The Diocese of San Diego will soon be assuming a vanguard role in demonstrating how local churches can embrace the “synodality” promoted by Pope Francis. Bishop Robert McElroy of San Diego has convened a diocesan synod to meet on Oct. 28-29 to reflect on the major themes of the recent apostolic exhortation “Amoris Laetitia.”
The bishop believes the synod will not only help San Diego Catholics grapple with the modern challenges to family life and the church as they are explored in “Amoris,” it will also offer the diocese a new model for “being church.” Bishop McElroy proposes turning the diocesan synod into a biannual, theme-driven event, an opportunity for spiritual renewal, reflection and “meaningful lay input into important sets of decisions within the governance of the diocese.” (Listen to the complete interview with Bishop McElroy here.)
Bishop McElroy believes the pope’s exhortation “Amoris Laetitia” offers a unique and timely focal point for discussion. “The substance of it, namely marriage and family life, is right at the heart of the pastoral agenda of the church thus the topic itself…lies at the heart of the Christian moral life basically for everyone in various ways.”
The San Diego synod may be the first such structured diocesan-wide response to “Amoris” worldwide. Though he chuckles to hear himself described as a global trendsetter, Bishop McElroy says, “I like to look at new ways of doing things and trying them and seeing if [they work].”
The bishop is keen on taking the idea of the synod as an event and transforming it into an ongoing process that involves the entire diocesan community. Church leaders in San Diego, he says, had been seeking to create structures that would allow “lay participation in substantive and profound ways in the life of the [local] church…in terms of agenda setting, in terms of bringing the wisdom of the laity to bear on how we do things and in bringing to us problems we, as a bishop or a priest, do not see sometimes."
“We were looking for a process…to have a substantial engagement of priestly leadership, lay leadership, religious leadership, struggling together along with the theological community on various topics. [The diocesan synod] seems promising to me, and I hope it will be.”
While the discussions during the upcoming synod are predetermined around five themes related to “Amoris,” Bishop McElroy insists the synod's outcome will not be predetermined. His only hard demand is that a practical action plan emerge from whatever discussions occur during the two-day synod. He acknowledges discussion around a subject as “neuralgic” as reintegrating divorced and remarried Catholics into the sacramental life of the church could be emotional, and the process itself could be messy, but that’s “part of synodality…that’s part of the life of the church too because what we’re being asked to do in this synod is to wrestle with how do we apply the Gospel and the teaching of the church and the teachings of this apostolic exhortation in the particular life experience we have here in the diocese of San Diego and family life in all of its different manifestations.” He remains confident, however, that the many broad interests already expressed by parishioners on the various contemporary pressures on modern family life will prevent the synod from becoming bogged down by one or two issues like same-sex marriage or communion for the divorced and remarried.
Diocesan committees over the summer, guided by local theologians, will prepare working documents that will serve as a basis for discussion during the synod itself. The five themes San Diego will explore in October include: the challenge to witness to both the beauty and realism of the Catholic vision of marriage and family life; to form a culture of invitation and hospitality to unmarried couples; to welcome, nurture and form children; to provide authentic pastoral support for those who are divorced; and to bring spiritual depth to family life.
Bishop McElroy intends that San Diego’s multicultural community is broadly represented in October. “But also age-wise it’s important that we have a lot of young adults present so we get that perspective as part of the decision making.” Single delegates will be drawn from each parish, and Bishop McElroy will appoint 20 delegates himself to ensure that San Diego’s diversity is preserved.
Challenges to family life that may be specific to his diocese, Bishop McElroy suggests, come from within two large but distinct communities in the diocese: Undocumented couples seeking to formalize their relationships before the civic and church community but afraid to come out of the shadows; and Navy couples who face unique logistic challenges both in preparing for marriage and preserving their marriages and caring for children when faced with long separations created by overseas deployment.
The outline for the synod is explored in a recent pastoral letter from Bishop McElroy, "Embracing the Joy of Love."