People speaking from inside and outside the Church want it to be a joy-filled, hopeful, welcoming presence in their communities, attracting people on the margins toward the center, which is Christ, and immersing children and young people in its evangelical, sacramental and charitable works.
These are some of the findings Bishop W. Shawn McKnight will report to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops on behalf of the Jefferson City diocese, as part of the listening phase of the international Synod on synodality.
The Synod is a two-year, worldwide process of praying and listening in order to discern how best to proclaim the Good News of Jesus Christ at this time in history.
Pope Francis initiated the Synod to help spur ongoing renewal of the Church throughout the world.
It will culminate with a formal gathering of the world’s Catholic bishops in Vatican City in 2023. The focus will be on promoting communion, participation and mission among all members of the Church.
Each diocese is submitting a report that will help set the agenda for further discernment throughout the process.
Information for this diocese’s report came from in-person and online listening sessions, as well as online surveys and input submitted by mail or email.
It also includes background from the diocese’s yearlong pastoral planning process and its 2020 intensive survey of parishes in 10 of the diocese’s 38 counties.
Listening sessions for the Synod were held in January and February of this year.
Bishop McKnight urged Catholics throughout the diocese to participate and to invite friends, neighbors and family members, especially those who could bring different perspectives into the process.
“The whole reason for this Synod is not that we have an agenda or a goal other than we want to listen to as many people as possible,” the bishop stated.
He pointed out that this is not a process designed to change Church doctrine.
“We will not be encouraged to assert or advance our own pet issues or projects,” he stated. “We are all called, instead, to listen together, with openness, to what the Holy Spirit is asking of us in how we are to be the Church in our present context.”
The art of listening
Three hundred fifty people took part in the nine in-person and four online listening sessions in this diocese.
In-person sessions were in Columbia, Hannibal, Hermann, Jefferson City, Marshall, Mexico, Moberly, Rolla and Sedalia.
The Sedalia and Marshall sessions and one of the online gatherings were conducted in English and Spanish.
In addition, 35 people filled out the online surveys and 12 people sent emails or letters.
“What we’re doing is part of something truly historic,” Helen Osman, diocesan communication director and chair for the diocese’s commission for this phase of the Synod, told participants. “It’s been called the largest consultation in the history of humanity.”
She reiterated that the goal was to gather, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, input from as many individuals as possible.
“We believe that as we listen to each other, we will hear what the Holy Spirit is calling us to be,” she said.
Mrs. Osman emphasized that this phase is only the beginning of a process involving all 2,250 Roman Catholic dioceses throughout the world.
“This is an exercise in discernment,” she pointed out. “It is a process of sifting through our lives and attempting to see things the way God sees them, and act accordingly.”
The listening sessions were conducted in churches. Participants meditated on Scripture and prayed together an ancient prayer to the Holy Spirit.
They then broke into small groups in which each member was given a few minutes to answer questions about their own experience of the Church, and what they believe the Holy Spirit is calling the Church to be.
Other participants listened intently without interrupting or offering responses or rebuttals.
“Active listening requires that we keep silent and make ourselves fully present to others as they speak,” Mrs. Osman emphasized. “If there are moments of quiet, that’s the Holy Spirit. If there are moments where people are sharing, that’s the Spirit, as well.”
An assigned facilitator kept each group’s discussions on track, while an assigned recorder for each group compiled a report.
The diocesan synodal commission went to great lengths to invite people to the listening sessions — placing banners on roadways, ads in local newspapers, paid “boosts” on social media, articles in The Catholic Missourian and announcements at Mass and in parish bulletins.
The goal was to draw a statistically relevant mix of people who are active in the Church, those who are tangentially connected, and those who feel alienated or marginalized.
“Despite these efforts,” the diocese’s report reveals, “the responses tended to be the same demographic: disproportionally people over age 59, who self-identified as active in the Catholic faith.”
This has also been the case through most the diocese’s pastoral planning.
“The pattern of disengagement by people under age 60 requires serious consideration,” the report notes. “While these parents, business and civic leaders, teachers and farmers, healthcare professionals and other community members may be fully engaged in the faith through small groups, acts of charity, devotion to the Eucharist and other aspects of faith, the Church is missing their insights and their leadership.”
Many listening session participants spoke of the heartache they experience when members of their family leave the Church or cease practicing their faith.
Several current and past parishioners indicated that they do not feel their presence is welcome or that their talents are sufficiently appreciated or put to use in their parish.
Others spoke of how hard it is to figure out how to put into day-to-day practice the Biblical ideal of collaboration among clergy and laypeople.
While many participants said they believe that their parishes are actively welcoming communities, people at each listening session shared stories of feeling unwelcome or unappreciated.
“Connect and know”
Diocesan synodal commission member Deacon Enrique Castro, executive director of the diocese’s Faith Formation Department, facilitated the Spanish-language portion of the bilingual sessions.
Many of the participants noted that they had encountered Christ and become active in the faith through catechism classes and youth ministry groups during their formative years.
One participant who grew up in another country talked about how much she enjoyed helping lead children to Christ as a catechist in her home parish. But here, she stated, it’s been difficult due to differences in language and culture.
Another participant spoke of having had little interest in matters of faith until a priest invited him to serve as a lector, proclaiming the readings at Mass.
“He also became active in renewal movements in the Church, particularly Cursillo,” Deacon Castro noted.
Cursillo helped the man recognize God’s call to enter into a closer relationship with Him, and in doing so, to serve the Church. That participant is now a permanent deacon.
Another participant spoke of having lost any sense of her faith when revelations of sexual abuse of minors by clergy broke into headlines 20 years ago.
Ultimately, her unwavering belief in the Eucharist drew her back, along with the understanding that the overwhelming majority of priests are good, holy bridges between God and His people.
Many participants, Deacon Castro recounted, said they believe the Church is being called to provide space and clearer opportunities for children, families and young people to experience God’s call to worship and serve Him.
Young people, he noted, are eager for opportunities to exercise real leadership in decisions pertaining to the Liturgy and the life of the parish.
Participants also talked about the importance of engaging people where they are, in their own experienced reality.
“They said we need priests who are willing and not afraid to connect and know people’s lives,” Deacon Castro stated. “They said the Holy Spirit is asking all of us to go out and not be afraid.”
“A very good start”
Kelly Wheeler, a member of Our Lady of Lourdes Parish in Columbia and a representative to the Diocesan Pastoral Council, took part in the first in-person listening session.
She found the small-group approach to be exciting and effective.
“If we want to personalize the experience of being the Church and get people on fire and have them spread that, then this is a very powerful way to begin,” she stated afterward.
She said it was interesting to hear about how many different ways the Church has influenced people’s lives.
Joy and awe mixed with frustration and sadness as participants showed acceptance to each other while sharing stories of family members and friends who feel alienated or unwelcome.
She said the silent, prayerful pauses were helpful.
A universal yearning
Other members of the diocesan synodal commission include: Father Jason T. Doke STL, moderator of the curia; LeAnn Korsmeyer, diocesan director of women’s ministry; Benjamin Roodhouse JD JCL, chancellor and diocesan director of Canonical Services; and Sister Kathleen Wegman SSND, the bishop’s delegate for religious sisters and brothers.
From the beginning, Mrs. Osman pledged to read or listen to all correspondence she received through the listening phase of the Synod.
This helped her boil the reports from the listening sessions down into one diocesan report with help from the rest of the synodal commission.
It also gave her a “bird’s eye view” of this stage of the process.
Starting out concerned about how successful the listening sessions could be due to time and other constraints, “I learned that if the participants honored the process, what was shared would be very sincere and ‘from the heart,’” she said.
She found that most people who participated want others to experience the faith and want to be able to live their own faith more deeply.
“I suspect that will be reflected in many reports from around the world,” she stated. “They may express those desires in ways that are currently labeled conservative or progressive, or somewhere in the middle, but it seems to me that we have to stop labeling and stereotyping one another and do more deep listening if we are going to further the mission of the Church.
“We will have to see how the Church fathers respond to that yearning,” she added. “I pray all can trust in the Holy Spirit and in the process to yield good fruits.”