A synod, not a solution: San Diego's grassroots effort to respond to Amoris Laetitia
My strategy for tense situations is to have a beverage in hand. If I am intellectually ambushed, I can take a drink, swallow slowly and win a few seconds to come back with a thoughtful, disarming response. While navigating my first day at the San Diego synod on the family, my cup was running over—in both senses of the phrase. However, I soon realized my abundantly filled coffee cup was unnecessary. Even with all of the potential points of contention, no one came to the synod with a nefarious agenda. And believe me, there were competing commitments: Catholic/public/home school choices; beliefs that L.G.B.T.Q. families need their rights protected; others saying that allowing these parents to adopt goes against biblical values; different views on how to handle families who are undocumented or have mixed immigration status; the flyer on the “five non-negotiables” a delegate gave me on our car ride home; and others. Given the fact that there was a representative from each of the 100 parishes in the diocese—consider the variety of parish cultures—I am still inspired by the warm pastoral consensus that emerged from the synod.
The Diocese of San Diego made waves last year on the Southwest shores of our nation. In late October 2016, Bishop Robert McElroy held a synod on the family, called Embracing the Joy of Love, in response to Pope Francis’ apostolic exhortation “Amoris Laetitia,” released earlier that year. I served as the theologian for the group that discussed the welcoming and forming of children. Both secular and religious news sources did an excellent job bringing the content of the synod to the world. But they could not quite capture one important element: The whole event was revolutionary. Bishop McElroy highlighted the broader significance of the occasion in his opening homily, saying to the roughly 125 participants, “We recognize that this very act of gathering in the name and grace of our God is a profound declaration of ecclesial identity, hope and witness.”
Even with all of the potential points of contention, no one came to the synod with a nefarious agenda.
The greatest amount of press attention was devoted to the final 15 proposals the delegates presented to the bishop in late October. But if we focus only on those final proposals, we will miss something even bigger: the process. The bishop invited me to participate in the diocesan synod along with five other theologians, 10 facilitators, five recorders and just over 100 delegates. I was impressed by the process that Bishop McElroy had planned. The diocese assigned each of the participants to one of five working groups and asked the delegates to hold listening sessions at their parishes. The delegates then circulated the concerns of their listening sessions to those in their working groups so we could learn from them. The working groups met separately, and each formulated at least three proposals that would be discussed, refined and voted upon when the groups met for the general assembly. These proposals were pastoral in nature, providing ways to accompany families in the diocese. Listening, learning and accompanying are perhaps the three greatest pastoral insights of the synodal process.
The San Diego synod, like the meetings of the Synod of Bishops in Rome, began with listening. Three-quarters of the participants were laypeople—most of them parents. Their participation was important not only for reasons of equity but also for theological insight. Both the San Diego synod and the synod in Rome worked to move beyond an abstract theology of married life, wanting to encounter the emotions, struggles and other concrete realities that families experience in a very direct way.
Delegates varied in their own religious and political commitments. Needless to say, when I went to meet my small group, I was worried that the different perspectives would make people adversarial and destroy conversation. Yet regardless of their own positions, the delegates knew that there were people in the diocese who need pastoral care, and that awareness made them want to work together effectively. The stories they told demonstrated a knowledge of church teaching at the same time that they revealed uncertainty as to how to apply these teachings to particular circumstances. In sum, as far as I could tell, no one there had an ax to grind.
‘Pentecost,’ I confirmed. There is no way a group of strangers so different could come together with such unity and resolve without inspiration from beyond themselves.
And in putting the axes aside, productive work happened. A common hope and commitment united the participants despite the many differences among us. The delegates approached the tasks of the synod with more questions than answers, with a deep desire to welcome and minister to every family in the diocese, whatever their context. In short, these people were remarkable in their humility. Many of them said they did not know why their pastor picked them to come; one mother joked to me that she imagined the first choice was busy. Yet the pastors could not have been wiser in choosing delegates who recognized the seriousness and scope of the task at hand and went about gathering experiences and wisdom from others. To close our working group meeting, Bishop McElroy asked the roughly two dozen participants to describe their experience of the day in a word or two. When my turn came, I proclaimed my word with certainty: “Pentecost.” “Pentecost?” the bishop verified. “Pentecost,” I confirmed. There is no way a group of strangers so different could come together with such unity and resolve without inspiration from beyond themselves.
As my coffee-cup strategy illustrates, people, myself included, can listen without any intent to learn from the speaker. It is easy to imagine that synod participants listened out of politeness or to redirect the conversation to something they found more pertinent or even to find ways to undermine a position they opposed. But this was not the sort of listening that took place at the synod. The listening there was authentic and facilitated learning. This listening and learning affected me personally through the role we theologians were asked to play at the synod. Proposals were to emerge from the delegates organically during the synodal process, not from heavy-handed theologians orchestrating them. Our job as theologians was to ensure that delegates represented church teaching accurately and to help illuminate the theological significance of the delegates’ experiences. It was a time for the theologians to draw upon our own humility and allow lived insights, rather than academic knowledge, to guide the discussion.
Consider the implications of this. It is common to hear that the bishops teach, govern and sanctify. Here, though, the magisterium is on the other side of the desk, learning from the laity. It takes genuine humility for members of the clergy to admit that despite their graduate degrees, the examples of their own holy parents, the closeness they feel to their nieces, nephews and godchildren, and the countless hours they spend with pre-Cana groups, children’s faith formation, marriage counseling and the like, they still have much to learn from families. The synod created a space for our bishop and priests to learn from the laity in safety and courage.
If there was any doubt as to who was teaching whom at the San Diego synod, Bishop McElroy dispelled this. He told my working group that if the church is going to be effective in ministering to families, we need to involve the experts: the laypeople who live these challenges every day. Indeed, he has said so directly: “Marriage and family is where the laity has the expertise.” Again, revolutionary.
Bishop McElroy told my working group that if the church is going to be effective in ministering to families, we need to involve the experts: the laypeople who live these challenges every day.
Additionally, all of us at the synod learned from one another. We all had our own specific experiences in the families we were raised in and most also had experiences forming a new family through marriage. While we shared some things in common, there were still many differences between families. Sheila McKinley, a delegate, not only reported back to her parish the synod’s proceedings, but also shared a bit of her own familial experiences in her parish bulletin. She wrote that her extended family has faced many challenges; her alphabetized list begins with addiction and ends with suicide. Her family reflects the struggles and brokenness of many families. We learned we needed to be attentive to the unique experiences of each family, recognizing that no family can ever be fully comprehended from the outside.
Starting from lived experience and allowing for unscripted, open dialogue, the synod had to deal with disagreements as well. Pope Francis commented on the ways dialogue can be messy in his closing remarks at the Synod of Bishops on the family in 2015: “[T]he different opinions which were freely expressed—and at times, unfortunately, not in entirely well-meaning ways—certainly led to a rich and lively dialogue.” I never heard any session comments spoken thoughtlessly or with poor intentions within the San Diego synod (although we were not together for four weeks as the participants in the two Roman gatherings were!), but we did have the rich and lively dialogue that can only happen amid disagreement. One delegate, a young father with extensive ministerial experience in Catholic high school and colleges, asked me a question during a break. He had an approachable demeanor, a warm and enthusiastic smile. Referring to a point I had made earlier, he asked: How do you know when it is time to push a person further along in his or her faith journey? While I probably err on the side of pushing more slowly and he preferred to move more quickly, his question was not an attempt to prove his approach superior to mine. Like others at the synod, he was asking real questions, seeking to understand how best to do the complicated work of pastoral accompaniment. Throughout these conversations, even amid diversity in belief, there was a mutual desire to serve God and the people of the diocese with mercy, honesty and compassion. That is what made dialogue among participants so fruitful.
The notion of accompaniment appeared 15 times in “Amoris Laetitia” and was a recurring theme within the San Diego synod. In his homily at the synod, Bishop McElroy said we must be a “church made not merely for the pure, but for all.” Gerardo Rojas, who helped facilitate the synod, explored the richness of acompañamiento at length and reminded the general assembly, “Jesus walked compassionately with those he was trying to invite to have a deeper, more intimate relationship with Christ. We need to do that.”
Consensus could be built around recognizing pastoral needs in common, even when there was significant disagreement about the issues causing those needs.
The synod was not an exercise in analysis of or advocacy about church teaching. Rather, the delegates concentrated on how to serve the needs in their own communities and in the diocese at large. This focus on pastoral realities—rather than trying to resolve debates about church teaching—also reflects the link between the local synod and the results of the Roman synod as reflected in “Amoris Laetitia.” As I and many others read it, “Amoris Laetitia” does not change church teaching. This apostolic exhortation is, instead, very pastoral in its tenor. A pastoral focus on accompaniment did not, of course, instantly result in agreement, either in Rome or in San Diego. I would be misrepresenting what happened if I said our synod was easy or that the delegates were all on the same page. But consensus could be built around recognizing pastoral needs in common, even when there was significant disagreement about the issues causing those needs.
Another theologian at the synod told me that a man in one working group had been with his civilly married husband for 13 years. This same group also had people very opposed to same-sex marriage. I listened to delegates complaining to one another about what they perceived as either rigidity or laxity in their groups, some even questioning the right of others to be there. There were clear differences among the delegates when it came to church teaching. But when it came to a pastoral response, there was strong consensus, even amid the obvious ideological division. When deciding how to best minister to L.G.B.T.Q. families, the working group covering this topic recommended incorporating them into parish life as they would any other family. Whereas initially this working group proposed a separate effort to connect with “L.G.B.T. Catholics and their families,” they finally opted simply to include these families among the others who are too often overlooked, like divorced families or those dealing with military deployment. An effort to be inclusive while recognizing the unique challenges that warrant sensitive pastoral care was apparent in the proposals and the more concrete objectives.
I felt my working group experience of Pentecost echoed throughout the synod. It happened in more obvious ways, like the contemplative chanting of “Veni Sancte Spiritus” as we processed into the chapel for the opening rite. It could have stayed simple and clean, but it did not; in small ways it got messy. When the delegates and their small groups offered preliminary feedback on the proposals to the general assembly, a few noted that it would be easier if some programs, such as sacramental preparation, were uniform across the diocese. They worried that parents parish-shopped for the least demanding program and suggested that identical expectations would solve this. I intervened on the synod floor to emphasize the importance of parish autonomy in offering unique pastoral care to specific contexts. It seemed to resonate, as uniformity in parish programming did not come up again. Yet it was not because a heavy-handed theologian threw her weight around; I know this because the second part of my intervention was ignored. I had also suggested that the group attending to divorced and remarried Catholics would do well to address the pastoral care of children whose parents are undergoing divorce. This did not appear later in the proposals. I had to trust that the Spirit would work as God intends, not as I see the needs. If this need emerges later, the Spirit will be there again.
We needed to be comfortable leaving our synod work unfinished, as a developing reality, as planting seeds, as having loose ends. This also reflects the messiness of Pentecost, which was neither predictable in advance nor quickly brought to resolution once it had occurred. Pope Francis concluded the Synod of Bishops on the family in 2015 with the remark that we are “journeying together.” All of these synods—and perhaps synodality itself—are not about coming up with a comprehensive solution but about taking first steps and beginning the journey, not arriving at the destination. They are about trying to follow God’s will when that will is not yet perfectly clear in specific circumstances. Dr. Emily Reimer-Barry, another theologian at the synod, closed her reflection with the phrase “God blesses our messes.” Just as I can see beauty within the spilling of glitter and paint in my child’s art project, God sees goodness in the messes. God rejoiced in the efforts of the synod.
Looking at the process, and not just the content, of the San Diego synod illuminates important lessons for both clergy and lay leaders in the church. I will highlight two here.
First, there are important limits to this process. The synod involved some of the most impressive Catholics of the diocese. They were, by their own accounts, ordinary people, but their holiness, humility and commitment to the church and their parishes led them to overlook the fact that they were, indeed, extraordinary. They were what sociologists would call high-commitment Catholics, meaning that the vast majority of them, if not all, attend Mass at least weekly, consider their faith to be very important and are very unlikely to leave the Catholic Church. These are the figurative “choir” for whom preaching is redundant. But what about Catholics who are more marginal or who have left altogether? What about those events that can leave people feeling estranged from the church, like becoming an unmarried mother, undergoing a divorce, realizing a gay or lesbian identity or simply moving out of the house as an emerging adult? Processes like synods that draw only the most active and committed Catholics will not help us understand the experiences of the more peripheral Catholics. If the aim of a Catholic organization—from Bible study to youth group to school to diocese—is to be a field hospital and to go out to the suffering, these peripheral voices must be present. This necessitates important follow-up sessions that include their experiences, lest we run the risk of becoming less like a field hospital and more like a country club.
Second, in bringing the practices of listening, learning and accompaniment together, the synod offers a new way of being church. I have mentioned humility several times in this article. This virtue often goes hand in hand with trust. Bishop McElroy could not have done what he did without trusting the people of his diocese, believing that their experiences, grounded in deep faith, could add more than his own knowledge and experiences alone could. He needed to trust that the Holy Spirit was already guiding the delegates in their own experience and would guide them within the synod in fruitful ways. The results were astounding, and he earned the trust of the laity in return, building community across the diocese.
Even if family is not the primary focus of your ministerial commitments, it is still wise to pay attention to the synodal process. The American bishops have taken a similar approach in writing some of their pastoral letters, and these resulted in more dynamic and compelling documents. I have no doubt that the implementation committees will enjoy these same benefits. The church proclaims the good news more credibly when clergy and laity trust one another and take their discipleship seriously, following Jesus in their own lives and reaching out to the least of these. San Diego has provided a splendid example of this approach on the topic of family, and the church can apply it to other contexts. Whether one works in Catholic higher education or is looking to increase vocations, listening to those to whom one ministers and learning the ways that personal struggles and social forces influence their choices will help make for better accompaniment.
Implementing this approach will not be easy; the synod was completely draining. I was not exaggerating when I told people it was like having a child! But, also like birthing a child, when the work was complete, it resulted in immense satisfaction, appreciation and wonder. All involved in the synod gathered on the ground floor of the pastoral center, joined by their much-missed families for a lovely taco fiesta while listening to a mariachi band. Children raided the salsa bar and ate too much flan. Delegates who became fast friends exchanged contact information and hugs. I was introduced to the spouses and children of the people I had come to appreciate on a much deeper level than people normally reach after only two or three days of knowing one another. Together we enjoyed a moment to rest. But just as any child needs care in order to grow, so too the work of the synod continues beyond the “birth” accomplished in these days of meetings. Those days, graced as they were, are only the beginning of a creative journey. As the implementation of the synod moves forward, we will gain a better understanding of the fruits of listening, learning and accompaniment. I trust we will not be disappointed.