual desolation when – one feels like the ultimate lie is true, because it feels true – it feels like God is distant or absent or doesn’t care, and it feels like he may never draw near again. These moments and periods of spiritual desolation that don’t feel very joyful are also normal for one living a life in the Spirit. But further, this life in the Spirit of which joy is a fruit, is not something we create, but rather it is a gift, a result of our faith in Jesus.
Jesus calls us to hear the Word of God and to live it to the full. Any idea that people should downplay the parts of God’s Word that are unpopular in order to be more likable is absurd, and it is actually impossible for someone living a sincere, mature faith in Christ to water down their witness or word in this way.
This past Sunday’s Gospel reading lays it out plainly: The Gospel of Matthew 13:1-23 (The Parable of the Sower). Verses 20-21 read:
“The seed sown on rocky ground is the one who hears the word and receives it at once with joy. But he has no root and lasts only for a time. When some tribulation or persecution comes because of the word, he immediately falls away.”
It’s all right there.
Jesus tells us joy is not enough. One can hear the word of God and receive it with joy, but if there is no rootedness, the faith is fleeting and that one who was initially joyful will fall away immediately when tribulation or persecution comes.
Jesus further tells us in verse 23:
“But the seed sown on rich soil is the one who hears the word and understands it, who indeed bears fruit and yields a hundred or sixty or thirty fold.”
Jesus makes it clear: the determining factor as to whether roots are planted and whether fruitfulness occurs is understanding the word of God (Divine Revelation) – humbly receiving Him and all He has come to reveal to us. Jesus is not telling us joy is unimportant, but He is telling us what is most important, where our focus needs to be, and what the right order of things actually is.
Our focus is not to be primarily on our level of joy and how joyful we can get people, but rather our focus is to be primarily on humbly receiving the authentic word of God, understanding that word, becoming rooted in that word, and helping others to do the same. This focus bears much fruit, and this fruit includes the gift of joy.
Unfortunately, I heard much at the Convocation about more smiles and more joy, but I don’t think I ever even heard the words “Divine Revelation,” or “deposit of faith,” or “Magisterium,” or “obedience of faith,” or “assent,” or “dissent,” or “original sin,” or “mortal sin,” or “sanctifying grace.”
What I heard was a very shallow Gospel being proclaimed and a very shallow method promoted for sharing the Gospel.
Here’s the reality that is very clear for all to see statistically: the vast majority of those who already consider themselves Catholic, including the people in the pews (the ones who are actually coming to Mass each and every Sunday), are either at best in extreme ignorance of the deposit of faith or at worst in willful dissent against it.
How can this possibly be?
The only way this can be is if the shepherds responsible for these souls are in extreme ignorance, confusion, or cowardice; or in willful dissent themselves.
I hate that this is where the facts lead. I wish I did not have to report it. In some sense I understand why Church leaders do not want to acknowledge it. Yet, we have a duty to follow the truth wherever it leads and the first step toward solving any problem is recognizing there is one. We must look at it and we must address it.
I didn’t hear anything at the Convocation sniffing anywhere close to this major problem of extreme ignorance and willful dissent from within the Church. The human leadership of the Catholic Church in the U.S. is either completely unaware of this problem or, far more likely, in complete denial.
Imagine a family with a perfect father and a perfect mother who in their perfect love provide perfect commands and teachings as a gift to their children, but the older children commissioned to lovingly hand on the perfect commands and teachings to the younger children don’t do it very well, for whatever reason. The house becomes filled with children who either don’t know the perfect commands and teachings because no one ever shared or explained it all to them, or they do know but they willingly reject the commands and teachings. Younger children then grow older and are commissioned themselves to clean up the mess. What then shall they do?
This is a good question for our U.S. Catholic Bishops because they inherited this major problem of extreme ignorance and willful dissent.
First, is there a willingness to acknowledge the mess? Second, love demands addressing the problem. What will you do to reach out to those in extreme ignorance in the pews? What will you do to reach out to those who are in willful dissent in the pews, who are actually in very grave danger of hell?
It seems to me in both cases, those in the pews need to hear the truth authentically proclaimed and comprehensively explained so that they may have the opportunity to humbly receive it, understand it, become rooted in it, and thus bear good fruit. It is not mere joy that will solve the problem, it is a compelling proclamation of the Catholic Faith that addresses what people do not currently know or believe, it is centering that proclamation on faith in Jesus and His Catholic Church, and it is walking with them (accompanying them if you will) on a journey toward humbly receiving Jesus, lovingly assenting to all Jesus has revealed and handed on to us through the Magisterial teaching of His Catholic Church, and growing more and more in living the fullness of Truth and authentically proclaiming Him to the world around them in witness and in word.
While there was much talk about peripheries at the Convocation, and there are many peripheries in the world desperately in need of Jesus and His Catholic Church, we would do well to put some generous intentionality into engaging the peripheries within the Catholic Church, especially the periphery of willful dissent (which by definition means those Catholics who are not in communion with the Catholic Church, even if they may be sitting in the building and wrongly receiving Holy Communion).
Do we love these people who are in grave spiritual danger enough to risk engaging them, even if it means risking that they will somehow be offended by the perfect commands and teachings we seek to hand on to them for their salvation?
Let me just step back and lay out some broader vision on this real quick…
It is wise for us all to admit that due to the real temporal consequences of original and personal sin that remain in us, even after receiving the Sacraments of Baptism and Reconciliation, we all suffer from a distorted view of reality to some degree. The minds and hearts of all of us are twisted to some degree. When we acknowledge this fact, the natural result is a posture of authentic humility disposed to receive Jesus and His Catholic Church.
We need Jesus and we need the fullness of Truth He has revealed to us in Sacred Tradition, Sacred Scripture, and the Sacred Magisterium of the Catholic Church instituted by Jesus for us. This Catholic Magisterium, or universal teaching office (a gift to all humanity), provides us with an authentic and authoritative interpretation of Scripture and Tradition so that we can solidly know the essential truths about who God is, who we are, and how we are to live even 2,000 years after Jesus’ earthly life. And it is all laid out for us in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, a tremendous gift for us in this time.
Cafeteria Catholicism is not an option. To dissent from any of the Church’s teachings on faith and morals (the content of the Catechism), is to reject the authority of the Church and ultimately it is to reject the person of Jesus. In this sense, to reject something essential of the gift is to reject the Giver of the gift.
For those who have never heard this vision before, of who the Catholic Church proclaims herself to be, our core message can be quite simple: Receive the fullness of the gift (the Magisterial teachings of the Catholic Church) and enter into full Communion you were made for with the Giver of the gift (Jesus). Only then will our reception of Jesus in the Holy Eucharist be honest and only then will it become the fountain of grace you are thirsting for. This is good news!
It seems to me, that our context for evangelizing the world is our need for a posture of humility before Jesus and His Catholic Church and to lead others into a posture of humility before Jesus and His Catholic Church. And therefore we must never downplay in witness or in word any authoritative Magisterial teaching that is unpopular to the world we are seeking to evangelize. It seems to me that the exact opposite is called for. When a Magisterial teaching is unpopular to the world, we must recognize that teaching as one that the world is in desperate need of and we must fortify ourselves in humbly receiving and understanding that teaching in order to wall off the popular errors of the world from infecting our own hearts and minds, and to equip ourselves for living a more authentic witness and proclaiming the Word more genuinely so that we might better reach the world with that aspect of the Good News they are most desperately confused about and deeply longing for.
The reality is we have a major problem of willful dissent within the Catholic Church and it was clear at the Convocation that there is a monumental lack of focus on, and acknowledgement of, this major problem. Also, it was very clear that the popular belief among Catholic leaders is the false belief that we need to downplay the unpopular teachings of the Church in order to better evangelize.
Where do these wacky ideas come from, let’s hear to a voice from Catholic academia for a moment. These are comments from a November 2012 public address by Jose Casanova, a Roman Catholic professor in the Departments of Sociology and Theology at Georgetown University and senior fellow at Georgetown’s Berkley Center (Georgetown describes Casanova as “one of the world’s top scholars in the sociology of religion”):
“Increasing numbers of practicing Catholics are disobeying these actions of the Catholic hierarchy and following their own conscience on most issues related to sexual morality. Moreover there is increasing evidence from public opinion polls…that young Catholic adults are explicitly dissociating their sexuality and their religiosity claiming that religion has absolutely no influence upon their attitudes toward sexuality. We are witnessing on the one hand a Church hierarchy which evinces an almost obsessive focus in defending traditional sexual morality, and on the other hand, a majority of Catholic faithful in the secular would will not only ignore the moral injunctions of the hierarchy but feel increasingly comfortable dissociating their religion and their sexuality. One must wonder: how far this radical dissociation of private sexuality from religion or even from morality can go and where it may lead. In my view it is leading to a radical secularization of the private sphere of individual consciences that parallels the secularization of economics in the 18th century and of politics in the public sphere in the 19th century. In my judgment, the critical defense of traditional sexual morals and a wholesale critique of the modern sexual revolution in the name of natural law principles, one that fails to recognize the providential signs of the times in modern secular moral developments grounded in the sacred dignity of the human person, will be counter-productive and will not be able to play a critical prophetic role vis-à-vis some of the most questionable trends. Only a Church that recognizes and embraces the validity of the core modern moral developments, as part of the providential signs of the times, can play a critical prophetic role in moral and…secular trends.”
There is a lot somewhat shrouded there in intellectual language so let me translate what Casanova is saying:
He’s saying that massive numbers of Catholics dissent from Magisterial Church teaching on most issues related to sexual morality and young adult Catholics are increasingly claiming that their faith has absolutely no influence on their attitudes toward sexuality. He then twists that seemingly accurate statistical data to make the false claim that the Catholic Church has an obsessive focus on defending sexual morality and this is driving people away. So he concludes, it is counter-productive to proclaim the vision of human sexuality proposed by the Magisterial teachings of the Catholic Church and it is counter-productive to help people understand those teachings and say “yes” to all that the Catholic Church expounds for our belief.
Even worse, he says, we need to understand that it is the Holy Spirit who is causing people to accept a new sexual morality that is contrary to what the Catholic Church teaches. Casanova says it is the “providential signs of the times.”
He proposes that what has been considered sin is now good, and we must embrace this new sexual morality of the world and stop talking about natural law and the Catholic vision of the human person and of human sexuality.
I refer to Cassanova’s comments so you can clearly see an example of the attitude and logic from which this lie about downplaying unpopular Church teachings actually comes from. Casanova clearly dissents from the Magisterial teaching of the Catholic Church and he is encouraging a culture of dissent because he disagrees with and rejects the Church’s teaching on human sexuality.
I don’t know Casanova’s heart, but I know the voice behind what he is saying.
It is our enemy the devil, the father of lies, who would like to change the Catholic Church’s Magisterial teachings if he could, but since he can’t ever accomplish that, he’ll take the next best thing: do whatever he can to get people, especially Church leaders, to stop proclaiming the teachings that most need to be proclaimed in witness and in word.
Anyone who echoes this false method of downplaying the unpopular Magisterial teachings of the Church is, in my opinion, falling for an extremely destructive lie from the father of lies.
Does it make any sense to be silent or to tone it down in those exact areas of truth that people are in greatest need of hearing and understanding? Not only is that a retreat from a loving offensive to effectively evangelize the world, but we neglect to fortify and defend ourselves and those within the Church, and the result is that the confusion of world comes in and becomes a confusion in the Church.
It need not be so.
The Magisterial teaching of the Catholic Church is the unchanging love of our Lord Jesus poured out for us and it is our responsibility to know it and share it well, most especially in the areas of greatest confusion.
Abortion, pre-born child killing, is right at the core of this.
Abortion is a crown jewel for Satan – deceiving mothers to kill their defenseless children. There is absolutely nothing good about it. Yet, people have been deceived to the point that our U.S. government allows it, often even promotes it, and we have 3,000 babies being killed each day in the U.S. because their mothers have fallen for the complete and total lie that there is something good about choosing to kill their defenseless pre-born children.
Faithful Catholics, even if the rest of the world is confused, let us not be. We have fullness of Divine Revelation and the fullness of the Sacramental life to guide us. Come, Holy Spirit. Let us not fall for the lie: we must speak up, stand up, and take non-violent action to oppose and end abortion.
This is a call for all of us, but most especially the leaders of the Catholic Church in the U.S.
I know I’m just a little speck before the great office of the episcopacy of the Catholic Church in the U.S., the successors of the Apostles, and I acknowledge my insignificance, but in fidelity to what I believe is the prompting of the Holy Spirit:
I beg you Catholic Bishops in the U.S. — please acknowledge your ability and responsibility to use the massive resources and influence at your disposal to do everything you can to speak up, stand up, and take non-violent action to oppose and end abortion.
And this is the ugly of the Convocation: there is a widespread confusion within the Catholic Bishops of the U.S. that is minimizing and downplaying the evil and unjust law of pre-born child killing in our nation.
It is not that they are not doing anything, it is that they think what they are doing is enough. And it is not even remotely close to enough.
Let’s put it in perspective:
If it were any other segment of our population that was being denied their right to life by an evil and unjust law, and they were being killed by the thousands every single day – would we not rise up as a Church at once and take whatever non-violent action was necessary to end it as soon as possible?
Of course we would.
What I picked up at the Convocation was that the Catholic Bishops in the U.S. are so deeply confused on this that they think such action would get in the way of our efforts to evangelize. They believe that standing up with all they’ve got to end abortion is either not their responsibility or they believe it would be counter-productive.
I do not know the hearts of the Bishops, and I will presume that none of them are knowingly and willfully following a plan of the enemy, but it seems to me that this is precisely what Satan wants the Bishops to think:
“You’re doing enough to stop abortion. More would get in the way of your mission to evangelize. It would be counter-productive. Stay focused on evangelizing.”
Failing to live an authentic witness of our faith in Jesus and His Catholic Church, failing to stand up with maximum determination against the greatest outpouring of evil in our time, failing to defend our pre-born brothers and sisters who are being slaughtered every day in the U.S. by the thousands, is a sort of anti-witness to the world and that very much hurts our efforts of evangelization, of sharing the Gospel compellingly with others.
In Conclusion and Summation
We are wise to humble ourselves and receive Jesus fully through the Magisterium of His Catholic Church. Jesus is the “pearl of great price,” “the treasure hidden in the field worth selling everything for,” and we are wise to humbly receive Him on His terms, through the Catholic Church instituted by Him for this purpose, and thus allow Him by our free will, full access to form our minds and our hearts accordingly.
Receiving and understanding Divine Revelation roots us in Jesus and in His Catholic Church. We must humble ourselves to set aside our own thoughts and our own ways, to understand His thoughts and His ways and thus become truly rooted in Him and in His Catholic Church. This is the source of authentic joy.
Smiles can be faked and joy can be an act, but authentic joy cannot be manufactured by anyone, it can only be received as gift as a result of being rooted in the greatest gift we could ever imagine: Jesus and His Catholic Church.
The biggest problem in the way we are living out the evangelizing mission of Jesus and His Catholic Church is not a deficit of smiles and joy, but rather a deficit of humility, receiving and understanding the word of God, and rootedness in Christ and His Catholic Church.
It seems to me that Church leaders are pointing at one fruit of rootedness in Christ as the problem (joy), but Christ Himself is pointing at the source of that fruit as the real problem: humility, receiving and understanding the word of God, and rootedness in Christ and His Catholic Church. And when our thinking and our focus is off, by consequence our speech and our action is off.
To be rooted in Jesus and His Catholic Church is to be rooted in the fullness of the Gospel and it becomes impossible to water down our witness and proclamation of the unpopular aspects of the Gospel. This is a temptation of the evil one: we must resist it and repent of it where it has crept into our hearts and minds.
It is the world that is obsessed with a false vision of human sexuality. It has been deceived to turn from an inheritance that leads to authentic joy, ultimately eternal joy, for a counterfeit that is grasping for fleeting pleasures, yet ends in destruction, ultimately eternal death.
We as a Church would be wise to lovingly counter the most popular and most destructive lie the world is obsessed with by cultivating a rigid and life-giving determination to proclaim in witness and in word the authentic vision of human sexuality proposed by Jesus and His Catholic Church for which the world is desperate for.
Nowhere is a bold witness of love more urgently needed than in protection of the poorest of the poor and the very least among us: our pre-born brothers and sisters.
People may ultimately disagree or reject Jesus and the teachings of His Catholic Church regardless of what we do. But most will respect an authenticity that is consistent with what we say we believe, especially young people.
And for some, this respect may lead one day to an openness that could make an eternal difference.
When we as a Church do not stand up with every non-violent option at our disposal against such a demonically evil and unjust law as pre-born child killing, we give a sort of anti-witness to the world that says we don’t really believe what we claim to believe.
As Cardinal Tobin, Archbishop of Newark said at one point in the Convocation:
“A budget, after all, is a theological statement.”
I whole-heartedly agree.
And in light of the reality of pre-born child killing in our nation, the way the Catholic Bishops of the U.S. are budgeting their time, their influence, and the resources at their disposal is radically inconsistent with what Jesus and the Magisterium of His Catholic Church teaches about the dignity of the human person and serving the least among us.
I say all of this in what I sincerely believe is true love. And I pray that by God’s grace, it will somehow do some good.
But there it is: the good, the bad, and the ugly of the Convocation of Catholic Leaders in my experience and assessment.
Let’s close with the words of Pope Francis from his Apostolic Exhortation, The Gospel of Joy, Evangelli Gaudium, paragraph #195:
“When Saint Paul approached the apostles in Jerusalem to discern whether he was ‘running or had run in vain’ (Gal 2:2), the key criterion of authenticity which they presented was that he should not forget the poor (cf. Gal 2:10). This important principle, namely that the Pauline communities should not succumb to the self-centered lifestyle of the pagans, remains timely today, when a new self-centered paganism is growing. We may not always be able to reflect adequately the beauty of the Gospel, but there is one sign which we should never lack: the option for those who are least, those whom society discards.”
Come, Lord Jesus.
Help us to speak up, stand up, and take effective non-violent action to end abortion as soon as possible, and thereby offer an authentic, compelling witness of the Gospel for the world.