When Elise Stankus reflects on participating in the opening of the general session of the Synod of Bishops on synodality, she describes her experience as one of witness.
“I have learned so much during my trip, both about the Church and my own faith,” said Stankus, a young adult parishioner from Our Lady of Good Counsel Parish, West Trenton.
“I’ve learned about the logistics of the Synod process and also about the power of the Synod,” said Stankus, who also interns in the diocesan Office of Catholic Social Services.
Stankus, a junior at Rosemont College, Rosemont, Pa., was invited to travel to Rome through her involvement in SCHEAP, Synodality in Catholic Higher Education in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia. The group includes about a dozen Catholic colleges in the archdiocese; its members meet every few months to discuss their hopes for the Synod — which continues next October — and how to bring synodality back to their college campuses.
Pope Francis officially opened the synodal process in October 2021, and dioceses around the world spent nearly a year convening formal and informal listening sessions on synodality, sometimes briefly described as walking together as a church. Through cross-campus gatherings, SCHEAP members produced a report sent to the Vatican, one of only two nondiocesan reports that resulted from the synodal listening sessions in the U.S., said Stankus, a student leader within the group.
“We were specifically a young adult delegation and consisted of 17 young adults from across North America,” said Stankus, who was the only student from Rosemont to participate in the pilgrimage. Other SCHEAP pilgrims included another current college student, two recent graduates of Philadelphia colleges and a local artist, she said, noting that half of the lay delegates were women and two were younger than 25.
In preparation for their trip, Stankus said group members held fundraisers in their individual communities to cover their expenses. They became acquainted through a series of online meetings and familiarized themselves with the Synod process and the events in which they would participate.
Since the delegation was not voting in the Synod, Stankus said her group’s primary goal was to observe the process, speak with those who are voting members and bring what they learned back to their communities.
Stankus said highlights of the delegation’s time in Rome were participating in an ecumenical conference and vigil with Pope Francis and the global leaders of other Christian faith traditions before the synodal assembly’s opening. They also met and prayed with several voting Synod delegates and learned about their ministries, and the group also had a chance to share with them their experiences and unique challenges of being a young person in the Church. The group also attended the opening Mass Oct. 4.
A personal highlight for Stankus was attending a workshop, “Everyone Alive, Everyone Independent,” which focused on the intersection of faith and ecology, particularly the impact that climate change has on those living in poverty throughout the world.
“I gained a much broader understanding of what it means to care for the earth as our common home,” she said.
Stankus said the delegation’s main interests were to support the inclusion of women in Church leadership, an increased involvement of young people in the Church and to have “a more inclusive Church for all, particularly those in historically marginalized groups,” said Stankus.
As a young woman in the Church, Stankus said attending the Synod brought her “so much hope to see representation like this in the institutional Church.”
“I believe the Synod is the absolute fulfillment of what it means to be a universal Catholic Church,” she said.
“It has been such a blessing to be a part of the synodal process. It has greatly expanded my hope for the future of the Church and my understanding of how to use my gifts in its service.”