By Ellie Hidalgo
As Pope Francis tells it, l the story of Jesus’ life is full of journeys, adventures, and encounters. Jesus meets people where they are on the rocky roads of life, seeing their faces and taking the time to listen to a person’s story, because “he knows that someone’s life can be changed by a single encounter.” Encounters with Christ uplift and bring healing.
In inviting Catholics to embrace and participate in this global, synodal, consultation process, the Holy Father said that we are each called “to become experts in the art of encounter.” I heard this invitation to all the faithful -- bishops, priests, religious, laity -- inside St. Peter’s Basilica on a cool October 10th morning in Rome as part of a delegation of six women from Discerning Deacons and Núcleo Mujeres – REPAM (Red Ecclesial Pan-Amazon Network). We were there to hear first-hand the pope’s vision for a synodal, listening Church and to embrace the call to participate and contribute to the renewal of our Church.
The synodal listening path entitled “For a Synodal Church: Communion, Participation, and Mission,” entails three key invitations said Pope Francis. Catholics are invited to engage others in encounter, listening and discernment in their parishes, but also in their communities, particularly in the peripheries and with the marginalized.
It’s a seemingly simple invitation – to go out and listen to others – inside a broad aspirational vision as articulated by the synod’s Preparatory Document, “We recall that the purpose of the Synod, and therefore of this consultation, 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, give strength to our hands.”
It is positive, hopeful vision at a time when the Church is still coming to terms with the anguish of the global clergy sex abuse crisis and the need for profound healing and rebuilding of trust between clergy, religious, and lay women and men.
Pope Francis wants to return the Church to its roots and the ancient practice of synodality. He is drawing on history, when in the Hebrew Bible assemblies are convoked to remind the Israelites of their divine calling. Then in the New Testament, the outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost leads, in part, to the first synod: the Council of Jerusalem, recorded in the Acts of the Apostles, chapter 15. The Council of Nicea, the Lateran Councils and the Council of Trent allowed for the active participation of the People of God, and Vatican II was a major synodal event in the Church’s history.
This particular Synod on Synodality ushers in a new methodology of consultation which includes a diocesan listening phase in every diocese throughout the world, a continental phase, and a global assembly of the Synod of Bishops in October 2023, followed by an implementation phase. “This is the largest attempt at human consultation in the history of the world,” remarked Bishop Frank Caggiano, of Bridgeport, Conn.
The only way forward is together
At its essence, the hope of the synodal, listening and discerning process is that the Church is inviting us to walk forward into the future together. Pope Francis is courageous and audacious in countering the polarization that has swept our world with dangerous consequences to people and to the planet. The only way forward is together, because to try to go into the future divided, polarized, angry at one another will not work.
Fr. David MacCallum, SJ, executive director of Discerning Leadership and a member of the Synod of Bishops Commission on Methodology describes the times we are living in as “tumultuous” and “a change of epochs.” The solid ground of the past is slipping away from us, he said during a recent webinar, and change is happening in a disruptive, volatile way that creates panic and anxiety. Yet our faith calls us to discern a path forward where we are each co-creating the future which we desire for ourselves and one another.
Latino/Hispanic Catholic families also are feeling the maelstrom of change, even in families with long histories of participation in the Catholic faith. In 2019, only 47 percent of U.S. Hispanics called themselves Catholic, down from 57 percent in 2009. The number of Hispanics identifying as Protestant rose from 23 in 2009 to 26 percent in 2017. However, the bigger change is among Latin/Hispanics describing themselves as atheist, agnostic or “nothing in particular” which increased from 16 to 23 percent, according to the Pew Research Center.
Furthermore, the Pew data shows a wide gap between older Americans and Millennials: More than eight-in-ten members of the Silent Generation (those born between 1928 and 1945) describe themselves as Christians (84 percent), as do three-quarters of Baby Boomers (76 percent). In stark contrast, only half of Millennials (49 percent) describe themselves as Christians, and 40% are religious ‘nones.’
Over and over, I hear Hispanic/Latino elders in Miami, Los Angeles and elsewhere lament that their children and grandchildren have become disengaged from the long-standing Catholic faith of their great grandparents, grandparents and parents. The loss of family unity feels enormous along with consequences for the stability and lack of leadership of Catholic ministries in the near future.
“If young people are leaving the church, which they are, where are they going and what are they doing with their basic desire to have a relationship with something far greater and more meaningful?” asks Bishop Caggiano.
It’s an important question, and yet those of us who have remained Catholic have rarely had a thoughtful, intentional process with which to engage younger generations in meaningful dialogue about these profound changes in their religious and spiritual sensibilities. The synodal path could provide us with such a process by which we can go out and encounter, listen, and discern with to those closest to us – family members, friends, neighbors.
Dialogue, not debate
The synodal consultations taking place throughout the world prioritize dialogue, which begins with the premise that none of us can discern the future of the Church by ourselves. Not even the pope. Because no one person has access to the whole picture. The Body of Christ is a like a mosaic made up of billions of pieces, and it is only through open-hearted listening and a desire to learn from one another’s experience can we begin to grasp the Holy Spirit’s invitation for how to move forward together.
Sr. Nathalie Becquart, the Under-Secretary of the Synod of Bishops, observes that “there can be no Synod without a spiritual journey. It is truly a journey of listening to the Holy Spirit.”
Engaging in dialogue is how we can travel on a spiritual path that reveals the will of the Holy Spirit for our times. Dialogue, however, is not easy. The polarization we see in our world today is the result of diatribe – communication by insults. Diatribe generates clicks on social media and keeps viewers glued to endless disputes and attacks on television because it taps the human instinct to pay attention when we feel threatened. But diatribe does not promote the kind of conversation that allows for empathy and understanding, nor does it create possibilities for consensus building.
Debate is another form of communication in which people agree to treat one another with some level of respect as they present their strongly held views. However, debate is competitive speech. There are winners and losers in debates, and rarely do they provide opportunities for consensus building and finding shared solutions.
The kind of listening that takes place in dialogue is more than hearing, said Pope Francis. “It is reciprocal listening in which everyone has something to learn.”
There is a theology of synodality that is undergirding the global synodal process. It is based on the theology of the People of God – which includes everyone from the pope to the laity – having equal dignity and each having a responsibility for the identity, vocation and mission of the Church. It is also based on the theology “that the sensus fidelium and the magisterium are distinct but complementary subjects whose constant reciprocity produces and regulates the intelligence of faith,” write theologians Rafael Luciani and Serena Noceti. The bishops are to promote and guide everyone to the consensus fidelium, and this depends on the discernment of the whole Body of Christ.
Synodality begins with each one of us
The essential question of the Synod is: What steps does the Spirit invite us to take in order to grow in our “journeying together”?
The Synod of Bishops have prepared resources to guide the dioceses in their organizing synod processes locally and to guide faithful in their participation. There are 10 key themes to consider, yet each diocese has been given latitude to design their particular synodal questions given the concerns and pressing priorities of their region.
In the fall, I enjoyed participating in two parish consultations in Miami. At Our Lady of Guadalupe Church, the 30 people who arrived for the synodal consultation in November took some time to begin in prayer and to engage in faith sharing in groups of three. Afterwards each small group had an hour to work on three questions and to write notes we submitted. We started off by reminding one another that it was fine to have divergent opinions and that we would listen to one another respectfully, centered in our own experience.
The particular questions used were designed by the Archdiocese of Miami synodal team; other dioceses might ask different questions. First question: What fills you with joy about the Catholic Church? What causes you concern about the Catholic Church? Our group was surprisingly vulnerable and candid in our responses, yet also respectful.
We then moved onto the second question: Are you encouraged to speak up courageously and responsibly about challenges and concerns? Do you feel heard? Do you listen to the voices of others? How can we create greater opportunities for people to be heard in Church and in the public square?
In my small group, we practiced listening humbly, without interrupting, for a while longer than we might initially feel comfortable. We let the Holy Spirit hold this conversation and shared from a place of courage and vulnerability. I noticed our places of agreement and noticed where someone’s experience was very different from my own. A third question focused on what each of us needed to further develop a personal relationship with Jesus and to help others do the same. Then we invited a few moments of holy silence and a return to prayer to end the evening. I left feeling a greater sense of connection with the two people in my small group and a greater sense of belonging in my community.
A week later, I brought my elderly father to another synodal consultation session at Our Lady of Divine Providence Church. At the end of the evening, parish leaders invited us to take additional question sheets and reach out to people who have stopped going to Church. I appreciated that we were being invited to create our own opportunities of encounter and listening by inviting others into a meaningful 1 to 1 conversation.
Many of us have children, grandchildren, nieces and nephews who have disconnected from the Church. We invested so much time, love and energy in their Catholic formation, and yet if they decide to leave, we are at a loss about what to do and feel unprepared to invite a thoughtful and meaningful conversation. Could the synod process open a pathway to dialogue?
I decided to ask my 21-year-old niece if I could listen to her. She was baptized a Catholic, received her first Communion, sacrament of Reconciliation and Confirmation. These were milestones that were celebrated in our family. However, like many of her peers, she no longer considers herself Catholic, although she still values parts of Catholic culture and the justice perspective that informs her thinking and commitments.
I invited my niece to spend an hour with me to talk about her experience with the Catholic Church – her joys and concerns. I was delighted when she agreed, and I listened and took notes as I asked her each question from the Archdiocese of Miami synod process. I learned a lot about what she still values about her childhood faith, and I got to hear about the disappointments as a teenager that mounted to the point where she felt she no longer belonged. She told me our conversation was the first time anyone had intentionally sat down to ask her about these experiences in a way that would be communicated to a church that wanted to understand.
A few days later, I drove back to Our Lady of Divine Providence Church to submit my notes. I noticed my hand quivering as I turned in my envelope to the parish secretary to give to the associate pastor. No one had ever asked me before to conduct an exit interview with a young adult Catholic. It felt a little scary to do a new thing, but also sparked my hope that somehow my niece’s story and that of many other young adults might contribute something meaningful to the synod consultation process and allow us to glimpse what is needed to renew our Church and to strengthen the spiritual bonds in our families.
This synod methodology hopes to serve as a corrective to the concern that in the Catholic Church there is insufficient theological and pastoral consideration of the sensus fidelium. And that this has led to an isolated exercise of authority and a centralized style of governance in the Church that does not keep its members engaged and is leading to diminishing participation in parish life, write theologians Rafael Luciani and Serena Noceti.
The synod process isn’t seeking to re-engage Catholics by making participation easier. If anything, the task of listening, dialoguing, discerning, consensus building, making decisions, and implementing those decisions will require much more time, commitment, and energy on the part of the faithful. But it is precisely in engaging the faithful and in valuing their active participation that a much more mature faith can evolve, able to take on the complexities of our times.
"Synodality is a style, it is a walk together, and it is what the Lord expects from the Church of the third millennium," says Pope Francis.
Hispanic/Latino Catholics are called to lead
If the U.S. Church catches onto the spirit of synodality, it will likely be because, Hispanic/Latino Catholics understand the vital contribution we are being called to make. Afterall, Hispanic/Latino Catholics have the experience of organizing five Encuentros (1972, 1977, 1985, 2000, 2018) that have engaged hundreds of thousands of Catholics in the art of small group conversation and discernment processes. The Encuentros are rooted in the methodology of the pastoral circle and the invitation to see, judge, act, celebrate and commit to mission as an effective way to incarnate the teachings of the Second Vatican Council, especially as contained in the Pastoral Constitution of Guadium et Spes.
“It is in the Latino community where perhaps the best exercises of synodality have been taking place in the last half a century,” said Boston College theologian Hosffman Ospino about the five Encuentros during a webinar on synodality. “This is an ecclesial vision that emphasizes communal dimensions of Christian life and reminds us that all the baptized, every baptized person, has a voice when it comes to discerning what the Holy Spirit wants for the Church.”
Through the Encuentros, Hispanic/Latino Catholics have years of experience consulting with faithful about the priorities that need to be addressed in order for faith to flourish. We have heard the call of the Holy Spirit to engage and accompany the most vulnerable and those who find themselves in the periphery of Church and society. Encuentro 2000 affirmed the unity that can be forged in our diversity, “The vision of a Church where all are welcomed emerged from our most profound identity as a community of mestizos and mulattoes who are pilgrims in this land and called to be agents of solidarity the with many faces in God’s house.”
Already there are signs that Hispanic/Latinos are stepping up to encourage, inspire and cajole the U.S. Church to move in the direction of embracing synodal processes. One of the vital contributions we can make is to build bridges with the Latin American & Caribbean Church which is decades ahead in experimenting with synodal processes and is already creating new ecclesial church structures for greater collaboration and accountability between clergy, religious and lay men and women.
Bishop Oscar Cantú of San Jose, Calif and more than 70 other people from the U.S. participated in the unprecedented first Ecclesial Assembly of Latin America & the Caribbean virtually and in-person in Mexico City in November. Bishop Cantú, who admittedly was concerned that the synodal process would disregard the bishops' role as authentic teachers of the faith, saw that synodal listening can allow a bishop to learn a lot about the people’s experiences in various sectors of society. “This listening informs more fully our pastoral decisions and actions, and provides color, stories — and, yes, credibility — to our teaching. The bishop indeed embodies his local church,” said Bishop Cantú, “however, the full, active and conscious participation of lay, religious and clergy can be a fuller manifestation of the body of Christ.”
Discerning Deacons and women form Núcleo Mujeres – REPAM in the Amazon have been supporting one another’s efforts to resource the ongoing discernment of our Church about women’s ministries and women’s leadership roles in the Church, including the diaconate.
In February, Loyola University Chicago, in partnership with the Holy See, hosted a synodal encounter between Pope Francis and college students from North, Central and South America to dialogue about relevant environmental and economic realities, including the challenges of migration. The event was built as a bridge building experience between students on both continents.
The U.S. Bishops Conference (USCCB) has invited national Catholic organizations to contribute to the national synodal process by organizing synodal consultations, particularly with people on the peripheries and young adults -- those least likely to be reached by a parish consultation. Hispanic/Latino leaders have been responding to this invitation. In Miami, Instituto Jesuita Pedro Arrupe, CVX, Discerning Deacons, Teresianas and others are actively engaged and collaborating to organize synodal consultations. There is much learning and growing taking place as we learn to reach out to more and more people.
Dialogue, discernment, and consensus building would be much easier if humans were homogenous. Why, then, does the risen Christ permit 7 billion of us to exist from a diversity of races, cultures, ethnicities, languages, and gender? Perhaps because God thought we would enjoy it. Or perhaps because God enjoys encountering us -- in all our diversity. Our Catholic tradition invites us to become a people moving forward together by becoming a listening Church, ambassadors of synodality, heralders of dialogue, and astute listeners to the whispers of the Holy Spirit, who seeks to always walk with us in all places and all times.
Ellie Hidalgo serves as co-director of Discerning Deacons, an organization working collaboratively to organize synodal consultations. Previously, she worked for 12 years on the leadership team at a Jesuit parish in Los Angeles. As a teenager in Miami, Ellie participated in Encuentro Familiares #81 and served in additional retreats as a charlista and small group facilitator. To participate in an upcoming virtual or in-person synodal consultation, email firstname.lastname@example.org.