Called to be joyful ‘missionary disciples’


Special to The Dialog
‘Convocation of Catholic Leaders’ meeting engages U.S. faithful to embrace and proclaim joy of Gospel
Earlier this month, I was fortunate to represent the Diocese of Wilmington at the “Convocation of Catholic Leaders: The Joy of the Gospel in America,” in Orlando, Fla. Five other delegates from our diocese joined me there: Colleen Lindsey, Deacon Bob and Marie Cousar, Arline Dosman, and Lynne Betts. Although unable to attend, Bishop Malooly kept a watchful eye on us through EWTN broadcasts and frequent telephone conversations.
As part of this unprecedented gathering of clergy, religious, lay parish leaders and volunteers convened by the U.S. bishops, we participated in a variety of presentations and discussions designed to stimulate creative and forward thinking ideas and plans of action for the American church’s response to Pope Francis’ 2013 Apostolic Exhortation, “Evangelii Gaudium” (“The Joy of the Gospel”). As Bishop Edward Burns of Dallas said, it was “a strategic conversation on forming missionary disciples.”
The convocation was part of an ongoing dialogue that must continue at every level of the church. It is a discussion that is challenging, sometimes uncomfortable, but always exhilarating. I would like to share some of what I carried away from this experience and also to make a few humble suggestions.
Joy in God’s love
During his homily at the opening Mass, Cardinal Timothy Dolan, Archbishop of New York, reminded the more than 3,500 delegates in attendance that, “discipleship united for mission will be characterized and effective only with joy.”

The Diocese of Wilmington’s delegation to the U.S. bishops’ event in Orlando, Fla, “Convocation of Catholic Leaders: The Joy of the Gospel in America,” included from left: Lynne Betts, Msgr. Steven P. Hurley, Colleen Lindsey, Arline Dosman, Marie Cousar and Deacon Bob Cousar. (The Dialog/Courtesy of Msgr. Steven P. Hurley)
The Diocese of Wilmington’s delegation to the U.S. bishops’ event in Orlando, Fla, “Convocation of Catholic Leaders: The Joy of the Gospel in America,” included from left: Lynne Betts, Msgr. Steven P. Hurley, Colleen Lindsey, Arline Dosman, Marie Cousar and Deacon Bob Cousar. (The Dialog/Courtesy of Msgr. Steven P. Hurley)

Not only did these words set the tone for the convocation but they also remain for us, a simple yet poignant reminder that joy must undergird everything that we do as disciples of Christ. It is important to clarify the term “joy” because in common usage, “joy” and “happiness” are often used as synonyms; however, they have two distinct meanings and applications.
“Happiness” can be described as an emotion, while “joy” is more properly related to a state of one’s being. Happiness is easily taken away when life becomes messy. Joy is not dependent upon external stimuli; rather, it comes from the knowledge and assurance that we are created by a God who loves us beyond our comprehension and no matter what life may bring to us, God’s love is unwavering.
This joy is beautifully expressed in the Book of Lamentations, “the steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning” — Lam. 3:22-23.
Lamentations reminds us that even when we find ourselves in extreme depths of sorrow, we can still know joy because we recognize the Lord’s love and mercy.
In John’s Gospel, Jesus tells his disciples, “I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and your joy may be complete” — John 15:11. Indeed, joy is both the fruit and the genesis of authentic evangelization. If we want to be the effective missionary church that Pope Francis has called us to be, then we must begin with joy.
Thoughtfully responding to “Evangelii Gaudium” also means that we must understand the landscape of the church in the United States. This is not as easy as it sounds since often we rely only on our own personal experiences or assumptions about people when making plans. The church is greater than any one parish or diocese.
Given this limited perspective that we are prone to, research is essential to provide valuable insights about the local and national realities of our church. Who are the people that we are trying to reach? What are their hopes, fears, beliefs, engagement with the faith, and so forth?
Considering the Catholic landscape in our country can open our eyes to societal trends and expand our perception of where God is leading us. It can also challenge and motivate us.
Here are some not so surprising statistics that were communicated to us at the convocation:
U.S. Catholic population
• Overall Catholic population has risen over the past 50 years, from 48.5 million in 1965 to 74.2 million in 2016 . . . but so has the number of former Catholic adults in the past 40 years, from 7.5 million in 1975 up to 30.1 million in 2016.
• The population of Latinos in the United States has dramatically increased, adding to a growth in Catholic populations in various geographical areas of the United States.
Mass Attendance
• “More than three in 10 adult Catholics (31.4 percent) are estimated to be attending Mass in any given week . Twenty-three percent say they attend Mass every week (once a week or more often).
• The above statistic on weekly Mass attendance is especially true among the “Millennial” generation (those who were born between 1981 and 2000). Only 24 percent of Catholic Millennials attend Mass at least weekly, as compared to 56 percent of Catholics born before 1943.
• Among “Baby Boomers” (those born between 1943 and 1960), only 32 percent attend Mass on a weekly basis.
Ethnic and cultural shifts
• There are 29.7 million Hispanic Catholics in the United States, making up 38 to 40 percent of all adult Catholics in this country; this percentage is even greater among teenagers and young adults.
• There are also more African-Americans and Asian-Pacific Islanders active in the practice of the Catholic faith than in previous generations.
• Thirty-six percent of all Catholic parishes across the United States have been identified as “multicultural,” meaning that they intentionally serve more than one distinct cultural group. When surveyed, 76 percent of Catholics attending those parishes consider themselves “active Catholics” and U.S.-born black or African-American respondents were most likely to be involved in ministries or activities in addition to regular Mass attendance.
Diverse backgrounds
While these statistics may be startling, they cannot be ignored as they do reflect the reality of the American church. Sitting among the thousands of people at the convocation and looking around, it was clear that the church in the United States is more diverse than most realize. There were delegates in attendance from a multitude of ethnic and cultural backgrounds and their numbers were not inconsequential.
It was also evident that despite our different backgrounds, we all shared the same passion for our Catholic faith; we were all members of the Body of Christ. This was most obvious during the celebration of the Eucharist.
Where are the rest?
While statistics can give us a sense of the demographics of the people sitting in our pews, they do not speak to the vast numbers who do not come. Where are those people who are absent, disconnected, or alienated? Why did they leave or why did they never come? It is important to look within our churches so that we may understand who we are, but we must also look outward because those who do not come are also who we are.
As missionary disciples, we must reach out to those on the peripheries. Pope Francis urgently instructs us in this matter:
“In fidelity to the example of the Master, it is vitally important for the church today to go forth and preach the gospel to all: to all places, on all occasions, without hesitation, reluctance or fear. The joy of the gospel is for all people: no one can be excluded.” — “Evangelii Gaudium,” 23.
As the Holy Father reminds us, Jesus ministered to the peripheries of his society; to the lepers, prostitutes, tax collectors, the physically deformed, and those possessed by demons. They were the people that his society threw away. They lived on the peripheries, on the edges of their communities. They were considered to be sinners, unclean, and unworthy to be in the presence of the Master.
In commenting on humanity’s failure to care for God’s creation, Pope Francis speaks about the “throw away culture,” a culture that focuses on pleasure and consumption, tending to ignore the need to care for all God’s creation, even using persons as mere means to an end. He writes:
“Human beings are themselves considered consumer goods to be used and then discarded. We have created a ‘throw away’ culture which is now spreading. It is no longer simply about exploitation and oppression, but something new. Exclusion ultimately has to do with what it means to be a part of the society in which we live; those excluded are no longer society’s underside or its fringes or its disenfranchised — they are no longer even a part of it. The excluded are not the ‘exploited’ but the outcast, the ‘leftovers.’ — “Evangelii Gaudium,” 53.
Forgotten, outcast
Today, there are still people who are often excluded, forgotten, used or outcast by various elements of society: those suffering from addictions (especially from the opioid epidemic), victims of violence and physical abuse, victims of sex trafficking, members of the LGBT community, the incarcerated, those who are struggling with depression and other mental illnesses, persons with disabilities, the elderly, survivors of sex abuse, immigrants, migrants and refugees.
Unfortunately, this list is not exhaustive. The joy of the Gospel is for them, too; especially for them. As missionary disciples, we are called to go to the peripheries and spread the Good News. We cannot sit in our churches and wait for them to come to us; we must go to them.
Going to the peripheries is at the heart of what it means to be a missionary disciple. Pope Francis says that all of us have an obligation and a vocation to be missionary disciples.
“Anyone who has truly experienced God’s saving love does not need much time or lengthy training to go out and proclaim that love. Every Christian is a missionary to the extent that he or she has encountered the love of God in Christ Jesus: we no longer say that we are ‘disciples’ and ‘missionaries,’ but rather that we are always ‘missionary disciples.’” — “Evangelii Gaudium,” 120.
Courage and boldness
You do not have to be a trained theologian or a scripture scholar but courage and boldness are prerequisites. Missionary disciples must also be people of prayer who receive the sacraments of reconciliation and the Eucharist frequently. They must be willing to go beyond their comfort zones so to embrace and engage others, even those on the peripheries. And as Pope Francis mentioned, it is essential to have an ongoing, firsthand encounter with the love of God through Christ.
“If something should rightly disturb us and trouble our consciences, it is the fact that so many of our brothers and sisters are living without the strength, light and consolation born of friendship with Jesus Christ, without a community of faith to support them, without meaning and a goal in life.” — “Evangelii Gaudium,” 49.
There is an awful lot to consider and much work to be done. This should not overwhelm us as much as it should animate us. As Bishop Robert Barron of Los Angeles told us, “It is an exciting time to be an evangelist.” He suggests that we turn toward the great saints of the church for inspiration.
As I mentioned at the beginning, this is an ongoing conversation in which we are all called to participate. I pray that each parish will begin or continue this discussion on some level.
There will be more conversation on the diocesan level to be sure, but for now I ask that you prayerfully consider the following:
‘Evangelii Gaudium’
If you have not already done so, please read “Evangelii Gaudium.” It is an easy read as the Holy Father speaks in everyday language. He is direct, precise, and most challenging to all in the church. There are great study guides available that will be helpful for group or individual study. It will assist us as individuals and as parishes to sort out our priorities.
To my brother priests and deacons, I encourage you to re-read the section on homiletics. Although the pope pulls no punches, he remains helpful and encouraging. No matter how good we think we are, there is always room for improvement. The homily is one of our most effective means to evangelize those who come.
Welcoming parishes
Our parishes should be the most welcoming places in our communities for they are Christ’s presence in our neighborhoods. Too often, people are turned away and not ministered to because they are “not registered” or they “don’t have the proper paperwork.” People who do not fit into our categories should not be turned away; they should be invited into conversation and accompaniment.
If we are people of joy then let’s show it. Joy is what will attract others to us. As Cardinal Dolan said at the convocation, “People may claim they do not want faith, hope or love, but rare is the person who does not crave joy.”
Start with a smile
The easiest way to put our joy on display is to smile. At confirmations, Bishop Malooly always encourages the young people to smile as a way to evangelize others. It is a great reminder for all of us and it’s the easiest thing we can do. If the Gospel is alive in us then a smile should come naturally.
Perhaps you were able to watch some of the convocation on EWTN; if not the entire event was recorded and can be streamed here:
All of the homilies and presentations are worth reviewing.
The Convocation of Catholic Leaders: The Joy of the Gospel in America was by all accounts a successful gathering, the fruits of which are yet to be seen, but we must be patient and unafraid. Each of us must be willing to do our part. As the parable of the mustard seed from our Gospel this weekend reminds us, wonderful things can come from humble beginnings. A simple smile and a generous spirit can be the beginning of something great.
Msgr. Hurley, vicar general, is moderator of the curia for the Diocese of Wilmington.