Bishop Frank Caggiano agrees with Pope Francis: We need a listening church
This week, on the Jesuitical podcast, hosts Zac Davis and Ashley McKinless speak with Bishop Frank Caggiano of Bridgeport Conn., who unpacks his understanding of what Pope Francis is after in calling for a “synod on synods,” and more broadly, what it means to have a church that listens.
Listen and read an excerpt of the conversation below. The transcript has been edited for clarity and length.
AM: Under Pope Francis, we have had a few synods around certain themes or recent regions: family, young people, the Amazon. But this one is a “synod on synodality,” which kind of sounds like a meeting on meetings. I imagine it’s hard to get people too excited about it. How would you describe the purpose of this meeting?
I think the synod is extremely important because what it really is, is debuting a new methodology of consultation. It’s really a reflection on who we are. It’s asking the church to take a step back and say: We all, by baptism, have a role in the church. The Spirit’s moving in all our hearts, and we all have a place and a role to play in discerning how the church addresses pastoral issues.
So this is the dry run for a new methodology that involves everybody, not just bishops. Everybody in the church has an opportunity to be part of it. It’s revolutionary in that sense. This is the largest attempt at human consultation in the history of the world.
AM: You said this is a test run for a new way of consulting as a church. How would you describe the old way, and what was missing from it? Why wasn’t it up for the times and the challenges we face right now?
I had the privilege of being a delegate to the synod on youth and young adults. And one of the most electric moments in the synod was when the young people themselves spoke, about their profiles of ministry and courage and perseverance. Now in that structure, I, as the bishop, am supposed to bring all those insights and observations to the larger gathering. But I’m always kind of filtering it because I’m not a young adult. But when anyone speaks for him or herself, it’s much more powerful.
Everyone has a voice to tell his or her own personal story.
So the difference is that the bishops will still be the deliberators with the pope as to how to respond. But now everyone has a voice to tell his or her own personal story. And I think it’s going to be wider, deeper, broader, more personal than what we have now.
ZD: Was that a moment of conversion for you in some ways, just seeing that happen in action at the synod on young people?
Absolutely. I think what animates Pope Francis in large part is this beautiful, basic theological idea of communion—that we’re all linked together, all humanity is linked together because we’re all made in God’s image and likeness. And among believers we’re linked together by grace and the Holy Spirit and in baptism. And so, we could disagree, we could even fight, but we’re all in this together to be partners in mission. We all have a role to play in preaching the Gospel and moving the mission of the church forward. So I think it is a concept that for young adults, in particular, resonates so deeply because no one wants you to speak for them.
AM: The instructions for this synod, specifically say that we shouldn’t only be talking to the most loyal parishioners, that the church wants to hear from everyone: young people, people on the margins of the church, maybe people who have left the church. What does the church have to gain from hearing those voices?
In my own life, people have said to me, “You know, bishop, you look terrible; you look tired; you look distracted.” And I’m not even aware that I am tired or distracted. So people outside the church perceive us in a certain way, [and] we may not even be aware of how we’re sending out the vibes that give them that perception. There’s a tremendous value in that.
People outside the church perceive us in a certain way, and we may not even be aware of how we’re sending out the vibes that give them that perception.
ZD: What are these [synod] conversations about? Are we trying to just get a sense of people’s perceptions of the church, their interactions with it or what their opinion is on the teachings or ways of operating?
My sense is, if I read those documents correctly, the pope wants to hear people’s personal stories of faith. So where has the church been an aid in your spiritual journey? Where has it been a challenge or obstacle if you are not active in your life of faith, in the church? Where do you draw your spiritual sustenance? Where do you find your consolation? Where do you find your joy in life? So it’s more of an existential sort of question. 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?
AM: You are clearly a fan of synodality and on board with this synod, but I don’t think everyone is as enthusiastic. For some, there might be some fear about what this could lead to. Pope Francis is not afraid of making messes, as he has said before, and this has the potential to be messy, when you have this many voices. What do you think is behind that fear, and what would you say to people who are not quite as on board as you?
I think it really comes down to a fear that the synod will become a congress, and we will be voting on or somehow influencing the things we believe in. And that is not what a synod is meant to be. I told our delegates: “This is not a congress. We’re not voting to amend things or to kick out this, that or the other.” But rather, it is a way, in the appropriation of one’s experience, to be able to discern an application, a deeper significance, that we did not necessarily recognize, for the things we believe.
If I may give you this image: When I look at the pictures of myself as a little kid, a fat little chubby kid from Brooklyn, right? And now I’m a fat, chubby adult, actually an early elder, in Bridgeport. It’s the same me, but there has been much development along the way. And that’s kind of like where I think people should get reassurance. This is not a free-for-all to change what we believe, but we can deepen our understanding of what we believe and apply it in more effective ways.
ZD: Are there some examples of some things that, in the way that we apply how we live out our faith, could change coming out of this?
I think much will change, and a lot of it is attitude, not so much doctrinal. We really do have among many good people this sense [that it’s] “Mass and I’m done.” But as a Christian, Mass is the fuel for the rest of the week so that you’re never really done. Baptism calls us to live our lives everywhere, whether it’s in the marketplace and the political arena, whether it is in social community life, whether it is in your parish, among friends, with your spouse, your children.
When you have a parish that’s not welcoming, something’s wrong, attitudinally. So as you listen to people’s stories and you listen to their sufferings and you listen to their heartbreaks and you do it in a way that you yourself are opening yourself up to what they’re saying, I’m hoping it will start converting hearts to say: “We’re in this together. I can’t go to Mass and not be concerned about who’s sitting next to me anymore.” This could have a profound change in the life of the church.
When you have a parish that’s not welcoming, something’s wrong, attitudinally.
ZD: Part of this [synod] process is re-imagining the way that bishops themselves exercise authority—listening and teaching and the relationship between those two things. And from one vantage point, it is a giving up of the old way of doing things, the old way of having power in the church. What’s your thought on that? I imagine there have got to be some hesitations or reservations.
That’s really a profound question, I must confess, and I will give you a first glance answer [though] I need to reflect on that further, too. Here in the diocese [during the pandemic], when the obligation [to attend Sunday Mass] was reinstated, it didn’t really affect attendance. And part of it is because people are not motivated simply because this may be in obedience to a law. They’re coming because their heart is moved to come, which is the ideal. So for myself as a bishop, when I teach, I am painfully aware that I have to be effective in my preaching, in my teaching, because your simply saying it is not enough. We have to be inspirational and we have to give cogent reasons and we have to engage in dialogue to win people’s hearts and minds. No different than St. Paul did in the Acts of the Apostles. It’s no different than in that day.
If I could challenge myself: My witness and my example is more powerful than my words. And if I say one thing and I’m living something else, then young people, in particular, are going to say, “Come on. If you’re not walking the talk, stop already, we get it. We don’t need to hear this.”
AM: With the open listening the synod is inviting, you’re going to have different voices, and there are at some point going to be disagreements. Catholics have gotten kind of used to division in the church, unfortunately. I’m wondering if you have any advice about how to have hard, honest conversations without deepening those divisions?
It’s all the art of listening. Listening in the contemporary world is oftentimes confused with just biding your time till you can say something. But if listening is from the heart, then it’s always going to be challenging because you’re going to be reacting to what a person says and making the choice not to react externally. And it reveals your own heart to yourself: Why am I reacting this way? Why am I defensive? Why do I find this somewhat discomforting? It is a window into your own heart.
We’ve become tribal in the Catholic Church. Like in politics, you belong to a tribe and you go on social media and [think] I’m going to conquer and vanquish whoever doesn’t have to agree with me. And that’s all about the basic premise that it’s all about me and I’m the standard of truth and I’m going to fix the church. Christ saved the church! So when you say, what church are you saving?
In the end, it’s melting the heart. My prayer for the synod is that it will melt my heart more and all those who participate in it so that they can truly become empathetic to those around them. That’s how you can foster communion in a new way.
ZD: Some of our America colleagues called every diocese to see what they were doing for the synod. By early October, less than half have gotten a [synod] director appointed. We know there’s still a pandemic happening and there are challenges to go with that, but is it a lack of enthusiasm or something else going on here in the United States?
From my perspective, you invest in the things that you believe are going to yield the greatest fruit. And perhaps a bishop has decided that it won’t. But my experience is that the opposite is true. In 2014, when we had our diocesan synod, there were 3,600 interventions. And some of it was very painful because people were just so angry. And so this listening that I described before, I had to learn the hard way, but it has really kind of changed my whole perspective as a diocesan bishop on how you govern and how you prioritize and what you do. And I think this synod really is going to allow seeds to be planted in the hearts of people that could have a truly long lasting change on how we operate, how we treat each other and to start healing.
ZD: Can you say more about that experience of listening to people’s anger in the church? There are lots of people who are angry at the church, but to express that anger is itself, in some ways, an act of love, right? You’ve not given up on this thing. To be able to express anger and listen, what was that like? That had to be very moving and difficult.
It was certainly moving because you could see the genuine anguish in a lot of people. If you’re betrayed by a friend or a spouse, there are very little words to describe the pain that you experience. And to be betrayed by this spiritual parent is like having a dagger plunged into your heart. Many times people afterward, in the years to follow, they thanked me simply for being able to [express their anger], for there was nowhere else to say it, and that itself is healing. So for me personally, it gave me greater resolve to understand that part of my ministry is administrative but that administration is an act of love, too, because it should be designed in part to make sure that what we endured will never happen again, that people will never experience that level of betrayal again.
To be betrayed by this spiritual parent is like having a dagger plunged into your heart.
AM: Could you give some words of wisdom or advice to someone who’s listening to this conversation and thinking to themselves, “It’s great that the church is doing this, but I’m not the type of person they want to hear from or it’s not worth my time.” Why do you think they should make the effort to get involved at their parish or diocesan level?
I think in part the simple message is that we care and we want you to be part of it. As in any good family, we’re not going to leave you behind. We’re going to ask. And if you’re not ready, perhaps later on, we’ll ask again, because we love you, which is as simple as that. And if one can’t honestly say that, then that’s why the synod has to melt hearts, right? For all of us, if we have friends, relatives, neighbors, who are not involved in the life of the church, then it’s like having Sunday meal and not having your whole family, which in the modern world has become commonplace. When I was a kid, that was unthinkable. And when I went to Sunday meal, I didn’t always get along with my sister. Sometimes I wanted to wring her neck, and she certainly wanted to wring my neck. But we were still at the meal because I couldn’t imagine life without that.
So in a sense, what would I say to them? I say: Please don’t give up on us so much that we can’t still have a cup of coffee together and talk. Because at least for us, we need you and we want you. Once part of the family, you are always part of the family.