Orlando International Airport was unusually quiet yesterday afternoon, the Fourth of July. Margaret and I drove to OIA late in the day to pick up our relatives from Seattle. When I pulled into the underground parking tunnel shortly after 4 PM the sky was sunny, the car thermometer read 98 degrees, and my flight app indicated that the plane from Seattle was actually 30 minutes ahead of schedule, always good news for passengers on a six-hour non-stop flight.
From that point, airport operations became considerably more muddled, thanks to a violent and long-duration thunderstorm that seemed to spring up from nowhere. Our guests texted that the Seattle plane had in fact touched down, but because of lightning could not approach a terminal ramp. As the moments progressed the lightning became intense enough to penetrate the main concourses of the airport like a pre-sunset fireworks display. Observing the departure/arrival marquis, I began to see the word “diverted,” as in waived off by Orlando to airports in Miami and Tampa; the arriving international flights in particular were low on fuel. I felt bad for my grand-niece and nephew, who were probably aching to stretch their young legs, but we did learn that storm or not, the plane’s TV sets were working well.
Our plane was held in tarmac no man’s land for about 90 minutes, and finally received clearance to safely approach a gate; the ground rule is that lightning must be no closer than 5 miles for ground operations to proceed. When I drove out of the tunnel with everyone safely on board, I was surprised to see a mostly blue sky; such is Florida in the summertime.
During all this excitement, I forgot that several thousand Catholics from around the United States were dispersing through Orlando International on their way home from a four-day convention sponsored by the USCCB about evangelization. When I first heard about this convention I thought about attending, but I quickly discovered that the event was “invitation only” with each diocese appointing its delegation. But I thought it would be interesting to talk about it on the blog, so I looked about my usual news sources this week and discovered that a lot of reporters took a long Fourth of July Weekend.
The news coverage across Catholic-world has been very spotty, consisting of summaries of keynote and plenary addresses passed about various media outlets. I am including a link to Bishop Barron’s address yesterday, in part because I agree with his contention that too much of Catholic catechetics is “dumbed-down.” But Bishop Barron, famous for his Word on Fire Ministry for some years now, has been beating the drum on the need for intelligent use of the new media in presenting the Catholic Tradition for a long time now. I was curious as to how his and other addresses were received, particularly by some of the people doing the “dumbing down.” In short, floor reporting. But as one disgruntled reader of National Catholic Reporter posted, “I find it strange that National Catholic Reporter couldn't be troubled to send a single correspondent to cover this Convocation.” In fairness, the other NCR (Register) failed to do so, too. Privately I think the convention was closed to the media, except for select releases, by the USCCB but I can’t say for certain.
This is a curious thing for an expensive convocation on evangelization, which of its nature is destined for public consumption. The very idea of holding an evangelization event on the Fourth of July weekend has a self-defeating ring, though there are reasons I will elaborate below. I recall from reading the agenda that many discussion roundtables on a variety of issues were planned, and that some sort of structured follow-up is in the works. The ostensible purpose of this national sharing was information about what is working locally and what is not working—and evidently a lot is not working, or the meeting would not have been convoked in the first place. If history is any teacher, the discussions will fall along two sides of the chasm: those who see evangelization as based on a solid, uniform, cohesive concept of the Church; and those in favor of taking some chances, broadening the umbrella, erring if necessary on the side of humility and compassion.
If American Catholics are to work together on evangelization, the example must come from the leadership, i.e., the American bishops themselves, who divide along pretty much the same lines I cited in the above paragraph. The peculiar dating of this assembly (Fourth of July Weekend) coincides with a very recent movement of many in the bishops’ conference to create a religious and activist posture under the name “Fortnight for Freedom.” Throughout my adult years the USCCB has attempted to motivate Catholics to support specific political platforms, laws, and court appointments to achieve in American public life what the Church has failed to do from its own pulpits. I have a link here to a work sheet put forth by the USCCB for use in parishes during the Fortnight for Freedom novena—and any resemblance to the political agenda of one of our two major parties is not quite coincidental.
Conventions in Orlando are booked far in advance. My guess is that this convocation was originally built around the Fortnight for Freedom movement, but that since the planning began, much has changed in the American Church: the influence and writings of Pope Francis, the appointment of more conciliatory bishops such as Cupich in Chicago and Tobin in Newark, and the intensive divides in our civil nation that trouble citizens of all stripes. It may be, too, that the hemorrhaging of Catholics from the Church simply intruded itself into Catholic life as an issue that tops all others.
In any event, during our storm delay at the airport Margaret and I encountered a friend of many years who was a delegate from another part of the country. Her spin is the closest I have to reporting: I would sum it up briefly. The convocation was intense in terms of time and energy. There were signs of considerable promise in that many of the bishops stayed with their clergy and laity throughout the four-days. She seemed hopeful that the experience would breed more planning and energy, but she is a veteran of Church affairs and has not “drunk the Kool-Aid” full tilt. She observed that the liturgies were entirely male—no female servers, etc. I sensed from her an attitude of hope tempered with realism.
I know far too many Catholic leaders, particularly in my generation, who are “meeting-ed to death.” As Bishop Barron put it in his talk, many of today’s young people take the attitude toward religion of “whatever.” I wouldn’t limit that to just the young. Meetings and promises, followed by the status quo, leave many participants in the Church’s life of all ages to look at new initiatives and mutter “whatever.” We only get so many bites at the apple.