ALLOUEZ — Catholic conferences are common occurrences, but a gathering planned for July in Orlando, Fla., has the potential to be historic.
Not only is the Convocation of Catholic Leaders drawing participants from every U.S. diocese, including Green Bay, it also has a strong northeast Wisconsin flavor. That’s because one of the four-day event’s emcees is Julianne Stanz, director of the diocesan Department of Evangelization. In addition, Bishop David Ricken has been instrumental, through his duties at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, in organizing the convocation.
Officially titled “The Convocation of Catholic Leaders: The Joy of the Gospel in America,” the gathering July 1-4 in Florida will bring more than 3,000 Catholic leaders and laity together to reflect on Pope Francis’s 2013 apostolic exhortation, “Evangelii Gaudium,” (“The Joy of the Gospel”) and how it can be integrated into church life.
Jonathan Reyes, executive director of the U.S. bishops’ Department of Justice, Peace and Human Development, told Catholic News Service that the gathering is “a way for Catholics across the diverse spectrum of the church to unify in Christ.”
Encountering Christ together
“So we’re going to encounter Christ together, converse together, pray together, encounter one another and talk very practically about what are the challenges, what’s it mean to be missionary disciples at this moment and how do we go out and do it,” said Reyes, one of the convocation organizers.
What is different about this gathering is the diversity of attendees. “This group of people would never be in the same strategic conversations together if it weren’t for the bishops bringing them together,” Reyes told CNS. “We have people from all socioeconomic groups.”
“What I love about the approach of the conference is that any bishop can gather a delegation and it’s constituted the way he feels leadership is reflected in his own diocese,” Stanz told The Compass. “So you’ll definitely get people who are well known as speakers, but the majority of people who are attending, and in fact, quite a few of those attending, are leaders in their own communities.”
Bishop Ricken chose to send a delegation comprised of millenial Catholics who serve the local church in different ministries, said Stanz.
“So they are not what they call ‘the usual suspects,’” she said. “We would have leaders in the Native American community, the Hmong community, the Hispanic communities. You have leaders who are working to help young people understand the pope’s approach on stewardship and environment. You have other people who are engaged in peace and justice work, so it’s unexpected leaders who have influence in their own circles coming together.”
Diocesan delegation includes young adults
The Green Bay delegation includes 11 young adults and four diocesan leaders. In addition to Bishop Ricken and Stanz, Fr. Dan Felton, moderator of the diocesan Curia, and Jane Angha, young adult coordinator, will attend the gathering.
“Bishop Ricken had talked with some of his brother bishops on the (makeup) of their delegation,” said Stanz. “He wanted to get a sense of what other people were doing. He felt strongly about taking a core group of young adults from our diocese — the Vatican and USCCB definition for young adult is age 18 to 39 — and chose delegates who were in that age range.”
The delegates represent various aspects of parish or Catholic life, added Stanz.
Delegates have backgrounds in Catholic education, youth ministry, religious education, social justice, evangelization and young adult ministry. “Bishop felt that (millenials) are a demographic that we don’t hear enough from and he wanted to meet with them and hear their needs and their concerns as we move forward as a church,” added Stanz.
Delegates meeting twice month
The delegates began preparing for the convocation this spring. They received copies of “The Joy of the Gospel” and are meeting twice a month to review each chapter.
“We haven’t known each other long, but I can tell you we have dynamic, bright, passionate and articulate young adults who are very excited about the purpose of the convocation,” said Angha, who is coordinating the gatherings.
During their meetings, Angha said the delegates not only delve into the pope’s exhortation, they also talk about “the importance of discipleship, accompaniment and how this generation will be church.”
“From our discussions and sharing, I know they are concerned about people in their generation in relation to church, faith, spirituality and finding a place to belong,” added Angha. “They struggle with finding events and experiences, parish settings and communities that know and understand them. They want to find out how to create a church that is invitational, and is all about discipleship, friendship, faith and joy.”
Angha added that, while in Orlando, the delegates plan to meet “some of the ‘influencers’ in the church today” who will be attending, such as Word On Fire founder and Los Angeles Auxiliary Bishop Robert Barron, and Carolyn Woo, former executive director of Catholic Relief Services. “We want to ask them a few questions and share a bit of what we are hoping to accomplish back home,” she said. “We are going to make the most of every minute.”
Spotlight on delegates
Several delegates told The Compass that they are looking forward to the Convocation. Representing the religious education ministry is Adam Horn, 30, director of religious education at St. Bernard Parish in Green Bay. Horn said he was honored to be selected as a convocation delegate.
“I am looking forward to this opportunity because I am concerned about the future of the Catholic Church, at least in the Western world,” he said. “More and more Catholics are falling away from the church and at the same time we have Christian authors writing about how we have lost the culture war and are living in a post-Christian America.
“My hope, as a director of religious education attending the convocation, is to gain insight into how to possibly reverse this in my immediate area by reaching out to our parish families who send their children to RE classes, but do not attend Mass regularly,” he added. “It seems to me that many Catholic families compartmentalize the faith to be merely a Wednesday night learning experience. If that’s all it is, why would the students care enough about it to desire to go to Mass and receive the Blessed Sacrament? I hope to learn how to show that, although knowledge of the faith is very important, growing in a relationship with Christ through his church is paramount.”
Maikue Vang, a member of St. Bernard Parish in Appleton, helped launch her parish’s first Christian Family Movement group. Families meet once a month to discuss faith matters and enjoy a meal together.
“I got a call to lead a small group for Lent and after praying about it, I said yes,” she said. “Our Lent group was made up of young families. We got through Lent together and really enjoyed sharing our faith, along with struggles as a Catholic family, with one another and that’s where the idea (of Christian Family Movement) was born.”
Vang said that after seeing young families drop out of regular church attendance after their children receive first Communion, she needed to act. “I envision a parish bursting with young families who want to stay with the church and be involved with the church. I just didn’t know where to start,” she said. “I’ve never thought of myself as a leader, but I’ve come to accept that, leader or not, I want to bring families together through Christ.”
Hope to “breathe life into our churches”
As a delegate at the convocation, Vang said she hopes to “collect ideas and learn new ways to breathe life again into our churches. I want to see our congregations grow and I want to hear people talking about how awesome their churches are again.”
Vang, 32, is married to John Vang and has three children, Bella, 13, Justus, 9, and Paxton, 5.
Sarah Bradford, 26, serves as communications coordinator for the Diocese of Green Bay. She also coordinates a young adult group through St. Francis Xavier Cathedral and St. John the Evangelist Parish. Bradford, a graduate of St. Thomas Aquinas Academy in Marinette, moved to Green Bay from the Chicago area when she began her job with the diocese in 2015.
“I noticed there were more young adults at Mass, but no one was connected with one another,” she said. “I love planning, organizing and working with people, so I figured this was my opportunity to use those gifts at the service of the church.” The young adult group has been meeting every Thursday night for nearly two years.
Her experience with the young adult group led to an invitation from Bishop Ricken to attend the convocation.
“I think I have a unique perspective working for our diocese professionally, but also coordinating young adult ministry through a parish on my own time,” she said. “It’s valuable to have a broader perspective, while still knowing the challenges that ministries and individual faith communities face on a weekly basis.”
The church’s new evangelization is a topic that interests Maggie Melchior, 32. She is coordinator of new evangelization and faith formation at St. Paul Parish in Combined Locks.
“I am looking forward to the convocation as an opportunity to dive deeply into the best methodologies and pastoral practices for evangelization, accompaniment, worship and mission that are currently bearing amazing fruit,” said Melchior.
The gathering will bring people from a variety of experiences and perspectives together for the purpose of “making disciples,” she said. “When I return home, I hope to have a deeper and broader understanding of the direction the Holy Spirit is moving in the Catholic Church in America.
“I will bring back all that I learn and share it with our parish leadership and our volunteers,” added Melchior. “I am praying that the vision and formation of the convocation will be a catalyst that helps us all understand practical ways to go out and help others to come to know and love Jesus Christ.”
Youth ministry representative
Sarah Gavin, 35, will represent the diocese as a parish youth minister. She serves as youth ministry director at parishes in Sturgeon Bay, Maplewood and Institute. She said Bishop Ricken’s decision to send a delegation of young adults to the national convocation is an indication of the diocese’s desire to have them serve as leaders. “It only makes sense that young adults are invited,” she said. “So often that age range is talked about, but they aren’t talked to or with.”
Her goal is to return from the convocation and “fire up the young church.”
“Oftentimes I see young adults fall away from the church and it’s hard to get teenagers excited about the church when there aren’t a lot of young families/adults present,” Gavin said. “I’m excited to hear what our U.S. bishops are going to discuss about how we can help that population. No one wants to be part of a dying church and if our young people see young adults on fire and excited, they are going to be more likely to continue practicing their faith.”
Focus on real-life issues
Stanz said the Convocation will focus on real life issues facing the church and will have an impact on how the U.S. church implements missionary discipleship and the new evangelization.
The delegates and Bishop Ricken “will plan a project to benefit the diocese upon their return,” she said. “They will be led in a planning process when they are there to help bishop think about missionary discipleship, particularly with young people. So it’s not just a conference, it’s really a movement. It’s something that’s going to give the church a fresh perspective and that’s something that’s badly needed, I think.
“It’s the first time since World War I that the U.S. bishops have gathered in this way with delegates in this country, so it’s pretty exciting,” she said. “It’s not as much theoretical as it is being the hands and feet of Christ.”
Stanz said the topics to be addressed will be ones young adults face.
“How do you reach people who are not practicing their faith? What about reaching out to persons with same-sex attraction?” she said. “How is service a bridge for young people? What does a healthy conversation look like in Catholic universities from the perspective of faith? So they are really diving in to some really timely topics and they are hoping for conversation around those topics to really help people.”