The Catholic Church is renowned for slow processes, long lead times, and predictable rhythms that play out over decades and even centuries. One quip is that Rome is the Eternal City, “and everyone sets their watch accordingly.”
This made it all the more striking when the Vatican announced in May 2021 that the next installment of the Synod of Bishops would be a “synodal journey” for the entire universal church. It was to begin with consultations at the diocesan level; move into regional, national, and continental phases in 2022; and culminate in a universal gathering of the Synod of Bishops in 2023.
When Pope Francis launched this global process in October 2021, all of the world’s Catholic dioceses had just 20 weeks to prepare for what Cardinal Joseph Tobin of the Archdiocese of Newark, New Jersey called the “biggest consultation in human history.”
Pope Francis has convened the Synod of Bishops repeatedly throughout his papacy, tackling a range of issues including family life (2014–15), youth (2018), and the pastoral challenges of the Amazon region (2019). But this was the first time in the history of the body, instituted by Pope Paul VI in 1965 as the Second Vatican Council drew to a close, that an assembly of the Synod of Bishops would be preceded by such an extensive consultation of the whole church. This exercise of actually asking laypeople about their experiences of church is itself an expression of synodality, the principle of a church that is more collaborative in its decision-making and governance.
“The call was met with enthusiasm by some, confusion by many, and resistance and apathy by more than a few clergy and lay Catholics,” says Diana Marie Waggener, who oversaw the process for the Diocese of Cheyenne, Wyoming. Despite some of these initial reactions, only three of the 36 parishes in the diocese did not conduct synod listening sessions.
Like a churchwide “How’s my driving?” bumper sticker, the first stage of the synodal journey wrapped up in the spring, with dioceses making their reports public over the summer. As Catholics in the United States reflect on what they just experienced, leaders of the synod have shared the raw power of encountering people on the ground, the challenge of doing justice to their candid feedback, and the surprising possibilities opened up by the skills and habits honed by this process.
Getting to people
Where the Diocese of Cheyenne is home to some 55,000 Catholics across all of Wyoming, the Archdiocese of Newark serves 1.3 million Catholics in 212 parishes in just four counties in New Jersey. Mass is celebrated in 15 languages.
“We have enormous numbers of people here, and we tried as best we could in a short period of time to reach as many as possible,” says Dominican Sister Donna Ciangio, chancellor of the archdiocese, who led Newark’s efforts. This involved intentional outreach into numerous communities—including Black Catholics, campus ministries, religious congregations, and people served by Catholic Charities—as well as the preparation of materials in multiple languages. Through all of it, she was surprised by people’s enthusiasm.
“People took it very seriously and very prayerfully,” Ciangio says. “I think the big thing was that Pope Francis wants to hear from us. People were really thrilled that this was a Vatican process, because when did that ever happen before?”
Another key to the process was the leadership of and collaboration with Tobin, who has the distinction of being the lone U.S. bishop currently on the Vatican’s Synod Council—essentially the planning committee of the synod.
“[Tobin and I] had terrific conversations about [the synod],” Ciangio says. “His role in everything was great. He was very visible. He was very engaged with visiting parishes.”
Another uniquely positioned U.S. prelate is Bishop Daniel Flores of the Diocese of Brownsville, Texas, who oversees both his million-member, heavily Latino/a local church in the Rio Grande Valley and, as chair of the U.S. bishops’ doctrine committee, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ national coordination of local and regional synod efforts.
With the Vatican’s guiding documents amounting to broad outlines rather than clear blueprints, Flores found flexibility for the particulars of his diocese. For instance, Brownsville’s immigrant population is more reticent to share its thoughts out of fear and a sense of being unwelcome.
“It really brought out a lot of creativity from people,” Flores says, “which I do think is what the Holy Father has in mind.”
Getting to the heart
Perhaps the most creative synodal outreach was the 58,000 Cups of Coffee Initiative done by the Diocese of Davenport, Iowa, in which 10,000 branded coasters were sent to area Catholics, encouraging them to have one-on-one meetings with people who have walked away from the practice of their Catholic faith, especially since the COVID-19 pandemic.
To aid in this process, the diocese streamlined its synod questionnaire to a single, two-part question: “Based on your personal experience, what fills your heart and what breaks your heart about the Catholic Church?”
One thing that was important to us was to explain to people that this is a consultation of the entire people of God.F. DeKarlos Blackmon
“We wanted to translate [the synodal process] into everyday, accessible language that would get to the core [of people’s feelings about the church],” says Patrick Schmadeke, Davenport’s evangelization director, who played a central role in the effort. “That question has served us very well.”
Schmadeke says the diocese wanted its consultation to reach beyond the usual folks who come to every parish event. Guided in its discernment by Bishop Thomas Zinkula, the Davenport synod team realized that people experience church in non-institutional ways—such as through family and friends—that are harder to capture and quantify. The benefit of framing their questionnaire this way, Schmadeke says, is that it moved people past merely what they thought to get at what they felt.
“It peeled back that layer. What’s on your heart? It’s simple, and what’s on people hearts drives decision-making a lot more,” he says.
Making the process as simple as possible also resonated for the large, diverse Diocese of Austin, Texas, where F. DeKarlos Blackmon, secretariat director of life, charity, and justice, says they asked intentionally broad questions.
“It’s not nearly as difficult as people were making it out to be,” Blackmon says. “We wanted the Spirit to work.”
To better facilitate that, he encouraged priests to be present and listen to people. He also counseled patience in the process, recognizing that “some people don’t answer questions on a dime.”
But these measures mattered, as they helped ensure more voices were included. Blackmon says, “One thing that was important to us was to explain to people that this is a consultation of the entire people of God.”
Getting Pope Francis
That wider perspective is an essential piece of understanding why Pope Francis has invited the church on this journey together, says Amanda Osheim, an associate professor of practical theology at Loras College in Dubuque, Iowa and a scholar of synodality in the church.
“It is part of being a member of the ongoing reality of the church and the ongoing work of the church to have a bit of humility . . . as well as a sense of responsibility,” says Osheim. “How do we keep learning from the Holy Spirit’s calling today? . . . How are we learning how to listen?”
Pope Francis has used the image of “bishop and people walking together” to describe the church literally since the night of his election, and it reflects the Jesuit model of deep discernment that shapes the pope’s spirituality. This means that the communal consultation of the synod involves “learning how to engage in those spiritual practices, so that it’s not just like I’m showing up for a town hall. It’s not a brainstorming session. It really is a prayerful process,” says Osheim.
Blackmon concurs that learning this process was new for people. “In the United States, you say ‘listening session,’ and people think we’re going to tell them what we think and what they should be doing,” he says. “We cannot use the terms consultation process and listening session as if they’re synonymous.”
It’s not just a town hall session. It’s a discernment of the Holy Spirit’s process. This is sitting in the upper room.Sister Donna Ciangio
“It’s not just a town hall session. It’s a discernment of the Holy Spirit’s process,” says Ciangio. “This is sitting in the upper room.”
Also, the pope’s encouragement of this process is about more fully embracing the legacy of Vatican II.
“It’s very much about fostering diversity of community, in the Catholic community but also in humanity,” says Vanessa Wibberley Denier, a political theologian based in Cincinnati. “It’s radical because it extends the church’s embrace to the religiously unaffiliated and to those on the margins of the church, and maybe beyond.”
Despite this almost revolutionary potential, as a sprawling exercise of the universal church, the synod process is vulnerable to uneven application. Because its guiding documents are open to local interpretation as to the size of the synod’s footprint, a diocese could theoretically do the bare minimum, especially if an individual pastor or even a local bishop isn’t sold on the project’s importance.
Flora Tang, a doctoral student at the University of Notre Dame, showed up at one of her local synod events only to find it had been cancelled due to inadequate attendance—something she received word about only after arriving.
“After that I was pretty frustrated with [the entire synod],” she says.
But despite this setback, she still believes in the importance of the process for the church.
“When I was reading about [the synod], I was both skeptical and hopeful,” Tang says. “I see very few people within church leadership actually listening.” In that regard, the synod conversations are a chance for leaders to hear voices that are often marginalized.
“That gives me a lot of hope in that people are having these conversations, and . . . the fact that they’re being recorded is very important,” she says. “It’s almost like an accountability issue for me.”
When I was reading about [the synod], I was both skeptical and hopeful. I see very few people within church leadership actually listening.Flora Tang
Another temptation has been to make the synod something it’s not. Osheim cites the example of a U.S. diocese that, in announcing the synod, said the feedback it received would be factored into future decisions around parish mergers and closures.
But on a more collective level, the example that looms large is the decision by the U.S. bishops to stage a multiyear “eucharistic revival” effort at the same time as the synodal journey. Focused on catechizing people on the centrality and significance of the Eucharist, the revival will include numerous parish- and diocesan-level events and culminate in a National Eucharistic Congress in July 2024.
Despite the optics of counterprogramming the pope, Schmadeke embraces the possibilities that both endeavors offer Catholics in the United States.
“Those spaces that have approached the synod with intentionality will be better equipped for approaching the eucharistic revival with intentionality,” he says. “They can be mutually enriching.”
An immediate result of the synod consultation process is the local reports from each of the world’s dioceses. In Newark this meant sifting through 4,500 pages of reports from parishes alone in an effort to discern where the Spirit was leading them.
“We read every page. . . . We’re taking it very seriously,” says Ciangio. In terms of results, the primary feedback from parishes was that the church needs to do a better job of welcoming people—whether they are immigrants, youth, members of the LGBTQ community and their parents, or members of other marginalized groups.
“We need to do a much better job of ensuring that the table is a welcoming table,” Blackmon says, adding that families with disabilities having access at Mass is one issue that emerged in Austin’s reports.
Waggener lists the unhealed wounds and distrust from the sex abuse crisis among strong responses in her diocese, as well as disagreement about how to accompany LGBTQ people and a call for more welcoming attitudes toward divorced people.
“Issues that were brought forward were not surprising, but they lay the groundwork for future communications and opportunities to move forward with a clear picture of where our sisters and brothers are,” she says.
Julia McStravog, who serves in the USCCB’s synod office, says that the reports compiled by dioceses are really something precious.
“They are the culmination of people sharing their deepest selves with the church in the deepest, most vulnerable way,” she says. “And the church invited them to do so!”
We should be prepared to hear some very wise things. The people of God have a sense.Bishop Daniel Flores
In asking people to share, the synod is inevitably an act of the church stepping out of its comfort zone.
“Going out and finding people who are willing to talk to us is part of the missionary effort,” says Flores, noting that people on the peripheries will raise issues that are not on the mainstream radar of the church. “You have to let yourself be moved by things. . . . If we do listen to it, our responsiveness becomes more real.”
This was a real issue for Schmadeke as he and his colleagues labored to assemble Davenport’s report.
“How do we make sure people know that they were heard?” he asks. “They showed up at these listening sessions, and if they don’t recognize their voice or the voice of their friend, then we’ve really missed out . . . and we’ve really impacted levels of trust.”
Schmadeke adds, “The synod has been kind of like a mirror in which we can look back at ourselves, our assumptions, the way we’re tapped into our local communities, the ways we’re not tapped into our local communities.”
The information contained in local reports is not proprietary for the Vatican. In fact, local churches are encouraged to draw from these troves of conversations in their pastoral planning and outreach moving forward.
“We’ve gotten a lot of wisdom and a lot of information and just perspective,” says Flores of Brownsville’s experience. “What does this tell us about where we need to place our pastoral energy right now? There might be some surprising things. . . . We should be prepared to hear some very wise things. The people of God have a sense.”
Getting a glimpse of the future
One inevitability of a three-year process involving the whole church is that it creates an expectation for some kind of outcome, such as a sweeping pronouncement by the pope. But the Vatican and other synod leaders and experts caution against this expectation.
“To focus only on the outcome is not necessarily the heart of synodality,” says Osheim. “I don’t know what it’s going to look like. . . . It’s another question: How do we go about living with the sensus fidelium [sense of the faithful] as an authoritative source within the church? That takes some thinking through in terms of its practical realities, of what that looks like.”
Flores concurs: “It’s about planting the seeds of a different way of relating to each other, and that will happen in time.”
All of this gets at the major reality that the synodal journey is not intended to be something that ends or goes away. As Pope Francis said in 2015, synodality is what “God expects of the church of the third millennium.” On a granular level, this might look like a parishioner leaving a listening session exhilarated by the opportunity and blurting out, “We should do this again sometime!”
Maybe some of our parishes have said, well that’s over, we’re done with the synod. Well, we’re not going to let that happen.Sister Donna Ciangio
Newark has long encouraged a relational dynamic between structures and groups. Ciangio sees harmonizing between these structures as key to the vision the pope is urging.
“Maybe some of our parishes have said, well that’s over, we’re done with the synod. Well, we’re not going to let that happen,” she says, noting that the trend will be to include more people in discernment of key decisions in parishes on the local level. “That’s something we really need to work hard to continue.”
Schmadeke embraces the image of the synodal journey as one that stretches and strengthens the church along the way.
“We are used to those bodies working in certain sorts of ways. And the synod called us to think in different ways,” he says. “That does require greater flexibility than we’re perhaps used to exercising.”
“I call it an ‘ecclesial muscle,’ ” says McStravog. “We need to exercise synodality. And the more we exercise it, the stronger it’s going to get.”
This article also appears in the October 2022 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 87, No. 10, pages 10-14). Click here to subscribe to the magazine.