PROSPECT HEIGHTS — When Cande de Leon and his wife first married he remembers inviting another couple to their small southern California apartment for Thanksgiving dinner, and the look of terror on the guests’ seven-year-old son’s face during a pre-meal prayer, as if he witnessed some kind of ritual or chant.
“That was his first encounter with Jesus and it was at a stranger’s home and he was scared, and I’ll never forget that because I remember that not everybody knows Jesus, and I think we have to keep that in mind,” de Leon told The Tablet. “The biggest challenge is going to be ongoing, and that’s ‘how [do] we stay on about bringing people to Jesus?’ ”
He is referring to the work of the National Eucharistic Congress, which he recently joined in the role of chief advancement officer. He’ll spend the next two years, and beyond, trying to answer that question of how to bring people to Jesus, leading to conversion and ultimately missionary discipleship.
The National Eucharistic Revival is a three-year initiative sponsored by the U.S. bishops to renew the Church by rekindling “a living relationship with the Lord Jesus Christ in the Holy Eucharist,” as stated on the initiative’s website. It was, in part, created in response to a 2019 Pew Research Center poll that found that only 31% of Catholics believe in the True Presence of Christ in the Eucharist.
The initiative launched in June. Earlier this month it launched a “leader’s playbook” to help community leaders navigate the ongoing formation period that goes until May 2024. It culminates with a National Eucharistic Congress in Indianapolis in July 2024, that 80,000-plus people are expected to attend.
It’ll be the first National Eucharistic Congress in the U.S since 1942. de Leon doesn’t envision the work stopping there. In fact, he views the congress as a springboard to accomplishing the overall mission.
“I don’t think anybody thinks we’re going to solve a problem in two years. What we’re trying to do is light a fire and get the Church excited so we’re not waiting 82 more years for another congress,” he said. “It’s not the congress that is the magic bullet. It’s that there’s intentionality and putting a focus on the Eucharist.”
Until then, de Leon views his role of chief advancement officer as figuring out how to get people engaged and plugged into the initiative’s mission. He admitted that “it is certainly an overwhelming and daunting task” given the amount of time until the event, adding that it’s definitely something they’ll have to invoke the Holy Spirit to lead the way on.
He began the role at the beginning of the month, so right now he said his focus is meeting the initiative’s strategic leaders and partners to better grasp the framework that’s been developed for what the vision is and how they plan to move forward.
What he envisions, though, is building engagement through prayer, leadership, and the sacrificial gifts, and emphasizing meeting people where they are on an individual level.
“We should be trying to convert hearts and minds on a mass scale,” de Leon said. “We should be trying to do this with the person next to us. That’s where we have to start.”
He joined the National Eucharistic Revival from the Diocese of Phoenix, where he spent the last seven years as the diocese’s first executive director of the Office of Mission Advancement. Before his time in Phoenix, de Leon began his career in the Church leading development efforts for the Diocese of Corpus Christi, and before that served four years in the United States Marine Corps.
It was some time after his service — and in part through witnessing his wife’s conversion to Catholicism — that he realized his passion was serving God’s mission. He said it’s “overwhelming” to consider that he is now fulfilling that passion at a national level.
“I’m trying not to think about anything else because I recognize that it’s only by his grace that I’m given the opportunity to help in this manner,” de Leon said. “That’s what I try to focus on as I think about all of the people that I’m walking in mission with together, and I’m just kind of giving it my best.”