Reflections from the 2019 Canon Law Society of America Convention in Atlantic City

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Written by Father David Klein

A random remark to Father Robert Keeler (at the time the executive director of the Canon Law Society of America) in Saint Louis, Missouri, in October 2014 bore fruit Oct. 14-17, 2019, at Bally’s Atlantic City Hotel. I had asked Roger if the CLSA had considered a true convention resort town like Atlantic City in which to host the Society’s national convention. He said they had not, but it sounded like a good idea. Knowing the Society’s philosophy had become “reasonably priced accommodations in second-tier cities,” I had nothing to lose by tossing out Atlantic City as a potential site. The Society had not gathered at a seaside location in my time as a member, and I believed the Jersey shore offered a lot that other host cities could not, e.g., a boardwalk and an ocean.

To my great delight, in 2017 the Executive Board of the CLSA chose Atlantic City for its 2019 convention, and the wheels were set in motion to bring approximately 350 canon lawyers from the United States, Great Britain, Ireland, Australia and Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates to the Diocese of Camden. Over my 14 years of attending these gatherings, I have noticed a significant change in dialects and demographics; foreign tongues more frequently punctuate discussions; and more deacons and laity (both men and women) are becoming canon lawyers, as fewer priests are available to complete the three-year academic program required for a license in canon law (JCL) degree.

Because Tribunal staff were working the registration desk, we were able to interact with all of the convention attendees as they were given a tote bag filled with materials to help them negotiate the various talks, workshops and liturgies scattered around Bally’s huge meeting areas. Johnson’s Popcorn, Ocean City, donated 500 2.5 oz. tubs of caramel popcorn for attendees to get a real taste of the Jersey shore. I also obtained a “Welcome” banner in the form of a four-foot square Monopoly board and asked each CLSA member to sign it. Many did not know that Atlantic City provided the street names and utilities for that world famous board game. The banner will be displayed prominently in the Tribunal office.

The convention was blessed with beautiful fall weather for most of its duration, giving Society members an opportunity to enjoy the fresh ocean breezes and radiant sunlight. A full moon hanging above the Atlantic Ocean delighted several members who had never before experienced such a natural wonder. Auxiliary Bishop Andrew Cozzens provided the spiritual foundation for the theme of this years’s CLSA convening: Canon Law in the Service of Missionary Discipleship. Ways of fulfilling our obligation to be missionary disciples were offered by Sherry Anne Weddell in her major address: Impelling Obligation: Forming Intential Disciples in the New Missiondeom. Through light humor, facts and her own experiences, Ms. Weddell gifted the CLSA membership with several challenges as to how canon lawyers can use our training to be both leaders and disciples while we journey with the Catholic faithful through the current crisis of perceived institutional betrayal. It was one of the best talks I have heard regarding Pope Francis’ call to all the baptized on being missionary disciples in this modern world. Bishop Mark O’Connell’s closing talk encouraged us to open the door wider for all the baptized women and men to find a place in diocesan governance that best uses the gifts and talents given to them by God Himself. He also reminded us to take seriously Pope Francis’ constant call to be merciful to those we serve.

During the few extended breaks from talks and workshops, many of us headed outside to enjoy a walk along the boardwalk, greeting other CLSA members enjoying the fresh sea air and the sun. Some members took my suggestion to watch the sun rise over the Atlantic Ocean and later thanked me for the recommendation. For others, walking the boardwalk triggered fond memories of their childhood and adolescence, when family vacations to the shore were common. Still others remarked that this experience of our Jersey shore provided an incentive to think about returning at some future time for an extended stay that included more play and less work.

The feedback from the members of the Canon Law Society of America was overwhelmingly positive. Atlantic City has always been a convention city, and almost 350 people from around the United States and the world found a common cause for unity in its embracing environs. The cause is to fulfill our baptismal obligation to become missionary disciples, and form others in taking the Good News of Jesus Christ deeper into the 21st century. I believe that our time at the Jersey shore has prepared the members of the CLSA to become the missionary disciples Pope Francis needs us to be as we continue to spread the joy of the Gospel through the Tribunal’s healing ministry.

Father David J. Klein is judicial vicar, Diocese of Camden.