Evangelization, fellowship, and questions about gender issues among concerns
By Joyce Coronel, The Catholic Sun
PHOENIX — “The synod consultation reports reveal a dire need for evangelization at a time when the spirit of the world and modern culture have seemingly drowned out the voice of God.”
This word of caution is one of many insights gleaned from a 47-page synod report written by Fr. John Nahrgang, Vicar for Evangelization and Education for the Diocese of Phoenix. Across the nation and around the globe, dioceses collected their reports following a nearly yearlong synodal process.
It was a massive undertaking that in the end yielded tantalizing results.
While previous synods have centered on youth, the family, or the Amazon region, the Synod on Synodality convoked by Pope Francis Oct. 10, 2021, has centered on invoking the Holy Spirit and prayerfully listening to the baptized faithful — mostly laity — in order to discern how to better come together, participate more deeply and evangelize better as a Church. The diocesan phase kicked off Oct. 17, 2021, with bishops throughout the world, including Bishop Thomas J. Olmsted and Auxiliary Bishop Eduardo A. Nevares, celebrating an opening Mass.
A major emphasis of the synod was to reach the marginalized and those who are often without a voice. In the Diocese of Phoenix, that translated into consultations with the disabled, homeless, refugees, Native Americans, and prison inmates, to name a few.
The guidebook, or Vademecum, issued by the Vatican, laid out the case for the Synod on Synodality: “The mission of the Church requires the entire People of God to be on a journey together, with each member playing his or her crucial role, united with each other.”
The fundamental questions posed by the synod asked “How is this ‘journeying together’ happening in your local church? What steps does the Spirit invite us to take in order to grow in our ‘journeying together?’”
A slew of other official documents posted at synod.va addressed the who, what, when, where, and why the worldwide effort was to take place. Among these documents were two studies by the International Theological Commission, a special panel of the Church’s top theologians. One topic addressed in those studies was synodality in the life and mission of the Church. The other topic, Sensus fiedei, deals with the supernatural instinct that the faithful have which enables them to recognize and endorse authentic Christian doctrine and reject what is false.
Bishops were asked to hold listening sessions in their dioceses and then appoint a team to review individual reports which would then be synthesized into a diocesan report. Organized around the three dimensions of communion, participation and mission, and encompassing 10 themes, it was a tall order.
And, although the reports were crucial to the process, they were not, in fact, the ultimate aim of the synod.
Quoting Pope Francis, the synod preparatory document issued by the Vatican declares:
“The purpose of the synod is not to produce documents but to plant dreams, draw forth prophecies and visions, allow hope to flourish, inspire trust, bind up wounds, weave together relationships, awaken a dawn of hope, learn from one another and create a bright resourcefulness that will enlighten minds, warm hearts and give strength to our hands.”
Initial phase: Listening sessions
Priests in the Diocese of Phoenix first received information about the synod at the annual convocation of priests held during September 2021. Follow-up communication offered guidance on how parishes and schools could hold listening sessions and ultimately, submit reports to the diocese.
Hundreds of listening sessions were held throughout the diocese. Most were in-person gatherings, but some were virtual.
Beyond parishes and schools, numerous Catholic organizations, including the Knights of Columbus, Catholic Charities and St. Paul Street Evangelization, were also invited to participate. The Phoenix Diocese also reached out to Black Catholics, Spanish-speakers, homeschooling families and non-Catholics, among others.
In what was perhaps a first-ever event, a Greek Orthodox priest visited the Diocesan Pastoral Center March 22 for a meeting with Bishop Nevares and Fr. Nahrgang to discuss the synod. The Rev. Fr. Apostolos Hill, dean of Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Cathedral of Phoenix, held a synod consultation with members of his flock. In April, he submitted a report that highlighted ways the two churches might collaborate by way of charitable works in the greater-Phoenix area and through sharing “simple invitations to break bread together as believers in Jesus Christ.”
In the end, 112, five-page reports were submitted to the Diocese of Phoenix with 70 percent of parishes and 90 percent of Catholic schools participating. An online survey garnered more than 100 responses.
So, what about those 30 percent of parishes that didn’t participate? Much like elsewhere in the U.S., not everyone in the diocese was onboard with the synod. Some pastors cited lack of resources, limited staffing or little interest from their parishioners as the reason they could not participate while others noted they were in the midst of a transition in leadership. “My parishioners are just trying to work and come to church on Sundays,” one pastor wrote. “They can’t do anything more.”
For some other pastors, it was skepticism about the synod process itself. “Many [faithful] struggled to understand what synodality meant and how it is connected to the Church,” the report from the Diocese of Phoenix notes. “News about the Amazon and German synods, and comments by certain prelates, also resulted in confusion and skepticism. Connected to all of this was also a perception shared by many that the secular culture is having more of an impact on the Church than the other way around.”
In spite of these fears, and still in the throes of concern about Covid exposure, thousands of Catholics in the Diocese of Phoenix participated in listening sessions spread throughout parishes and schools.
With the fundamental question of the Synod as a backdrop (“What steps does the Spirit invite us to take in order to grow in our ‘journeying together?”) the synod report from the Phoenix Diocese addressed the query in light of the four activities that shaped the early Church in the immediate aftermath of Pentecost. Described in Acts 2:42, the four activities are the teaching of the Apostles, fellowship, the breaking of the bread and prayers.
“The Holy Spirit seems to be inviting the faithful of the Diocese of Phoenix to grow in ‘journeying together’ through these four activities, all of which enter into the dynamics of communion, participation and mission,” the report states.
Catechesis and fellowship
The need for the teaching of the Apostles was evident in numerous consultations.
“[Our seventh and eighth-graders] report that they have difficulties with prayer. They do not know if God hears prayers or answers them … Our kids are more or less aware that they are Catholic but are not sure why,” one school report states.
“On the whole, there is a crisis of faith among young people and there is an accompanying need for evangelization, compelling witness and catechesis,” the Diocese of Phoenix report states.
And while the need for evangelization and catechesis is urgent, there’s another deep-seated desire that was illustrated in many of the parish and school reports. After more than two years of dealing with Covid and the attendant isolation it provoked, Catholics are yearning for fellowship, many reports revealed.
“A dominant them articulated in this synod has been the need to come together and end the isolation. There is a longing to do more as a community. Catholics are calling for more events (retreats, luncheons, Bible studies) for the sake of bringing people together in fellowship,” the Diocese of Phoenix report states.
Many of the individual reports pointed to a deep love for the Eucharist. “They expressed that Jesus is truly present with them in the midst of their lives. A middle school student noted, ‘Mass helps me remember God and inspires us through prayer and the Eucharist.”
Prayer in the lives of individual Catholics as well as the wider Church also struck a chord with those who participated in parish and school listening sessions. Many participants expressed a devotion to prayer and a desire for more opportunities to pray together.
“Communal prayers were cited as a source of strength, fellowship and reconciliation, in particular through the Rosary, prayer groups, General Intercessions during Mass, procession, consecration prayers (to Jesus, Mary and Joseph), the Liturgy of the Hours, the Divine Mercy Chaplet, novenas and litanies,” the synod report from the Diocese of Phoenix states.
“A near-constant theme emphasized by the faithful of the Diocese of Phoenix was the necessity of understanding our Catholic faith,” the Phoenix Diocese report states. High school students in particular emphasized their need to be heard and their desire for open dialogue.
One Catholic high school chaplain described a student from a faithful family who wanted “the space to be able to express her doubts about the Catholic faith and simply have some honest conversations.”
“They want the Church to be a place where ideas and moral issues can be genuinely talked about without immediately being shut down.”
Several synod reports — particularly those from schools — pointed to concerns about sexual identity issues. As one high school chaplain indicated: “It seems that many of the students disagree with the Church’s views on sexuality enough to disinterest them from meaningful Church practice. This does not mean they want or expect the Church to change her teachings, however. Put simply, they find our teachings regarding human sexuality implausible and uninteresting.”
One parish’s report raised concerns about the local church not addressing the issue: “They do not feel the Church is giving unified guidance on how to navigate the lifestyle choices and issues in the culture that we live in. People are struggling with how to respond to the growing LGBTQ+ lifestyles and agenda.”
Another issue raised in synod reports from parishes emphasized the need better communication both within the parish and between parishes and the diocese.
“One-on-one sharing and listening from the heart are much preferred to mere email communications,” the report states. “People want more opportunities for genuine in-person conversations, mutual dialogue and exchange of faith stories, so that relationships might grow into fellowship.”
The body of the main report from the Diocese of Phoenix was 10 pages, but the report also included several appendices, dealing with evangelization, youth, refugees, gender dysphoria, the homeless, and the holiness of priests, among other topics.
The continental phase of the Synod on Synodality is set to commence in September and runs through March 2023. The universal phase in Rome begins with the XVI Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops during October 2023.