Is the synod ignoring the concerns of most Catholics in the pews?
The lead-up to the upcoming Synod on Synodality in Rome has me discouraged. Pope Francis has invited all the baptized to participate in the theme of “Communion, Participation, and Mission.” He has also given clear instruction that participating in the synod means first listening—not so much to others or to ourselves but to God in personal prayer. That is how we prepare for the second step, walking together. And walking together is how we get to the third step, witnessing to each other.
But instead, so far we have seen a battle between different visions of what the church is or should be, often waged on social and traditional media by people who are not even directly involved in the synod.
The preparations for the synod could have provided moments where the church could teach while at the same time engaging Catholics’ everyday concerns. But as things stand, many have an unrealistic expectation that the church will change its teaching on hot-button issues as a result of the synod. (Remember all the controversy surrounding the synod on the Amazon? Well, the church teaching against married priests in that region remains unchanged.) Such speculation distracts from unmet day-to-day pastoral needs.
Many have an unrealistic expectation that the church will change its teaching on hot-button issues as a result of the synod.
I am familiar with synods. I organized events related to the synod on youth in 2018 with the de Nicola Center for Ethics and Culture at the University of Notre Dame. I also participated in the parish synodal process coordinated by my local diocese for this upcoming synod. And that is where a disconnect became clear to me.
Even though I attend daily Mass at this parish, I was never informed of its participation in the diocesan synodal process from the pulpit. Instead, someone from the parish men’s group messaged my husband, encouraging us to participate. We had heard Pope Francis’ invitation to all the baptized to participate in local preparations, and we were grateful to do so.
When we arrived at the parish hall, we were already assigned to groups. I didn’t recognize anyone in my group, and we were never given a chance to get to know each other. In each group, there was a facilitator who posed scripted questions. According to the rules, we could only speak when holding the talking piece, a wooden cross.
I participated in the parish synodal process coordinated by my local diocese for this upcoming synod. And that is where a disconnect became clear to me.
When we got to the last question—what’s the thing that you dislike most about the church?—at least three people in my small group answered that “gays can’t come to church.” I assume they meant that gay couples do not feel welcome at Mass. Their comment could have led to a conversation that clarified church teaching and helped people to understand it, but according to the rules, there could be no interaction and no dialogue. This meant there would be no moment in which we could learn from each other. This seems like a missed opportunity.
This initial phase of consultation in the parishes helped to form the National Synthesis document, which was then forwarded to Rome for the first of two synods on synodality, the first taking place this October and the second in October of next year. According to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, about 700,000 people participated in this first phase, out of 66.8 million Catholics in the entire United States. That’s about 1 percent of all U.S. Catholics. Most countries had even fewer Catholics participate.
In the meantime, more than 99 percent of all Catholics will continue to get on with life, shouldering personal crosses, taking care of families, dealing with financial and employment challenges, and so on. These are the mundane tasks that make up most of our lives and are the means for most of us to obtain eternal life.
Increasingly, I find Catholics, both lapsed and practicing, listening to Joel Osteen, Reverend Paula White and other evangelical personalities. As a friend of mine noted, Joel Osteen will tell you that God does care that you can’t pay your mortgage, that your child is doing drugs, that your spouse is cheating on you, that God really cares about your sufferings. By contrast, I rarely hear in a Catholic homily that God cares about the details of my life.
I rarely hear in a Catholic homily that God cares about the details of my life.
I have moved from city to city, and I have often been amazed at how a parish can be such a lonely place. Recently, God has put in my life a few people desperately in need of accompaniment, and I am happy to be able to help. But I know people active in various Catholic communities, some with well-known difficulties, who have expressed the wish that their parish would reach out more often to see if they are O.K. It seems to me that we as a church need to be addressing these immediate concerns.
During the pandemic, a priest I know started calling all the vulnerable people in his parish and other networks. If they did not respond, he would stop by. I am sure it made a world of difference for many, if only to let them know that he cared, that God cared.
Will this synod make a difference? Well, despite synods in 2014 and 2015 dedicated to marriage and family, I continue to come across people who find very few parish resources when they struggle in their marriages. So while I appreciate the concept, I do not have a lot of hope for this synodal process. Until we can connect such high-level conversations with the day-to-day needs of Catholics, synods will cause confusion and fail to reach the ordinary person—whether someone in the pew or someone who wants to be in church.
I don’t believe most people share the same priorities as the synod participants. Assuming that the synod is even on their radar, most Catholics are wondering, “If the synod doesn’t cover these important issues, where in the church should I turn to?”