The synod committee represented lay people and priests from various parts of the diocese. They were from differing age groups as well as differing social and theological perspectives. This helped form the questions for the listening sessions.
To understand the material here presented, it will be helpful to state the three questions asked at all the listening sessions.
1. What brings you joy in your local parish or in the larger Church right now?
2. What brings you sadness about the Church?
3. Where do you see the Spirit leading the Church?
While the committee encouraged participation by marginal people such as inactive Catholics or people who felt alienated from the Church, they did not turn out in significant numbers. Those who did, though, expressed gratitude for being invited and allowed to speak.
The diocese sponsored seven English-speaking sessions and four Spanish-speaking sessions. There was a universal expression of gratitude for the process. People at all the sessions were amazed that this was taking place and they felt heard by the Church.
The committee met several times in between the listening sessions, which helped to hone the process as it went along.
At the suggestion of a couple of committee members, those priests who came to the listening sessions were formed into their own group for discussion rather than being mixed with the laity. There was some concern that the priests would dominate the discussions, not because they necessarily wanted to but because the people might readily defer to them.
It should be said, though, that the laity appreciated their pastors’ presence and support of the process.
One of the most significant decisions the committee made was to structure the listening sessions with prayer interspersed between the discussions. The prayer was a combination of spoken and silent prayer, with an emphasis on the Holy Spirit. This helped to contextualize the discussions and kept people from rancor or argumentation. The emphasis was on genuinely listening to the Holy Spirit and each other.
As was expected, a wide range of responses were voiced at the sessions. For the most part, people did not argue with each other or feel as if they needed to defend the Church’s position. They just allowed the ideas and opinions to come out, and they honored each other as equal members of the community. No one later expressed to the committee any frustration or that they were scandalized by the opinions of others.
A few people who participated in the sessions later wrote to the bishop or to the synod committee to express their opinions. They did not say that they did not feel heard at the sessions. They seemed, rather, to feel the need to put forth their concerns in a lengthy, organized way lest they be missed or forgotten.
There is considerable positive feeling about the local church. The local bishop enjoys support and appreciation for his friendliness and availability. FOCUS missionaries on both college campuses bring hope for the future of the church. Youth ministry has been strong in the diocese for many years and, recently, programs like Prayer and Action, for college and high school students, and Totus Tuus summer school programs for grade and high school have been a strong positive influence. People know about these programs and feel good about them.
The involvement of the laity is considered a positive movement. Adult education is offered and appreciated, though it was mentioned that few take advantage of what is available. A number of parishes have active Scripture study groups. RCIA and its various rites are well celebrated in most parishes, and this seems to be the principal instrument of evangelization.
Many people feel that their parishes are welcoming and feel like family. They appreciate the sense of community they experience in their parishes.
There is a strong sense of support for priests. People expressed gratitude for their dedication. Still, there are some mixed feelings about the clergy. Some find the traditionalism of the younger priests hopeful, while others find it upsetting. The shortage of priests and the current lack of vocations are common concerns. People are aware of some priests being over-worked and stretched to the limit.
EWTN is available in most towns. Many people are devoted to it and find it helpful for their faith. Some find it divisive and politically conservative.
Some people would like to see a stronger emphasis on traditional Church teachings. Some expressed a desire for classical education in the Catholic schools.
Many are encouraged by the social action that is happening in the diocese. Catholic Charities enjoys strong support. A number of parishes have volunteers who are engaged in their community’s social programs.
Some expressed disappointment that churches were closed during the Covid-19 pandemic. Still, there was strong appreciation for the parishes that offered online Masses.
With regard to the universal church, people find joy in having a single point of leadership (the pope). They appreciate the fact that the Mass is celebrated the same everywhere in the world.
Some are disappointed in Pope Francis. They think he is weakening the church’s teaching about right and wrong. Still, there was considerable positive feeling about him as well; in particular, his modeling of concern for the poor and marginalized.
The priest sexual abuse scandal was top on people’s list of negatives about the church. They feel it was poorly handled by bishops and there has been a severe lack of transparency.
Some expressed a concern about clericalism and how that contributed to the abuse scandal. Many feel that the laity do not have enough voice in the church. Likewise, many do not feel that women are treated equally. Some feel that minorities do not have a place in the church. Some are disappointed that the church is not more accepting of LGBTQ Catholics.
There is disappointment about Catholics leaving the church, especially the youth. Some are going to other churches; others are simply becoming “nones.” Some blamed this on a failure of catechesis, a watering down of church teachings. Others expressed frustration with the U.S. bishops’ emphasis on only one life issue and their promotion of one political party.
A few expressed frustration with the annulment process. Most people don’t understand it. Some feel that it does not promote healing from a broken relationship. Others think it punishes the non-Catholic partner.
There is concern that the church is losing its credibility. On the one hand, some are disappointed that the church does not stand more firmly on its principles, speaking out against social ills like abortion, sexual sins, divorce, etc. Others, on the other hand, think that the church loses credibility when it fails to support the poor and disenfranchised.
The current political divide in the U.S. affects the church as well. Many Catholics are divided along political lines. Issues like abortion, LGBTQ, immigration, Welfare, and education tend to divide people into separate camps. Honest dialogue has become difficult, and many people just don’t bring up these subjects outside their own camps. Some of those who participated in the listening sessions expressed gratitude for the safe environment they experienced in their small discussion groups.
Another division within the church centers around liturgy. The vast majority seem to be comfortable with the liturgy as it is currently celebrated. A few would like to return to the Tridentine form. They would at least like more solemnity within the liturgy. A few people seemed frustrated that the Extraordinary Form of the Mass has not been offered in our
diocese. Most of these did not think they would attend regularly, but they thought it should be offered.
Where is the Spirit leading us?
A number of people feel that the Spirit is leading the church into a time of change, which some described as a time of purification or a rebirth. The current situation of the church calls for sacrifice and dedication. The Spirit is calling us to be saints.
Some people mentioned that the Spirit may be calling us to be good stewards, taking better care of creation as well as taking better care of each other. Many felt that the future of the church will call for greater witness. By this, some meant witnessing to the truths of our faith, while others meant working for peace and justice in the world.
Some mentioned that the Spirit may be calling us to change our way of thinking. For one thing, they think that the church has become rule-centered more than Christ-centered. The religious leaders in Jesus’ day criticized him for not slavishly following the law, while he was more concerned about people and their attitude toward righteousness without, however, abolishing the law.
Many feel that the Spirit is leading us to listen to one another and respond to the needs we hear.
Finally, some feel that the Spirit is calling us to quiet ourselves from so many distractions so that we may hear the Spirit’s voice. The Spirit can only lead us into all truth if we are authentically listening.
Many of the participants in the listening sessions expressed an excitement about synodality. While they had not heard about this before, they readily accepted the explanation and agreed that a more listening church was appealing and hopeful.
It was carefully explained to them that a listening church did not mean a democratic church. The listening sessions did not amount to taking a vote on any issues but was rather an experience of being heard by the hierarchical church as well as being willing to hear the voices of others who may not agree with them.
In a world maimed by divisive spirits, can we open our hearts to listen to the Holy Spirit? Can the Spirit of unity penetrate the hardness of our hearts and soften them toward one another?