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Cynthia Bailey Manns, the director of adult faith formation at St. Joan of Arc Catholic Community in Minneapolis, is one of four laypeople from the United States who will participate as a voting member at the Synod on Synodality in Rome this October. (Photo courtesy of The Catholic Spirit)

When Cynthia Bailey Manns received a call last month asking if she would accept an invitation to attend the upcoming global Synod on Synodality in Rome, she felt like it came as “a complete shock.”

While the director of adult faith formation at St. Joan of Arc Catholic Community in Minneapolis knew that Archbishop Bernard Hebda had put forward her name as a possible participant, Ms. Bailey Manns had not expected it to go anywhere.

“What are the odds?” she asked herself at the time. “So, I really went on with my life.”

Going on with her life meant attending to the many parish outreach programs she helps direct: preparing adults for initiation into the church; helping organize the various special services the parish regularly hosts, including Masses for families, encounters with the L.G.B.T. community and blessings for pets; checking in with the Bible study groups and the anti-racism ministry.

But when two emails inviting her to synod went unanswered—she later learned they ended up in her spam folder—the phone rang.

Ms. Bailey Manns’s presence will make history, as she will be taking part in the first synod to have lay men and women serve as voting delegates, alongside cardinals, bishops and priests. 

Ms. Bailey Manns accepted the invitation, and she will spend most of October in Rome, participating in a series of dialogues and presentations aimed at helping Pope Francis chart the future of the church. Her presence will make history, as she will be taking part in the first synod to have lay men and women serve as voting delegates, alongside cardinals, bishops and priests. Ms. Bailey Manns, who holds a doctor of ministry degree, is one of four lay people from the United States appointed by Pope Francis to participate.

[Every American going to the Synod on Synodality: Full list and analysis]

“I’m such a believer in the power of the Holy Spirit,” Ms. Bailey Manns told America in a recent interview. “I’m excited about and curious about how the Holy Spirit is going to work through me and through others and how we work together.”

Ms. Bailey Manns joined St. Joan’s in 2016, when asked by the pastor to be the spiritual director for the parish, a role she had not previously envisioned—spiritual directors usually work one on one with believers—but one that she took on with gusto.

Through her work, Ms. Bailey Manns, 65, said she is able “to hear all of the stories of how God is working in people’s lives.”

She appreciates the diverse life experiences that comprise the parish, ticking off the various types of ministries the parish offers.

“From our L.G.B.T.Q. groups, from our elders as they age…from our Black Catholics…[and from] people who have endured sexual abuse…separated and divorced and remarried people in the church who feel somewhat on the margins,” she said.

Through her work, Ms. Bailey Manns, 65, said she is able “to hear all of the stories of how God is working in people’s lives.”

For people living in the Twin Cities, St. Joan’s exists as something of “a destination parish,” Ms. Bailey Manns said. “There’s not much I don’t see here.”

Some of the Masses are unique and boldly contemporary, with lay guests and parishioners offering short reflections before Mass. These liturgies are held in a gymnasium, with rows of folding chairs filled by parishioners, some of whom travel in from the neighborhood and others from far-flung suburbs. The music is contemporary, projectors display lyrics and readings, and the lay staff are present and visible on Sundays.

But that is just one side of the parish.

St. Joan’s seeks to offer something for everyone, including eucharistic adoration in the chapel, Masses held in the traditional church and Scripture study groups for men and women.

Still, St. Joan’s liturgical innovations and welcoming culture have attracted some negative attention, especially from Catholics who prefer more traditional styles of worship, including the media group Church Militant. That kind of attention can be difficult, she said, but she and the other staff are grateful for the support of their pastor.

“I’m an African American woman in a space that is doing the kind of work that…Christ is calling us to do. To reach out, through the profound love of God, to our neighbor, without distinction.”

“I’m an African American woman in a space that is doing the kind of work that…Christ is calling us to do,” she said. “To reach out, through the profound love of God, to our neighbor, without distinction.”

During an announcement to the parish last month about Ms. Bailey Mann’s appointment, Father Jim DeBruycker praised her ministry and acknowledged the strong emotions St. Joan’s elicits from some corners of the church.

“This appointment comes after a lot of vetting of Cynthia, which also includes where she works,” Father DeBruycker said to laughter and applause. “There may be a shock wave going through the diocese.”

He continued, “Cynthia, we are extraordinarily proud of you and are overjoyed that you will be able to carry the spirit of [St. Joan’s] right through the front door of the Vatican as a voting representative in the synod.”

Acknowledging some of the criticism that has been lobbed at the parish over the years, Ms. Bailey Manns struck a confident tone when she addressed the parish.

“For those who say we aren’t Catholic enough,” she said, “yeah, we are—and the pope said so.”

“For those who say we aren’t Catholic enough,” she said, “yeah, we are—and the pope said so.”

Archbishop Hebda also praised Ms. Bailey Manns in a statement last month, highlighting her involvement in the local synod, her interfaith work and her service on the archdiocese’s lay advisory board.

“Not surprising for someone with years of experience in parish ministry and spiritual direction, Dr. Bailey Manns is a superb listener and articulate dialogue partner, skills that will serve her well at the Synod,” he said. “I am grateful that her voice, grounded in the lived experience of our local Church, will be heard at the Synod.”

Ms. Bailey Manns, who is active in Discerning Deacons, a group that supports the inclusion of women in the diaconate, served as a leader in the archdiocese’s local synod, which began in 2019, and participated in the continental phase of the Vatican’s synod last year. She said both were positive experiences that helped bolster her belief that the Holy Spirit remains at work in the church.

As for the global synod, “I think it’s a conversation that could lead to changes,” she said.

She recognizes that some Catholics might feel the church is not adapting to modern life as quickly as they would like, and that a series of dialogues does not signal urgency needed to address the church’s challenges.

“There is a lot of hope about this upcoming synod,” Ms. Bailey Manns said. “I am hearing more people use those two words together: hope and patience.”

Pope Francis has already presided over a handful of other synods that also included conversations about human sexuality, the role of women in the church and engagement with young people. Though there have been some changes following those conversations, the kinds of sweeping overhaul and reforms of ecclesial structures that some Catholics hoped Francis would usher in have failed to materialize. Even some papal supporters say there has been enough talking—Francis has now been pope for more than a decade—and that it is time for action.

But Ms. Bailey Manns takes a long view.

“I’m a woman who was born during the height of segregation,” she said, “and a lot of conversations happened that got me to where I am.”

As for her role at the synod, Ms. Bailey Manns said that she sees her responsibility as helping “to plant seeds and create processes that may move things forward. And then rest in the assurance that someone else will come along beside me, behind me, to continue to do that work.”

Throughout the interview, Ms. Bailey Manns repeatedly used two words—hope and patience—when asked how she views the role of the synod in the larger context of Catholic life and what she is hearing from other Catholics about the gathering.

“It is not realistic to wake up at the end of the synod in October, or after the following one next year, and think things are automatically going to change,” she said. “It is a process. It takes patience. It is messy.”

Regardless, “there is a lot of hope about this upcoming synod,” Ms. Bailey Manns said. “I am hearing more people use those two words together: hope and patience.”

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