Kerry Alys Robinson

Embracing dialogue, advancing the commonweal

Sunday, July 30, 2017

For the first time in 100 years, Catholic bishops in the United States hosted a national convocation of lay, religious and ordained leaders to explore and celebrate new and effective ways to promote the joy of the Gospel and form missionary disciples. More than 80 percent of dioceses participated formally by sending delegates accompanied by their bishop, and hundreds of leaders representing national Catholic organizations and ministries were included. In total, 3,500 people attended over four days in July in Orlando, Florida.

My colleagues and I, representing Leadership Roundtable, which promotes best managerial practices in the church, were grateful for the invitation to be present, to serve on panels, to staff an informational booth and to interact with the many delegates from across the country.

It felt like a large family reunion, with people I have long loved and admired, people to whom I quizzically marvel about being related, and not a few eccentric relatives.

What was most striking, most laudable and most encouraging was the diversity.

The diversity was immediately evident in gender, age, ethnicity, and ability. All 50 states were represented. There were women religious; deacons; single, married, separated, divorced and widowed lay leaders; parents; seminarians; novices; cardinals; brothers; and bishops. Myriad ministries and apostolates were represented. Impressively, the women and men gathered represented the full theological and political spectrum. What was most remarkable, however, was how pronounced in civility, basic human kindness, genuine curiosity, decency, and respect the delegates and their interactions were — on panels, in break-out sessions, over meals, and in the informal moments of the convocation.

Of course, for people of faith who are called to be Christ-like, decency and respect should not be notable, but defining. And yet it has appeared these days that there is no place immune to our political atmosphere of divisiveness and acrimony. To the dismay of many, our own church has found itself polarized, its members quick to judge and categorize, too eager to condemn and eschew dialogue. At times, we are no better as members of our faith family than we are as citizens of our country.

It could not have been an easy commitment on the part of the USCCB and the planning committee to host such an ambitious convocation at such a moment in our political history. But I am glad they did. It was a step in the right direction, for our church and, however unintended, for our body politic.

The convocation was a reminder that people who have vastly different experiences, formation, expressions of piety, ministries, pastoral and leadership roles, and priorities can enter into civil, respectful dialogue about the health and vitality of the church. It was a reminder that all of us always have more to learn. And it was an education in how truly wide the net can be — must be — cast; how expansive the tent that can be — must be — pitched. And what a beautiful blessing this is.
There is no doubt it was frustrating and perplexing at times, for all of us who find ourselves on one side of the theological or political spectrum, despite often resisting such banal and unimaginative categorization. But discouragement, dismay, and enmity did not triumph.

Perhaps it was the emphasis on joy. Perhaps it was Pope Francis’ injunction to encounter people different from oneself and accompany them. Perhaps it was the daily celebration of the Eucharist, the commitment to prayer, the invitation to the sacrament of reconciliation. Grace was evident in dialogue and active listening. And the effect was an inchoate but palpable hope for our church and, by extension, for our country and indeed our world.

We left the Convocation of Catholic Leaders: The Joy of the Gospel in America with the conviction that character matters. Humility matters. Extending the benefit of the doubt to people one disagrees with matters. Marveling at God’s diversity matters. And if there is anything sacrosanct and urgent about what it means to be Catholic in the world today it is that we are all — very single living person on the planet — made in the image and likeness of God. Treating everyone, without exception, with a little awe, respect, and even reverence might be just what the church and world need.