The parish listening sessions planned to take place during the local phase of the Synod, will be opportunities for attentive listening and honest sharing about journeying together as Church. In this image, St. Benedict parishioners express themselves at a Faith in Our Future gathering in 2016. John Blaine photo
The parish listening sessions planned to take place during the local phase of the Synod, will be opportunities for attentive listening and honest sharing about journeying together as Church. In this image, St. Benedict parishioners express themselves at a Faith in Our Future gathering in 2016. John Blaine photo
" This Synod has the potential to foster authentic listening, learning and unity. "
What are Spiritual Conversations and how will they help the people of the Diocese of Trenton participate in the worldwide Synod formally launched by Pope Francis in October? That’s what some 260 pastors and parish leaders were able to learn about when they took part in two virtual sessions for Spiritual Conversation Training offered in December.

The training sessions are an integral part of the process as the Diocese of Trenton continues to move forward in the local phase of the 16th Ordinary Synod of Bishops. This Synod is unique in that it is a two-year (2021-2023) journey of reflection and sharing of the whole Church, beginning at the local level.

Mary-Liz Ivins, co-chair of the Diocesan Phase of the Synod, along with Deacon Patrick Brannigan, estimated that 60-70 percent of parishes within the four counties of the Diocese were represented in the sessions. A third training session is planned for Jan. 19, and a Spanish language version, facilitated by Rudy Vargas IV, former director of the Northeast Hispanic Catholic Center headquartered in N.Y., will be offered Jan. 13.

Ivins noted that parish representatives will be rolling out the Spiritual Conversations in the coming weeks. They are planned to run through March. Weekly bulletin inserts have been designed to help parishioners understand what it means to journey together through the synod and invite them to join in a listening session, held in groups of six to eight people, to share their own story of journeying with the Church while learning from the experiences of others. 

Marijane Michalowicz, a member of St. Joan of Arc Parish, Marlton, who participated in a training session, considered it to be “excellent preparation to help us learn to listen and hold one another’s stories in our hearts. This process opens a pathway for us to listen more clearly to the Holy Spirit within and among us.” Michalowicz is also a member of the Diocesan Synod Committee.

Practical Training

Robert Choiniere, professor of theology, Fordham University, and former director of Pastoral Planning, Diocese of Brooklyn, served as facilitator for the training sessions. He explained that the sessions were designed to model a spiritual form of conversation suggested by the Vatican for local Synod consultations.

Choiniere has also served as chair of the Conference of Pastoral Planning and Council Development, and program coordinator for Parish Pastoral Councils, Archdiocese of Philadelphia.

He, together with Christine Cichello, campus minister for Christian Life Community, Boston College, and Ann Marie Brennan, CLC-USA promoter, organized the training. David DeLambo, of Delambo Consulting, and former associate director of pastoral planning in the Diocese of Cleveland, Ohio, also provided participants with guidance on notetaking, an important aspect of the synodal consultation process. 

Choiniere pointed out that spiritual conversations are lateral conversations, in which everyone is on the same platform. They encourage active, non-judgmental listening, and embody the words of Pope Francis: “Everyone has something to learn. The faithful people, the College of Bishops, the Bishop of Rome: all listening to each other, and all listening to the Holy Spirit.”

This type of conversation is “a gift of Ignatian heritage,” said Choiniere, noting that it has been practiced for centuries. It made sense, he said, to draw on members of Christian Life Community, an international association of lay Christians who have adopted an Ignatian model of spiritual life, to assist in the training process.

With the help of 40 facilitators from across the country, including Jesuit students, campus ministers and alumni from Boston College or Georgetown University, Washington, D.C., serving as facilitator modelers, the more than 100 participants in each training session were able to experience what a local listening session would be like.

“We have been so blessed by the expertise of our professional training partners and the generous sharing of the Jesuit community volunteers from around the country,” acknowledged Terry Ginther, diocesan chancellor and executive director for Pastoral Life and Mission. With their help, “the Spiritual Conversation training sessions have been an opportunity for people from around the Diocese to come together and learn how to facilitate Synod listening sessions.”

Moving Forward

“I am hopeful that the enthusiasm we have witnessed among the parish leaders who participated in our sessions will spread to the people in our pews and beyond,” said Deacon Brannigan. “Also, I am hopeful that with the help of all the people being touched by the Holy Spirit in this Synod, we will be able to reach out to those who are not now engaged with their faith and those who feel unwelcomed in our Church. This Synod has the potential to foster authentic listening, learning and unity.”

The Diocesan Phase of the Synod is scheduled for completion in April. A diocesan report will be forwarded to the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops on or about June 1.

All information regarding the Synod and the synodal process can be found at DioceseofTrenton.org/XVI-Synod.