First, I am grateful I got significant response to the post on the Synod last week, and everyone who responded personally over the multiple Cafe social platforms had exceptionally good points to make. In fact, I would like to address as many as I can, but each deserves a full post because of the complexity of the question.
The first person to weigh in was Mary, one of my distant relatives from Pennsylvania. She and her husband are extremely active in their parish and have raised three remarkable daughters to adulthood. She asked this question: “How are we going to engage the unchurched and underchurched? Are we supposed to stand at the entrances of other churches and hand out forms to all those folks? To those who self-identify as former Catholics? It will be another exercise of ‘speaking to the choir’ imho.”
Thank you, Mary. In a few sentences you correctly targeted not one but two issues which may derail the Synodal process. First, your sentence, “It will be another exercise of speaking to the choir” reminds us that in the last half century or so, since Vatican II, we have loyally participated in a seeming endless series of programs which promise to restore the vigor of the Catholic Church at the parish level and enrich the universal Church. I suspect that we are growing weary of them. I must admit that when the Synod appeared on my personal radar, I had something of the same reaction—not another half-baked bureaucratic program leading to nothing. I was so unenthused that when a particularly good friend, a Doctor of Theology, asked me how I was going to get involved in the Synod process, I told her I was tired of Church programs and wanted to be left alone in my golden years.
If you google the web pages of dioceses at random, you will find that many of them in the United States are in the process of some localized structured renewal unrelated to the Synod. This morning I picked at random the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, which is featuring “Nothing Compares to Being There.” This is a campaign—well organized—to invite back to weekly Mass those who discontinued regular participation at Eucharist during Covid. The problem is that this program, and others like it, assumes that Covid is the facilitator of the decline, when there is a large body of research which establishes that the exodus from the altar predates February 2020. Nor did I see anything suggesting dialogue in the Philadelphia program; it is essentially “come back to us where you belong.” A pastoral effort, to be sure, but nothing synodal about it.
During my years as a Franciscan priest and parish pastor, I was elected to the Order’s three-year and six-year meetings, called “chapters,” to address problems and create better ways to enhance the community life of the friars on the East Coast of the United States. Each of these chapters produced a working document to be implemented by the local communities. Toward the end of my years with the friars we produced a document called Franciscan Life and Ministry, or colloquially, FLAM. Several years later we returned to write a revision of this document. The product quickly became dubbed “Son of FLAM” and became something of a poster child for the reality that meetings, documents, and plans were just not cutting it.
Why have so many Church projects of renewal died? The gifted Catholic writer G.K. Chesterton [1874-1936] may have put it best: “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and left untried.” Chesterton’s adage explains why so many Church ventures do not deliver the goods, so to speak, whether they be the works of parishes, dioceses, or the universal Church itself. First, we nibble around the edges looking to avoid what our founding documents tell us to do—the Gospels, the Nicene Creed, Francis of Assisi’s Rule for the friars, written in his own hand; the “hard” challenge that Chesterton speaks of. There is no mystery to what Christ wants of us—to pray always, to care for the poor, to “be one as the Father and I are one.” Most of us—individually and corporately—are engaged in “conscience negotiations” about how far we want to take this, how hard do we want this to be.
Consequently, all our Church dialogue is tainted by this dishonesty. It is critical to admit this as we enter the Synodal phase. In fact, the best that could come out of the Synodal process is an intimate confession of our individual and collective sinfulness, one to another. Only then can the forgiving grace of God loosen our tongues to speak the words that build the Body of Christ on earth. If I understand Pope Francis correctly, this is the dialogue of saving unity he wishes the entire Church to embrace. To admit our sinfulness and failure to live the Gospel as well as our need for the saving example of Christ is the unifying principle of the Church.
In our prayers for the fruitfulness of the synod, we would be amiss if we did not pray for the deacons, priests, and bishops of the Church. It is impossible to escape the reality that the line between the sacramental charism of leadership and the intoxication of authority and power is often crossed, many times unknowingly. Again, the success of the Synod will depend upon the honesty of the ordained clergy: that they understand the pope’s intention, that they preach it clearly, that they facilitate the process to the fullest, that they seek help for the process if they do not understand the art of effective collaboration, that they encourage openness, and finally and most painfully, that they hear sincere fraternal correction, when necessary, coming from their people. The mistakes of ordained leaders do not lessen their ministry or importance to the Church; rather, admission of “clericalism,” pride, academic sloth, insensitivity, etc., bring our clergy to closer communion with the faithful.
And so, Mary, only time will tell as to whether our march toward Synodality is the highway to the New Jerusalem or forty more years in the desert. But to your second point about reaching the unchurched. I am going to suggest that the terms “churched” and “unchurched” are much less useful than we may think. We tend to put stock on the number of the “churched” because it is the only visible metric we have for measuring the relative health of the parish. [As a former pastor, I looked at attendance through the eyes of my accountant, LOL.] It is unwise to assume that because someone is in the pew with frequency, he or she enjoys a full communion with God and is in less need of the “spiritual field hospital,” to use Pope Francis’ phrase, than an individual who is not in our pews but may enjoy a communion with God that we can scarcely imagine. The elder brother in the parable of the Prodigal Son never abandoned his “pew” at the father’s table but his true soul was revealed in a painful display.
That said, it is exceedingly important that the Synod process involve those who once sat side by side with us in the pew and who have sought spiritual solace elsewhere. The assumption is often made that someone who absents himself from Catholic worship is “the guilty party in the divorce.” We have good research now that those who have left the practice of the Catholic faith have done so for a myriad of reasons, many of them quite understandable. The groundbreaking St. Mary’s Press/CARA 2017 study, “Going, Going, Gone: The Dynamics of Disaffiliation in Young Catholics,” found that departure from the Church begins around the age of thirteen, and as early as 10. When I read this study, I found these results very confirming. For an eight-year-old child, not fortunate enough to sit in one of the first three pews, what is the actual experience of Mass for him or her—spending an hour watching the backside of the grownup in front? And does he get more from the sermon than we adult unfortunates? No one has ever stopped to consider—or considered it important enough—that our very architecture [and our preaching and music selections, too] alienate children from Mass. It occurs to me just now that the Synod process should listen very carefully to the young and the very young, who are “unchurching” under our noses.
I do not think we need to visit other churches and hand out forms, as Mary humorously put it. But I think everyone who reads my words today knows dozens if not hundreds of family members and friends who are no longer affiliated with Catholicism, however one defines that. I could go through three lists right now and produce at least five hundred names: my family, my old seminary classmates, and my Facebook friends. In a perfect world—and even in the real world—I would ask them to tell me about their faith journeys.
I will give one example. One of my close friends from my seminary and ordination class is celebrating his birthday today. He beat me to seventy-four by three weeks. He retired recently from his position as a highly respected Episcopal pastor in North Carolina. I would hardly call him unchurched. At the same time, how much richer the Catholic Church would be if we understood the spiritual call that led him to the Episcopal priesthood after he was ordained with me. I would never say to him, “We’re gathering the fallen-away Catholics back to the fold, and we’d like you to join us and reconsider.”
What I would rather say is this: “You began your baptismal and ordination journey in the Roman Catholic tradition, and then you were called to another branch of Christ’s family. Can you share with us something of your journey that might enrich and reform us as we assess our Roman Catholic stance toward God’s mission through Christ?”
Invite as many as you are comfortable with, with the understanding that their experiences are invaluable to us, as we humbly listen. And let God take it from there.
The Synod is Coming! The Synod is Coming! Has Paul Revere ridden through your home, your parish, your diocese yet to ring the bell and gather all the grownups in the town square to spring to action? The Synod on Synods, summarized in that snappy catch phrase, “Synodality,” has captured the fire and imagination of all American Catholics, eager to engage in a billion-wide consultation with the pope and the world’s bishops to form a future vision of the Church under the headings of “Communion, Participation, Mission.” A wave of energy and excitement has engulfed the country! Or not.
First, what is going on? Last year Pope Francis convoked a Synod or worldwide meeting of bishops to discuss the process of how the Church members communicate with each other [communion], work with each other and the world [participation], and spread the Good News of Jesus Christ [mission]. The Synod, scheduled for 2023, will be preceded by the largest consultation process the Church has ever attempted.
Whether this is all news to you, or you are confused about your role to play in this process, really depends on where you live, who you know, and “how plugged in your diocese is” to the happenings in Church World. National Catholic Reporter’s update of December 14, 2021 indicates that across the United States some dioceses are moving ahead energetically, and some are doing nothing. In Orlando, my home diocese, there was evidently a gathering at the Cathedral in November, though I heard nothing about it in my parish and it is not clear from the website who was invited and what, if any, follow-up is planned. [This would describe many of the dioceses I checked.] Some dioceses, such as Savannah, GA, are merging the Synodal process with diocesan discernment and planning programs already in the works locally. Lincoln, NE, is conducting its listening process entirely by email. St. Augustine, FL, has sent postcards to every Catholic on record throughout the diocese.
Because of Covid, among other things, the Vatican’s directives to the world’s bishops for the process of the Synod were late getting to the post office. The official Vatican document outlining the theological principles of the upcoming Synod were not released till September 7, 2021. As anyone involved in Church life and ministry is aware, the diocesan-parish calendars follow the fiscal year, beginning July 1. The introduction of a universal and novel program of such major importance—and there is no precedent for such a focused world-wide consultation--has caught many segments of the Church flatfooted. The September document--which runs to about 8,000 words—is no walk in the park; it conveys the theological underpinnings for the inclusion of the faith life and experiences of all baptized persons and the need to hear their insights in the light of the Holy Spirit. It is the kind of document that needs “digestion” lest the process be seen as simply an opportunity for the laity to get their beefs out in the open.
If you do not have time to read the Vatican Document, you might instead look at the guidelines for group listening sessions posted by the Diocese of Allentown, PA, for use in its parish/regional consultations. [Scroll down to sections 4, 5, and 6.] The Allentown outlines were written for group interaction, but clearly there is an understanding that much personal homework needs to be done before meeting in a group encounter. A few samples will suffice. The Allentown participants are called upon to address these questions in group: [I selected several from the full inventory.]
Describe ways that you learned about being Catholic. (e.g., raised Catholic, went to Catholic school, RCIA/Convert, married a Catholic)
How would you describe your relationship with the Catholic Church today? Has it changed over time? How? Would you call it fulfilling? Why or why not?
Does your parish offer a spirit of welcome and inclusion to all in the community?
Does prayer, Mass, the Sacraments, and other Church celebrations inspire and guide your life with the Church?
Why or why not?
How would you describe your relationship with God? Would you call it fulfilling? Why or why not?
How can a church community help form people to be more capable of walking together, listening to one another, fulfilling the mission, etc.?
Where do you hear the voice of the Holy Spirit? What are we being asked to do?
One of the first things that jumped off the page of these questions was the autobiographical nature of the inquiry. Participants are asked to provide a sketch of their journeys from baptism till the present day, which requires an admission of sorts about the bumps and washouts as well as the high moments. I noticed in the Allentown directives—and, as a mental health professional, I highly commend them for this—an admonition to confidentiality [though even in therapeutic groups, I cannot assure members that everyone will respect this, and I must extend that warning, too.] I might add here that there will be times when church/diocesan employees may be sharing hard truths with their superiors and employers, a situation known as a dual relationship. Would a Catholic woman schoolteacher in a parish school suffer consequences if she admitted that deep in her heart, she longed to be a Catholic priest? I wonder if that circumstance has been planned for—and if people are honest in sharing, it is bound to come up.
Honesty is hard to hear, and any of us who enter serious dialogue with our neighbors in Christ is going to hear feedback that is, at the least, troubling, and disturbing. It would be hard for me to say as I must, in a group of people who love our parish, that my mind and soul are not fed in my present parish of 26 years, that it is a struggle to attend each week, and that I am in my 70’s and still wandering in the desert seeking that saving unity experience that Pope Francis has called us to. I have felt isolated there, sad that what I perceived to be helpful educational/theological gifts I had shared with the diocese for forty years were not deemed useful to the mission of my home parish. When our permanent deacon reached out to me a few months ago to prepare the adult candidates for Confirmation, I was on the verge of tears at having been asked—and it proved to be the most heartwarming parish experience I have enjoyed there.
Of course, truth telling works the other way, too. In 1987 and 1988, after a decade of service pastoring the same parish, I had to embark on a campaign to raise about $2 million—an exceptionally hefty sum then—to build the church that stands there today. This involved a year of dining with individual families soliciting gifts of five and six figures. A pastor is never so vulnerable as he is with hat in hand. And in those long personal discussions, I learned a great deal. Some of my families were carrying crosses—personal and financial—that I had known nothing about in ten years. In other cases, parishioners used the opportunities to freely share their perceptions of my imperfections as a pastor. In some cases, these were misunderstandings, but in most cases, they were right, and when the church building finally opened in 1988, I knew in my heart it was time for me to take a hard look at my spiritual trajectory as a priest and rouse myself into the major discernment of my life’s direction, spiritually and vocationally.
On the question of the voice of the Holy Spirit, that too might raise surprises if we were honest with each other. I have posted over the years on the Café blog that my sixth-grade Confirmation experience was one of my true “downer” moments. Having been taught about the fire and power of the Holy Spirit and how it changed the apostles, I was so disappointed that nothing happened, i.e. I felt exactly the same after the ceremony as before. Something of my faith died then, and I really did not recover a profound sense of the Holy Spirit’s intervention till I entered AA in 1990 and a few months later found an Episcopal psychotherapist whose own religious faith, expertise, and blunt honesty turned my life around to the point where I could start, slowly, building a faith experience on stone, not sand. My guess is that the Spirit truly “blows where it will” to quote Saint John; I would be eager to hear how the Spirit has touched others in a synodal sharing encounter.
Again, looking back at the kinds of questions posed in the Allentown format, it strikes me that the kind of sharing process envisioned here cannot be achieved in an evening. The goal is not to fill paper with suggestions, but to share our life with God, historically and existentially. Consequently, for this Synodal process to work, pastors and deacons will need to coordinate preaching for some weeks to explain the process and, equally important, how this process can be continued after the official timetable of the Synod is complete. It is the pope’s vision that this kind of intensive unity at the grassroots level—let alone the interchange between communities and the bishops of the world in communion with the Bishop of Rome—become the standard way we interact and build the Body of Christ, a counterbalance to an overly authoritarian and clerical style of leadership.
It is true that segments of the Church do not trust Pope Francis nor the Synodal process. One glaring problem with the build-up to the 2023 Synod is that there is nervousness and opposition among many bishops and laity about “opening the floor” to the full membership of the Church to have influential say. Any hint that the Church is a “democracy” suggests to some that the Church is sacrificing its timeless principles to the whims of the age, losing its position as the one rock of security that can still be trusted. Such a fear does overlook the fact that the Church is a living and breathing entity empowered by the Holy Spirit to plan its mission and correct its sinfulness. Pope Francis would say that the Synodal process recognizes the power of Baptism, that a true priesthood of the faithful constitutes the Church, or the Church is nothing.
That said, the exercise of a true baptismal life requires study, prayer, and involvement; armchair criticizing is an abuse of the collaborative process. This is even more reason bishops and pastors must ensure that the resources are available for adult conversion and formation. Allentown’s guidelines make note of this; “How do you think people can grow in their faith? What resources (books, clergy, retreats, services, etc.) are helpful to you?” Most adults, I think, do not know precisely what they need—individually and collectively—to enter continuing faith and theological formation, beginning with Scripture study. I am not always confident that dioceses know how to introduce formative programs for professionals, those with college degrees, motivated initiative-takers, etc. [I began The Catechist Café blog to address this need.]
In the discussion of the synodal process, I have ignored to this point a very troubling fact: only 20-25% of Catholics are actively engaged in parish life to the point of weekly participation in the Eucharist. About 50% are Catholic in name only; the second largest identified group by religious pollsters in the U.S. is former Catholics. In truth, most baptized Catholics have already participated in this synod, albeit unknowingly; they left. In some of the better media and journalistic coverage of the Synod to date, there have been calls to do everything possible to talk to this population to find out why they left. This may be one of the most painful populations to hear, but if nothing else, there is an opportunity for healing at the very least. I would be cautious about using the term “coming home,” however, as some dioceses are advertising their outreach. The “home” is dysfunctional; it is better to invite those who have left to become part of the healing of the dysfunction that drove them away in the first place.
Pope Francis has expressed the concern that the poorest and the most vulnerable of society be invited to participate. Some dioceses are considering inviting clients from their Catholic Charities programs to express their needs to the local churches. In states like mine, Florida, the plight of immigrants [many of whom are Catholic] deserves personal witness. Again, this is a learning process that needs to extend far beyond the initial two-year Synodal process. We are being called to examine what Catholic community life is called to look like; there is an inherent discomfort in this because all of us will have to rethink our Catholic modus vivendi. The Protestant philosopher Brian McLaren puts it well in his The Great Spiritual Migration : “And that’s why we so desperately need this third migration: from a religion organized for self-preservation and privilege to a religion organizing for the common good of all.” [p. 153] McLaren is referencing the entire Christian family, not just Roman Catholicism, but the point is well taken for the Catholic household.
So how can you get involved?
The rollout of the diocesan consultations for the Synod is extremely uneven. Ideally, direction should be emanating from your diocese and your parish, but a review of the American landscape indicates that the rollout is uneven, and admittedly may not occur at all in some dioceses. My home diocese of Orlando has the general description of the synodal process on its website, but no concrete program is currently publicized. The “unofficial word” is that the parishes will be responsible for doing the consultations as they see fit.
Many dioceses are conducting “hearing sessions” at a variety of locations. In real life, this is a town hall style meeting. As a pastor, I had exactly two such meetings in twenty years. I am hesitant to endorse this model because the message it conveys is superficiality, the last thing this process deserves.
In an ideal world, a parish would build a series of cluster or small group meetings over an extended period to address the questions from a source such as the Allentown model. The layout and sequence of topics needs to be scheduled and publicized in advance so that participants can pray and reflect upon the questions prior to meeting; as I commented earlier, about every issue on the templates I have seen is profound and autobiographical. I cannot emphasize enough the importance of explanation and support from the pulpit. I do not know whether, in my own diocese, the priests and deacons have received orientations about the Synod and how to address it from the pulpit and other local means.
It may be that the only option open to you officially is an invitation to a town hall or listening meeting. You may wish to attend  to get a whiff of which issues generate the most heat, if not light; and  to see exactly why town hall meetings are ineffective anywhere if you did not know already. But, to take your involvement further in the true spirit of Synodality, there is no law against forming your own cluster to give prayerful and thoughtful consideration to the issues the bishops will be discussing at the 2023 Synod. I would mention to your pastor or someone on the parish staff that you are going to do it; that may generate some energy to rouse others in the parish to “go thou and do likewise.” But your parish cannot tell you it is wrong to gather five of your friends to gather weekly or monthly in a home or a local coffee shop to discuss what the universal Church is undertaking. You can use the Allentown outline or another similar to it.
Can you send your summary of discussions directly to the Vatican? Absolutely. The postage might be a bit—I would send it registered mail—but here is the official address copied from the Vatican directives on the Synod:
General Secretariat for Synod of Bishops
Via della Concilliazone 34
VA-00120 Vatican City
Phone (+39) 06 698 84821 / 84324
On My Mind