The Synod process in St. Rose Parish, Belmar, is featured in a story in the local Coast Star.  FB photo
The Synod process in St. Rose Parish, Belmar, is featured in a story in the local Coast Star.  FB photo

More than four months into the journey, the Holy Spirit is at work in the diocesan phase of the 16th Ordinary Synod of Bishops which, for the first time, invited the participation and voices of all Catholics worldwide.

Reports from facilitators and others involved in this local stage tell the story of participants’ great enthusiasm and gratitude for the opportunity to be really  listened to, especially following a period of lengthy pandemic isolation. Many of those who took part in Sessions described their experience as hopeful, and a chance to connect with others about something that matters deeply to them.

Parish Synod team members interviewed by The Monitor have observed that the experience of respectful dialogue and the passion of the faithful who have participated often results in encouraging others to participate.

Innovative Approaches

Parishes have been creative in inviting the faithful and implementing the Synod of Bishops’ recommendations for Listening Sessions which include the Ignatian practice of Spiritual Conversations.

As pastors try to meet the unique needs of their communities and to encourage as much participation as possible, Listening Sessions have taken on a variety of forms – in-person small and large groups (divided into small groups) at the parish, small groups in homes, Zoom sessions of varying sizes – all of which provide an opportunity for listening and dialogue framed by prayer and reflection.

Parish outreach, information and invitations have run the gamut from bulletin announcements to stories in the local press. Technology and social media have served useful as pastors continue to engage the faithful through videos on Facebook, as well as messages on Flock-note and other outlets.

Youth of the Diocese are also participating through their Catholic high schools and middle schools, parish religious education and youth ministry programs, with Synod materials and Listening Sessions uniquely adapted for different age groups.

Mary Liz Ivins, Synod Committee Co-Chair, recalled: “The people [that facilitators] are meeting with are offering sincere and personal stories of their journeys with the Church. They seem to be hungry for this level of communication within parishes.”

How It Happens

The process undertaken in parishes across the Diocese stems from the meaning of Synodality – journeying together. Pope Francis explains that a Synodal Church “is a Church that listens … It is a mutual listening in which everyone has something to learn. The lay faithful, the bishops, the Pope: all listening to each other, and all listening to the Holy Spirit” in order to know what God is saying to the Church.

The parish Listening Sessions are overseen by facilitators trained in Spiritual Conversation, which is meant to create an atmosphere of trust and welcome using active and attentive listening. A question is posed to participants which allows them to share honestly their joys and obstacles in journeying with the People of God. Their sharing serves as an opportunity for reflection for all in the group with the goal of discerning what God is asking of them and the Church.

A trained notetaker records the gist of thoughts shared without reference to names or even initials. Part of the process is to identify common themes, areas of general agreement or disagreement and share any experiences that stand out as noteworthy. Insights from the Spiritual Conversations are then reported to the Diocesan Synod Organizing Committee which will compile them into a diocesan report.  Those findings will be shared with the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, to be used in drafting a working document for the 16th Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops in October 2023.

Themes being brought to the conversations by participants often include their great love for the Eucharist and helping others to grow in that love; a need for education and evangelization to bring people back to Mass and the Church, a love for Catholic tradition and a need to increase an understanding of the Real Presence of Jesus.

Others spoke honestly of their place in the Church, of not feeling welcome or included, of the need for the Church to do more for youth and women, and to build a true community.

Denise Contino, diocesan director of the Department of Catechesis and member of the Diocesan Synod Team, recounts her experience as both facilitator and notetaker in her parish of St. Joan of Arc, Marlton, saying, “The process works! Participants seemed to be pleased with the listening that takes place in the Session, no cross talk, no debate, just listening to one another. I have also seen a diverse group of people attending, those who are always signing up for faith formation events and, also, folks who have been away from the Church for a long time.”

Continuing the Journey

Moving forward, said Contino, “We hope more people sign up and continue to share their experience. … God is working through the process; this is a wise exercise for us as a Church.”

Ivins acknowledged, “We are pleased with the number of pastors and parishes running Listening Sessions, but we are hearing from people who are in parishes that are not engaged in the Synod work. We encourage those people to reach out to neighboring parishes or join us for Diocesan Sessions being planned.”

The “Have you been heard?” diocesan series of Listening Sessions will include two in-person and one virtual opportunity for those who have not been able to participate in parish groups to experience the Synod’s Spiritual Conversations. Dates and locations will be advertised mid-March after the Synod work of parishes has been completed.

Also in the planning stages is a post-Synodal gathering, possibly for the Fall, to discuss highlights of the Diocesan Synod Report and gather the graces of the listening process.

Reflecting on the fruits of the local Synod journey so far, Ivins said, “I would definitely characterize the conversations as sincere and far more meaningful than I ever expected. The depth and seriousness of the conversations are exhibiting a deep love for our Church and a desire to see it grow and thrive."