Written by Mike Walsh
When the Convocation of Catholic Leaders was announced last year, Bishop Dennis Sullivan decided to send a large contingent representing many of the ministries and communities of the South Jersey area — schools, faith formation, youth and young adults, Hispanic ministry, African American ministry, social justice, and more.
In all, 24 delegates from around the Diocese of Camden flew to Orlando to attend the July 1-4 conference, sacrificing time with family and friends over the long Independence Day weekend to instead learn and share with their colleagues from around the country what their issues were and what they were doing to combat them.
In the next edition of the Catholic Star Herald, we will have reflections from many of the delegates; however, here is a sampling of what some of our own Catholic leaders encountered at this first of its kind event.
“Personally, I was very impressed by the energy of the convocation. I really want the delegates to bring that back to their ministries,” said Bishop Sullivan, who concelebrated at the Masses, attended all the plenary sessions and several breakouts. He also presented as part of a panel titled, “Living in the Peripheries of Urban Communities,” which focused on the unique challenges and opportunities of life in urban areas and how the Church can be a center of support, strength and advocacy.
Jose Rodriguez Jr., the Young Adult Minister at Divine Mercy Parish in Vineland, and the youngest of the delegates from South Jersey at 24 years of age, said it was an eye opening experience. “It inspires me to work harder to engage with our youth.”
“It was comforting to know that our parish and the diocese isn’t alone in going through these issues affecting the Catholic Church,” specifically related to young adults distancing themselves from Church activities.
Rodriguez is grateful for the connections he made with other Young Adult Ministers. He remarked that his colleagues elsewhere in the country have seen success when people felt they were fully engaged in parish life. His new network of nationwide colleagues also immediately offered him all their tools that they use in their ministry.
Bernard Reynolds, a parish council member at the Parish of Saint Monica in Atlantic City, primarily came to the conference “to enrich my own knowledge of the Catholic faith. What works and what doesn’t in parishes.”
He specifically attended sessions focused on violence and unrest in communities, life and dignity of the human person, and Hispanic culture.
“What I learned is that evangelization all starts with self, though not in selfishness. We need to improve our own understanding of faith before we can instruct others.”
Laurie Power is the Director of Lifelong Faith Formation at Holy Child Parish. She expected to hear about best practices, but she received so much more through the event.
“The liturgies have been particularly beautiful. They are something I don’t get to experience every day. The music, the multi-languages, the large gathering of people fully participating. Being in the midst of so many Catholic leaders was so encouraging to me. The networking was fantastic.”
She said her favorite session was called “The Rise of the ‘Nones.’” “Many young people believe, but they can’t find people living the faith authentically. They want to see real examples. Even in their own families, young people can’t find fellow faithful. It became apparent to me fairly quickly that family faith formation was an important element for the future of youth and young adult ministry,” said.
Kevin Hickey, the Executive Director at Catholic Charities, Diocese of Camden, gushed that “this is the most unique Catholic conference I’ve attended in my 30 years as a professional. The most animated and energetic.” He was particularly astonished by the openness of the people he met in his sessions, which included a bishop sharing about the murder of his sister, a priest living in recovery talking about his addiction to pornography, and a heavily tattooed young man speaking in great detail about his former life as a drug addict.
“I think this new openness can be attributed to the influence of the young people. As well as Pope Francis’ 2013 apostolic exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium, The Joy of the Gospel, which speaks so plainly about how we should be encouraged to live our faith proudly and publicly.”
Katie Waldow, Director of Youth and Young Adult Ministry at Saint Damien Parish in Ocean City, had never attended any kind of conference of this nature before so she had no idea what to expect, but she too thought it exceeded anything she could have considered. “I got great tips and the issues discussed during the breakouts were very informative — especially how to be better facilitators of ecumenical relationships. Realizing that we need to treat every person, irrespective of religion, as a child of God.”
But the session that really impacted her was called “Feminine Genius: The role of women in the church.”
“It was very inspiring to see women in leadership positions in the church being advocates.
Bringing the beauty of femininity into the church. Encouraging us as women to be at the table. To be in dialogue in the church.”
She also “loved the praise and worship service with Christian contemporary musicians Matthew Maher and Audrey Assad.” The service, held on Monday night was a feast of sight, sound and energetic faith on display that many in the contingent remarked was the first time they attended a Catholic event that had such a evangelical Christian energy.
Mike Chambers is president of Paul VI High School, Haddonfield, and he had no idea what to expect. “Honestly, had I, it would have exceeded my expectations. I read the pre-meeting materials, and I thought it would be interesting. However, what I’m really taking away is the energy and enthusiasm. The dynamics of the attendees. Their willingness to share their witness. Showing how Jesus is a part of their life.”
He said the first two sessions he attended were really about the art of communicating, not just speaking, but listening. “With an emphasis on listening. Kids today want to be heard. Not one upped.”