This combination guidebook and journal has been developed to help delegates prepare for the Convocation of Catholic Leaders gathering in Orlando, Fla., set for July 1-4. CNS photo

This combination guidebook and journal has been developed to help delegates prepare for the Convocation of Catholic Leaders gathering in Orlando, Fla., set for July 1-4. CNS photo

Editor's Note: The convocation will be livestreamed during the four days. To watch, visit the USCCB website.

By Jennifer Mauro | Associate Editor

This summer's Convocation of Catholic Leaders comes at a time when the U.S. Catholic Church is seeking how best to respond to a changing social landscape while bringing Pope Francis' vision for a Church that offers mercy and joy to the world.

Called by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, the historic convocation will find more than 3,000 Catholic leaders – bishops, clergy, religious and laypeople – meeting July 1-4 in Orlando, Fla., to focus on how the Pope's 2013 apostolic exhortation, "Evangelii Gaudium" (The Joy of the Gospel), applies in the United States. The invitation-only convocation aims to equip attendees with strategies and best practices for preaching the Gospel in a way that reaches today's culture.

Among those attending is a 12-member delegation from the Diocese of Trenton and approved by Bishop David M. O'Connell, C.M., that consists of parish, campus ministry and ecclesial movement leaders as well as diocesan staff. Together, they represent a wide range of experience and a rich diversity of religious expression, said Terry Ginther, diocesan executive director of Pastoral Life and Mission. 

“The diocesan leaders attending have the ability to influence Catholic schools, religious education, sacramental preparation, adult faith formation, evangelization, family life, parish life, Hispanic ministry, pastoral planning and diocesan communications,” she said. “The other members of the delegation will have an impact on black Catholics, members of the Catholic Charismatic Renewal and ministry on the campuses of colleges and universities, as well as missionary activities within the Diocese.”

Jeff Schaffer, director of Campus Ministry for Georgian Court University, Lakewood, and member of the delegation, said he thinks the conference is a great opportunity of growth for the Church.

“It will be a large gathering of leaders from across our nation with a wide diversity of expertise and experience being asked, ‘How can we live the Gospel more authentically and joyfully?’” Schaffer said. “With that kind of energy and openness to the Spirit, I hope for a creative and compassionate response to the concerns and challenges of our society and all who live within it.”

Angela Dodson and her husband, Michael Days, who are both active parishioners in Blessed Sacrament-Our Lady of the Divine Shepherd, Trenton, will be attending the four-day convocation as well as the National Black Catholic Congress in Orlando that immediately follows the convocation.

“I hope the conference will provide a deeper understanding of some of the forces at work in the Church today and how we can address them in our ministries,” said Dodson, a journalist and former hostess of the Diocese’s “Black Catholic, Yes!” radio program.

She explained some of those forces as diversity, demographic changes, a decline in parish attendance, church and school closings, racial tensions and immigration, especially from Africa.

Fellow delegate Diana Hernandez, a Bonds of Marian Love missionary who was involved with Princeton University’s Catholic campus ministry before her recent graduation, hopes the convocation will create a powerful wave of evangelization across the United States.

“I pray that the convocation helps us become the saints that we were created to be,” she said.

Ginther said the convocation’s aim to embark on a new chapter of evangelization is similar to the Diocese’s work with Faith in Our Future and the Together in Mission Project. 

“Our structures and ministries are being renewed so that we can focus our attention on becoming and forming missionary disciples,” she said. “In sending a delegation, we are looking forward to being part of the national conversation about supporting and undertaking the new evangelization. We are also hoping that the members of the delegation will return to the Diocese better equipped to form others in our local Church to ‘go forth and engage the world with the joy of the Gospel.’”

Hernandez said she is looking forward to hearing clear guidance, under the leadership of the bishops of the United States, when it comes to evangelization.

“Because Bonds of Marian Love’s main mission is to evangelize, especially those who have fallen away from the Church, this convocation gives us an ideal opportunity to ensure we are aligning our work with what our Holy Father asks of us,” she said. “It can help us ensure that our apostolate worldwide is based on the Holy Father’s desires, and that our work in this country contributes directly and effectively to the efforts of the Church in the United States today.”

Schaffer said he wants utilize new ideas from the conference into his ministry at Georgian Court University – specifically ideas on how to share the university’s Catholic, Mercy identity.

“As an institution sponsored by the Sisters of Mercy, we are always looking for ways to live our mission more fully and with greater authenticity,” he said. “This is our way of building God’s reign on earth.”

He said he’s also looking forward to learning from others attending the conference.

“I will cherish the chance to network with other pastoral ministers and learn how they are serving their local communities with passion and hope. I also anticipate quality workshops and discussions that will suggest ways to address the particular needs and challenges of my own community of faith,” he said. “I feel that there is a lot of wisdom out there in the broader Church that doesn’t always find opportunities to be shared.  I think this may be one of those opportunities.” 

Dodson agreed. “I especially look forward to the Masses and to meeting people from all over the country. I am hoping to bring back new ideas and a fresh perspective on the challenges we face with so much change in the horizon in our Diocese and in the world.” 

Mixing and mingling is one of the goals the convocation’s organizers had in mind from the start. Planning for the gathering, titled "Convocation of Catholic Leaders: The Joy of the Gospel in America," has been underway for years, and those involved say they want attendees to learn from each other during the invitation-only event.

Like the wider society, the U.S. Church is grappling with how best to respond to rapid sociological changes: demographics including a rising Latino population and people leaving organized religion, an economy that has led to a smaller middle class, a broadening of the legal definition of marriage, polarization along ideological lines and technological advances that have changed how people relate with each other.

How to respond under the guidance of Pope Francis will begin to be discussed during the convocation. Each day will have its own theme for participants to consider in light of changing Church and social structures: July 1 will focus on national unity, July 2 on landscape and renewal, July 3 on work and witness and July 4 on spirit of mission.

There also will be plenary sessions featuring panel discussions pertaining to the respective themes with nearly two dozen breakout sessions afterward exploring wide-ranging topics influencing the Church's work. Mass will be part of each day as well.

“I am excited to have the delegation as a whole think together about the challenges we face and opportunities that exist for sharing the Gospel in the Diocese of Trenton,” Ginther said. 

Catholic News Service contributed to this report.