Day 1: The Shepherds with their Sheep
During the early morning drive down to the Atlanta airport on Saturday I reflected on my destination. The USCCB had invited dioceses and Movements from around the country to come together to encounter each other and align around the Mission of Sharing the Joy of the Gospel and living as Missionary disciples. I was going to join 3500 others in this convocation that centered around Evangelii Gaudium, and I collected my hopes for the unprecedented event while making my way through the city.
We are part of a beautiful Church, a glorious Mother, the Bride of Christ. Christ’s beautiful bride is no less beautiful for the varied brokenness she carries, because her Spouse died to redeem her, but she is made up of many, many suffering members in a world that often wounds those seeking truth and love.
The radiant love of Christ seeks out the hearts of the broken, the despairing, the divorced, the poor, the empty, the sinner. This weekend he was bringing his Church together to pray about how to be his heart, his hands, his eyes, to gaze with love on the world around us and allow them to know the Lord who adores them passionately, under the leadership of their Shepherds.
Arriving at the gate for my plane I realized I had mistakenly arrived about an hour earlier than I intended. I took the time to read and pray, and looked up to see a familiar face walking towards the gate I was at. It was Archbishop Wilton Gregory, of Atlanta. I greeted him and introduced myself, and then asked him what he hoped we would bring home from this convocation. With that incredible fatherly gaze he has, he smiled and said, “My hope is that we become a joyful Church of Catholic Missionaries.” I asked him what mission fields in Atlanta were closest to his heart and he replied “immigrants and youth.” I told him that sounded great to me because I am an immigrant and I have 6 kids! He laughed and the graciously gave me his blessing.
Getting on the plane, I sat down in my seat and turned to the person sitting beside me. Another fatherly smile from a man in clerics with a pectoral cross- Archbishop Paul Coakley of Oklahoma. I could see that God had mapped this out to be a weekend of encounter. Bishop Coakley, with his kind and interested questions about my life and my mission in Regnum Christi, showed the attentiveness that Christ displayed to anyone near him. I asked him the same question I had asked Bishop Gregory, “What are your hopes for the convocation?” He spoke of the need for the new evangelization, invigorated with JOY, reigniting the Catholic of his flock with the love of their faith and the grave need to fight the despair that has victimized so many of our youth.
Cardinal Dolan presided at the opening Mass and in his homily presented us with our mandate, to be lovers of Christ who bring his JOY to the Church and the World:
“Most of all, these moments will provide us a ripe moment to acknowledge, welcome, and get to know even more…Jesus! For He is here! He gave us His word, a word from The Word, as we just heard, “Whenever two or three gather in my name, I am there in the midst of them!”
The Jesus here now in our midst calls us to discipleship, summons us to unity, imparts to us joy, and sends us on mission.
You get those four words? Discipleship, unity, joy, and mission. Get used to them! You’ll be sick of them come Tuesday!”
As the Mass ended he told us we were about to embark on an incredible journey- not a convention or a conference- a convocation- a journey. It was like Christ lifting our chins to meet His gaze while he told us “In the world you will have trouble, but take heart, I have conquered the world.” He also paraphrased Pope Francis saying “We are not living in an era of change, but in a change of era.”
I was deeply struck by our bishops. The attacks on the church and all she loves are fierce in this country. And here they are with us, 145 bishops, 300 priests, who know what we are suffering in our parishes and family lives. This weekend, they brought us together like brave fathers, not to complain and commiserate, not to strategize or but to raise our gaze to meet Christ’s and seek how he wants us to be apostles of joy, missionary disciples who reach the peripheries with His love. A sign of contradiction and lovers of Christ who ask the Holy Spirit to give us light for new ways to follow Him and to go out into the world to proclaim the Gospel. The tone was set. Praying together, we looked forward to what would come in the next 3 days.