ORLANDO, Fla. (CNS) -- Theirs was a monumental responsibility: shepherding lay leaders, cardinals, archbishops, bishops, religious, deacons, musicians, event staff and a legion of volunteers at the historic "Convocation of Catholic Leaders: The Joy of the Gospel in America" July 1–4 in Orlando.
"This convocation is a journey, and there will be three of us here to guide you through the next four days," said Bishop Edward J. Burns of Dallas, one of the event's emcees.
The consistent presence -- on stage and off -- of Bishop Burns, along with emcee Julianne Stanz, director of new evangelization for the Diocese of Green Bay, Wisconsin, and moderator Gloria Purvis, co-host of "Morning Glory" on EWTN Radio, kept the entire program flowing smoothly despite any behind-the-scenes hiccups.
Archbishop Thomas G. Wenski of Miami summed it all up: "Just three words -- a wonderful encounter."
Sponsored by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, the convocation brought together more than 3,100 lay and religious leaders from 160 dioceses and 185 national organizations. They gathered to explore the current challenges and strengths of the church and its evangelization efforts.
Bishop John G. Noonan of Orlando, host of the convocation, joked that when New York Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan, an event chairman, "called me five years ago to tell me he'd like to come to Orlando in July -- he didn't tell me how many he had invited!"
"Welcome as we celebrate the joy of the Gospel!" Bishop Noonan told the delegates.
"All the good, dedicated, committed lay faithful present truly touched me," Bishop Burns said in an interview for Catholic News Service, "especially knowing that they are the Catholic leaders in their dioceses and Catholic organizations."
"It was powerful to see them engaged in conversation on how we can be missionary disciples," he said. "In addition, seeing the authentic faith of every person on stage and how they shared it so honestly. It was incarnational -- we definitely encountered the word made flesh."
Stanz, who is a wife and the mother of three young children, was impressed by the numbers of Catholics, especially the young people who were all hearing the message personally and realizing, "I can do this!"
"There was the transformative message that each of us is being called and sent out not only by the bishops but also by Jesus Christ himself," Stanz said. "What was most surprising was the availability of the cardinals, bishops, speakers -- the experts working in ministry that made conversations familiar, intimate. I didn't expect it.
"People witnessed to their struggles and the challenge of living out their Catholic faith in 21st-century America. I saw the face of Jesus very clearly," she added.
In an interview, Archbishop Jose H. Gomez of Los Angeles said, "I understand the pain and the challenges and this is a blessing for me to serve them."
"Even with these difficult subjects, there was always openness, happiness and congeniality," Purvis said. "People were willing to share intimate things, they want to work on everything to make it right, to do what we need to do. It was not about me -- it was about the conversation and how we can better serve the Lord."
A highlight for Purvis was eucharistic adoration. "The public witness on our knees praising God -- I was overcome with tears and grateful to be able to worship. I was very much humbled by how kind people were in my role as moderator. I felt they were encouraging me."
The event, which marked a first in U.S. church history, was a national response to Pope Francis' 2013 apostolic exhortation, "Evangelii Gaudium" ("The Joy of the Gospel"), according to organizers.
The exhortation lays out a vision of the church dedicated to evangelization -- or missionary discipleship -- in a positive way, with a focus on society's poorest and most vulnerable, including the aged, unborn and forgotten.
In addition to lay delegates, attendees included 155 cardinals, archbishops and bishops, along with 380 priests, 175 women religious, 125 deacons and 10 religious brothers.
The top 10 states that sent delegates included California, Texas, Florida, New York, Ohio, Maryland, Pennsylvania, Colorado, Minnesota and Michigan. The top dioceses sending delegations were Cincinnati, Orlando, New York and Miami. Nine of the Eastern Catholic eparchies sent over 50 delegates.
Following the final plenary, delegates met with their respective bishops for goal setting as a result of the convocation. Bishop Noonan was effusive in his gratitude to and for all who had contributed in making the event so seamless.
"What do you want to do for the next few weeks?" Bishop Noonan asked his delegates. "Rest and read over what you have absorbed -- deepen the experience. Listen again -- the seeds have been planted. Make it more of a spiritual time.
"Pope Francis has called us to get moving," he continued. "People are saying a lot on social media -- they are motivated and inspired to spread the good news and bring it into their homes. We will use this weekend as inspiration."