By Enrique Rodríguez Bocanegra
The schedule for the process leading to the celebration in October of 2023 of the Assembly of the Synod of Bishops on Synodality called for the presentation of the National Synthesis with the results of the Diocesan Phase to the General Secretariat by last September.
The following is a summary of the National Synthesis produced by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) from the contributions received from the sixteen national regions. It keeps the same titles of the different parts of the original document and the order in which they appear.
The Synthesis starts with a letter addressed to “Dear Sisters and Brothers in Christ Jesus.” It includes acknowledgments, general considerations about the synodal journey that took place in the dioceses across the country, its importance as “the first steps in this path”, and the relevance of the document itself as “a significant moment for the Church in the United States, responding to what our Holy Father Pope Francis has asked.” It closes with an invocation to the Holy Trinity to “make fruitful the seeds that the Synodal path has planted among us,” and is signed by the Most Reverend Daniel E. Flores, STD, Bishop of Brownsville - Chair, Committee on Doctrine (USCCB).
- Gives the following data about the Church in the United States:
66.8 million Catholics / 178 Latin Church (arch)dioceses / 18 Eastern Catholic (arch)eparchies Grouped together into fifteen 15 administrative regions.
- Comments on feelings and aspects related to the synodal process:
▸ "Initial apprehension and even opposition to the synodal listening ▸ Ranging from those who felt the process would be futile, to some who were afraid of what it would change, to clergy and parish staff who perceived it as an overwhelming task.” As the Synod continued, however, “many were surprised by a level of engagement and richness that surpassed their expectations.”
▸ Involvement: 700,000 people participated in 30,000 opportunities to participate in the Synod through in-person and virtual listening sessions as well as online surveys. All one hundred seventy-eight (178) Latin (arch)dioceses contributed syntheses. These contributions represent over 22,000 reports from individual parishes and other groups, including 112 submissions received from ecclesial organizations.
▸ Diocesan contributions were gathered regionally, which together with contributions from the large number of Catholic associations, organizations, and national ministries in the United States, as well as individual contributions, aided in the development of the National Synthesis. The Eastern Catholic Churches shared their reports directly with the Holy See.
▸ Hearing sessions: Many described “being transformed by the process of listening to others’ stories and hearing about their faith journey.” Those who shared their stories, especially those who participated in small group sessions, stated that “they felt listened to by the Church for the first time.”
The varied topics and perspectives that arose in the listening process express the fruit of listening, encounter, and dialogue from communities diverse in culture, language, and social setting.
Several enduring wounds emerged. Many of these wounds have been inflicted not only by individual members of the Church but often by the institution itself.
▸ “The still unfolding effects of the sexual abuse crisis” causes a lack of trust and credibility on the part of the faithful. “Trust in the hierarchy of the Church is weak and needs to be strengthened.”
▸ “The ongoing effects of the Covid-19 pandemic”: A large number of the faithful have not yet returned to worship.
▸ “The experience that the Church is deeply divided.”
▸ “The divisive political ideologies present in our society and partisan politics have seeped into all aspects of our lives… Partisan politics is infiltrating homilies and ministry…”
▸ “Lack of unity among the bishops in the United States, and even of some individual bishops with the Holy Father is a source of grave scandal.”
▸ “The wounds of marginalization… , and thus a lack of representation in the Church” for those experiencing those wounds. They fall into two broad groups:
▸ Those marginalized who are made vulnerable by their lack of social and/or economic power: immigrant communities; ethnic minorities; those who are undocumented; the unborn and their mothers; people who are experiencing poverty, homelessness, or incarceration; those people who have disabilities or mental health issues; people suffering from various addictions; and women.
▸ Those who are marginalized because circumstances in their own lives are experienced as impediments to full participation in the life of the Church: members of the LGBTQ+ community; persons who have been divorced or those who have remarried without a declaration of nullity; individuals who have civilly married but who never married in the Church.
▸ “Most participants genuinely believe that support for one another is essential –laity and clergy, Churched and unchurched, and those in need of healing.”
Enhancing Communion and Participation
“The consultations all point to the fact that the People of God desire to draw closer to God and each other through a deeper knowledge of Scripture, prayer, and sacramental celebrations, especially the Eucharist.”
▸ “The liturgical and sacramental life of the Church, particularly the centrality of the Eucharist, came up continually in all the dioceses as a point of unity, essential to Catholic identity, community, and a life of faith.”
▸ The need for “a more profound formation process, particularly in the context of sacramental preparation involving parents and their children, as a prelude to ongoing faith formation continuing into and throughout adult life.”
▸ The most common issue regarding the liturgy is the celebration of the pre-Conciliar Mass. “People on each side of the issue reported feeling judged by those who differ from them.”
A WELCOMING CHURCH:
▸ “People noted that the Church seems to prioritize doctrine over people, rules, and regulations over lived reality. People want the Church to be a home for the wounded and broken, not an institution for the perfect.”
▸ “The hope for a welcoming Church expressed itself with the desire to accompany with authenticity LGBTQ+ persons and their families.”
▸ “Divorced people feel judged by others in the church, in some cases even if they have gone through the annulment process but certainly if they have not done so. The annulment process is experienced as unduly burdensome and judgmental as well.”
▸ “Nearly all synodal consultations shared a deep appreciation for the powerful impact of women religious who have consistently led the way in carrying out the mission of the Church.” Likewise, “there was a desire for stronger leadership, discernment, and decision-making roles for women – both lay and religious – in their parishes and communities, including preaching and ordination as deacon or priest.”
▸ “Another common hope for becoming a more welcoming Church revolved around removing barriers to accessibility and embracing those with special needs and their families.” A lack of inclusion because, for instance, there are so few priests and other ministers who are fluent in American Sign Language.
▸ The need for deeper cultural understanding, more diversity in parish life: In faith formation, liturgical celebrations, and social experiences. “Language barriers were mentioned frequently as obstacles although most dioceses felt they were making strides with multilingual masses and clergy.” Local communities weighed how best to balance the diverse communities within a single Church that desires to build bridges and fellowship: “Having different Masses in different languages may allow each member of the parish to participate in their first language, but does it promote communion among all parishioners?”
▸ Concerns around racism: “Catholic people of color spoke of routine encounters with racism, both inside and outside the Church. Indigenous Catholics spoke of the generational trauma caused by racism and abuse in boarding schools.”
▸ “Young people also want the Church to speak out about issues that matter to them, like justice, race, and climate change.” They voiced a feeling of exclusion and desire to participate more fully in Church life, especially by participating meaningfully in parish and diocesan councils and ministries.
Ongoing Formation for Mission
“Another common hope that emerged from the synodal consultations was the desire for life-long spiritual, pastoral, and catechetical formation as disciples.” That desire included the following issues:
● The need for lifelong formation like “more opportunities for Bible study, in-person and online courses, lectures, small group discussions… retreats and other opportunities to pray and reflect together as well as for encouragement in the individual spiritual live.”
● “The accompaniment of families throughout a lifelong formation… especially as the concept of the ‘traditional family’ continues to undergo significant change requires to acknowledge the presence of many types of families within the parishes of our dioceses, each of them with their own challenges, each seeking a welcoming community and ministerial outreach.”
● “The need for greater formation for seminarians and those already ordained to better understand human and pastoral needs, cultural sensitivity and awareness, greater emphasis on social justice, sharing resources with the needy, balancing the adherence to the dogmatic teachings of the faith with care for the emotional needs of their parishioners, how to include the laity in decision-making and learning to speak the truth with empathy, creativity, and compassion.”
SOCIAL MISSION OF THE CHURCH
▸ The need for ongoing formation “in the area of social mission, according to the Catholic social doctrine or even the issues of justice in the region… to help parishioners understand the connection between Catholic social teaching and outreach beyond the borders of the parish.”
▸ “A hope for the Church to commit to strengthening communication” between (arch)dioceses and parishes, between parishes and parishioners, and between parishes in the same (arch)dioceses.
▸ “The Church’s use of digital media as essential to serve in missionary discipleship” and to serve as the Church’s voice in social and political arenas, covering geographic distances, but avoiding sensationalism and ideologies.
▸ “Strong desire for appropriate transparency… in the sex abuse crisis, transparency in making difficult decisions, transparency in financial matters, transparency in admitting when something goes wrong, transparency in planning, transparency in leadership. Transparency brings accountability which many people feel is lacking in the Church.” “Lay members in quite a few dioceses said they want greater transparency regarding decision making.” The importance of clear and transparent communication, especially in the digital space, for reaching out to and engaging young people.
▸ “The need for genuine appreciation for the role of the laity in the Church and its mission… taking more seriously the talents and knowledge of the laity to be used more effectively in Parish Councils and Diocesan Pastoral Councils.”
▸ “An awareness of clericalism preventing full accompaniment and collaboration by the laity…” Therefore, the need to discern a way forward for “an empowered relationship of collaboration and co-responsibility at all levels of the Church.”
● “The (synodal) experience itself dispelled many of the misgivings that participants brought with them to the process.” “Within a context of pandemic, polarization, and ongoing wounds of the clergy sexual abuse scandal, there has appeared a seed of renewal, a commitment to re-learn the art of listening and envision a new mission, goals, and priorities – remembering that we are on a pilgrimage together.”
● “The next step for the U.S. Church is to give special attention to its parishes and dioceses, even as we continue participation in the continental and universal phases of the Synod, for that is where the People of God most concretely encounter the Spirit at work and where the first fruits of this discernment will be realized. The call is an ongoing challenge.”
● “One may agree or disagree with some of the perceptions heard and expressed, but we cannot assume they have no importance in lived reality…” They reflect “differing experiences and perceptions of ‘what’s really going on’ in the Church.”
* “People must be able to speak honestly on even the most controversial topics without fear of rejection. We must be open to new ideas and new ways of doing things. That will require an understanding of what is central to the identity of church, diocese, and parish; and what changes can help us grow rather than feel threatened.”
● “Faith formation can help us develop greater understanding and grow in trusting the Holy Spirit who, as the Adsumus prayer reminds us, is at work in every place and time.”
● “It was frequently reported that the participants would welcome more opportunities to be listened to and to hear the expressions of others’ views… It was thought that this might contribute in a significant way to overcoming the polarization that is felt everywhere. Some noted how few opportunities are offered for true listening in a culture where we routinely speak past each other.”
● “Discernment forward must also involve continued engagement with communities that our initial efforts at synodality have not robustly engaged or have been overlooked and unseen. We need to examine the way in which certain teachings are presented, to demonstrate that we can be faithful to God without giving the impression that we are qualified to pass judgment on other people. Engaging and discerning with our sisters and brothers who experience the woundedness of marginalization, as well as those whose voices were underrepresented within the synodal process, will be essential for the unfolding of the synodal journey in our dioceses and in our country.”
● “These spiritual conversations and fraternal dialogues have renewed a sense of common love and responsibility… to foster communion, strengthen participation, and effectively engage in the mission of the Church.”
End Notes: Includes 65 notes referring to the Regional Synthesis along the document.
Appendix A — The U.S. Synod Team: Relates the names of all the people responsible for the synodal process at different levels.
Appendix B — Catholic Dioceses in the United States: A map of US locating all the dioceses and administrative regions.
COMMENTS ON THE NATIONAL SYNTHESIS OF THE DIOCESAN PHASE OF THE SYNODAL PROCESS IN US:
ON THE POSITIVE SIDE:
▸ The positive feedback from those who participated in the synodal process, despite the original uncertainty and lack of previous experience about it, and the will to continue walking the synodal path.
▸ The honesty of the National Synthesis acknowledging and airing some important issues brought up by the participants such as: the division within the US Church; the clergy sexual abuses scandal; the need for better formation of the faithful, as well as of the seminarians and priests; the need for the inclusion of the laity, particularly the young and women, promoting co-responsibility in the mission and other Church’s affairs; and the need for outreaching to the different marginalized groups, looking forward for the Church “as a home for the wounded and broken, not an institution for the perfect.”
ON THE NEGATIVE SIDE:
▸ It seems that parishes, in general, did not give the importance to the synodal process that it deserved, as reflected in the lack of references to it in homilies and in their weekly bulletins or web pages. That is probably responsible for the poor involvement of the faithful, since the figure given for the participants represents only 1.05% of that given for the total Catholic population of US.
▸ Some of the issues considered to be relevant as “signs of the times”, locally and globally, were not brought up or not sufficiently exposed as they should according to the principles of the Social Doctrine of the Church (dignity of the person, common good, solidarity, subsidiarity): The growth of poverty and the need for socio-economic assistance to the needy (health care, housing, education, work opportunities), and the need for creative ways to combat the origins of poverty itself; local violence, international wars and the sales of arms of massive destruction; environmental issues damaging our “common house” and the need for an ecological conversion as well as for effective actions to address them.
▸ Finally, let us hope that the compromise for an ongoing synodal conversion of the Church in the US expressed by the Synthesis implies the true endorsement of the final document that will result from the General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops on Synodality ̶in their two sessions scheduled to be held in October of 2023 and October of 2024̶, and the will to implement any actions proposed by it.