Katie Byers says her inclusion in a delegation to a special conference held recently in Florida illustrates the priority of the Catholic Church and the Roman Catholic Diocese of Savannah in “reaching out to our brothers and sisters living among us that are less fortunate; those that suffer in poverty or feel rejected from society.”
The event on July 1-4 in Orlando was the Convocation of Catholic Leaders: The Joy of the Gospel in America.
Sponsored by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, it was the first such event in more than 100 years.
The invitation-only affair was a gathering of key leaders from dioceses and Catholic organizations from across the nation. About 3,500 people attended the event.
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“The purpose was for the leaders of the Catholic Church to meet and discuss the state of the Catholic Church in this United States and how to respond and adapt to changes in this country,” said Byers, director of St. Anne Community Outreach.
She called her attendance an “amazing experience.”
Byers was one of eight people chosen to go from the Diocese of Savannah and the only person from Columbus. Leading the group was Bishop Gregory Hartmayer.
“I was really honored to have been selected to be the voice of those suffering in poverty here in Columbus and so appreciative that the Diocese of Savannah found it important for people struggling on the margins of society to have a voice in the future of the Catholic Church in the United States of America,” she said.
Byers said the theme for the convocation came from the apostolic exhortation of Pope Francis “Evangelii Gaudium,” which is Latin for Joy of the Gospel.
In his work, Pope Francis wrote “the joy of the gospel fills the hearts and lives of all who encounter Jesus.”
He encourages the Christian faithful to “embark upon a new chapter of evangelization marked by this joy, while pointing out new paths for the Church’s journey in years to come.”
In the Evangelii Gaudium, Pope Francis also says,“The great danger in today’s world, pervaded as it is by consumerism, is the desolation and anguish born of a complacent yet covetous heart, the feverish pursuit of frivolous pleasures, and a blunted conscience. Whenever our interior life becomes caught up in its own interests and concerns, there is no longer room for others, no place for the poor. God’s voice is no longer heard, the quiet joy of his love is no longer felt, and the desire to do good fades. This is a very real danger for believers too. Many fall prey to it, and end up resentful, angry and listless. That is no way to live a dignified and fulfilled life; it is not God’s will for us, nor is it the life in the Spirit which has its source in the heart of the risen Christ.”
Byers said the convocation consisted of Mass and devotion, plenary sessions and breakout sessions. The plenary sessions featured panelists including experts in areas of religion, poverty, social justice, faith formation, cultural diversity, philosophy and leadership that addressed issue of change in the Catholic Church.
The breakout sessions also had similar panelists, but there was time to engage in discussion and small group exchange about issues.
Byers attended sessions addressing poverty, discrimination and violence.
“Catholics in this country experiencing a significant and cultural shift,” Byers said. “While Catholic churches in the North and East are closing, churches in the South and West are experiencing record growth.”
Byers said Georgia is seeing Catholic growth in both urban and rural areas and Bishop Hartmayer told her there is a new parish and three expanded churches in the Diocese of Savannah.
She said that currently the Diocese of Savannah has 55 parishes and 24 missions. More than half of all Catholics in the Savannah Diocese are Hispanics. Nationwide, 40 percent of Catholics are Hispanic.
“Many are immigrants,” she said. “That is where our growth is coming from.”
She said it has been reported that 25 percent of Americans are unaffiliated with a church. So, how does the Catholic Church respond to that?
Goals set by the representatives of the Diocese of Savannah at the convocation were that the Catholic Church must increase the Catholic presence in youth and young adults, make better use of social media and technology to connect people to the Catholic Church and must keep increasing opportunities for members of the Hispanic culture to participate in the Catholic Church.
“We must open our doors to everyone and make a concerted effort to reach people,” Byers said.
As for the area in which she is most interested, aiding the needy, the Catholic Church must do more to fight poverty and that means more than providing food and clothes. She said the shrinking number of people being affiliated with a church hurts people in distress because churches and faith-based organizations are the leaders in helping the poor.
St. Anne Community Outreach served 1,100 people just in June.
In his Evangelii Gaudium, Pope Francis wrote, “Just as the commandment ‘Thou shalt not kill’ sets a clear limit in order to safeguard the value of human life, today we also have to say “thou shalt not” to an economy of exclusion and inequality. Such an economy kills. How can it be that it is not a news item when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure, but it is news when the stock market loses two points? This is a case of exclusion. Can we continue to stand by when food is thrown away while people are starving? This is a case of inequality.”
Byers said said the church needs to encourage a fair living wage in this country.
She said about 20 percent of the people in Columbus live in poverty.
“Too often profits are a priority, not people.”