In early 2019 the Diocese of Camden will hold one of the most ambitious events in its recent history. The Convocation of Catholic Leaders: The Joy of the Gospel in South Jersey will bring together pastors and representatives from every parish in the diocese for an intensive four days that, it is hoped, will have profound effect — both spiritually and practically — on the future of the diocese.
Like many large scale church events, the convocation will be a celebration of the faith, featuring respected speakers, small group sessions and inspirational music and worship. But it will be distinguished by an emphatic call to missionary discipleship and an openness to dialogue, creative thinking and envisioning new ways the local church can proclaim the Gospel in the future.
The event is being planned by a steering committee led by Donna Ottaviano, director of Missionary Discipleship for the Camden Diocese. She describes the convocation, which will be held in Atlantic City, as an “encounter with Jesus” that will yield practical results.
“This is really a chance for pastors and lay leaders to collaborate for the future of the church Jesus has given us,” she said.
“We are looking to start a holy fire,” she added. “This is about us not simply living on our church campuses but going out.”
The vision behind the convocation, she explained, is based on Pope Francis’ call to missionary discipleship in his apostolic exhortation on the proclamation of the Gospel, “Evangelii Gaudium.” It is the same concept that animated the national convocation held in Orlando, Florida, a year ago.
Two dozen representatives from South Jersey were among the 3,200 Catholic leaders at that gathering, which generated an overwhelmingly positive response among the participants.
Among those who were impressed by the 2017 convocation held in Orlando was Bishop Dennis Sullivan. In fact, he was so impressed that he decided to replicate the experience here in South Jersey. In doing so, he stated in a decree to the priests of the diocese, he was “motivated to renew and enliven the local church” (page 6).
Speaking of the Orlando experience, participant Laurie Power of Christ the Redeemer Parish, Atco, said, “In many ways, the convocation presented a microcosm of all that is good in the church. At the same time, it offered a vision for what the church could be if each of us takes time to encounter Christ on a daily basis and share with others the joy of that encounter.”
That image of Catholic leaders being inspired and sharing their joy – and envisioning what the church “could be” — is essential to the local convocation.
One of the main themes of the convocation, Ottaviano said, will be, “How do we care for the people in our own communities?” The hope is that enthusiasm the convocation will create leads to innovative parish ministries and new forms of collaboration, she said. For that reason, the bishop has instructed every pastor to pick 10 delegates from his parish to attend. Ideally, the delegates will represent different heritages, backgrounds, ages and viewpoints — and include parishioners who have gifts and talents yet to be tapped.
“It’s an important event; the church exists to evangelize,” says Father Chris Mann, pastor at Atco’s Christ the Redeemer Parish.
Even before he had heard about the convocation, Father Mann had plans to begin an Office of Evangelization and Discipleship at his parish, which would work independently and with parish ministries to create dynamic programs designed to foster a missionary community in Atco.
“We need to facilitate the mentality (of evangelization), and help the faithful become empowered to share the Gospel, and understand their missionary responsibility,” he said.
Father Mann witnessed Bishop Sullivan’s excitement after returning from Orlando, and believes that fervor will only get more contagious in Atlantic City — for pastors, and their flock.
Msgr. Roger McGrath, pastor of Saints Peter and Paul in Turnersville, remembers one of the Orlando delegates from his parish, Deacon Anthony Cioe, coming back “quite excited,” and has the same faith as Father Mann in its importance and impact.
“I see it as a great opportunity” to reach out in mission, he said.
“How can we make our church more alive, more welcoming and active?” said Marianela Nunez, a member of the steering committee.
“The goal is to create missionary disciples who can go out and create a culture of encounter with others,” said Nunez, who works as field consultant Latino enrollment in the Office of Catholic Schools. The mother of two young children, she is depending on her husband to take time off from one of his two jobs so she can attend the conference. Others, she noted, will be making sacrifices to participate, “but it is important to be there.”
The convocation is being substantially financed, in part, as an element of the Catholic Strong campaign, under the diocesan portion related to evangelization. It is the first of many initiatives from the diocesan portion of the campaign to better serve parishes directly.