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Colleen DulleMay 08, 2024
Priests work in an English-language small group April 30, 2024, with facilitator Sister Maria Cimperman, a Religious of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, as part of a meeting of parish priests from around the world gathered at Sacrofano, outside of Rome, to share their experiences and contribute to the ongoing synod on synodality. (CNS photo/Courtesy of the Synod of Bishops)

Around 200 parish priests met outside Rome last week for an official synod meeting, which the Vatican’s synod secretariat and Dicastery for Clergy set up after some members of the 2023 synod assembly said not enough parish priests had been included.

The synod and clergy offices, in collaboration with the Dicasteries for Evangelization and the Eastern Churches, hosted the meeting from April 28 to May 1 in Sacrofano, Italy; it concluded May 2 with an audience with Pope Francis at the Vatican. The 193 parish priests who participated were appointed by their bishops’ conferences based on their “significant experience” with synodality, according to synod secretariat guidelines. The secretariat also requested that the priests come from diverse pastoral backgrounds, like working in urban or rural contexts or with specific socio-cultural groups.

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops sent five priests from the dioceses of Little Rock, Ark.; Stockton, Ca.; Arlington, Va.; Boston, Mass.; and Green Bay, Wis. The Little Rock delegate, the Rev. Joseph Friend, is the pastoral administrator of three different churches—a situation that is becoming increasingly common in the United States. A sixth American priest, the Rev. Clinton ("Clint") Ressler of the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston, was chosen by Pope Francis.

The small group reports from the meeting reveal a joyful exchange between priests from vastly different cultures. Throughout the meeting, the theme of moving parishes “from maintenance to mission” caught on among the priests, and several groups reported that they were returning home with a new resolve to implement synodality in their parishes and dioceses.

“It has allowed us to start dreaming about the Church again” after the abuse crisis, one group wrote. “In fact, the synodal journey pays attention to overcoming the logic of abuse of individual power and gives us the antibodies to overcome the contagion from some oppressive and controlling dynamics.”

The feedback gathered from last week’s meeting will be used to help draft the working document for the final general assembly of the synod in October 2024.

How many parish priests took part in the October 2023 assembly is a topic of some confusion: A spokesman for the Vatican’s synod secretariat was unable to confirm whether any of the full voting members of the October assembly were working as parish priests at the time of the meeting, although, he said, some of the facilitators may have been.

James Martin, S.J., editor at large at America and a member of the October synod assembly, said he heard complaints about the absence of parish priests there: “Many delegates saw this as a problem: After all, parish priests are on the front lines of the church. So [last] week’s meeting of parish priests from around the world, organized by the synod, was a real example of listening on the part of the Vatican. Not only was the Vatican listening to the parish priests; it was also listening to the delegates who had asked them to listen.”

There is no indication, however, that any of the priest-delegates from this latest meeting will be invited to participate in October.

Day 1: How synodality is playing out in parishes

The first day of the meeting, Sunday, April 28, was primarily a travel day, with the priest-participants convening in Sacrofano in the evening to celebrate Mass together. On Monday, the conversations began in earnest, following a similar structure as the October general assembly: Participants first heard introductions to the day’s theme by theologians and experts, then broke into 18 small groups sorted by language (three Spanish, three French, seven English and five Italian). Like at the October meeting, they were seated at round tables and used the “Conversation in the Spirit” method of discussion and listening.

The first conversation day focused on “The Face of the Synodal Church”—essentially, taking stock of the delegates’ experiences of synodality in their ministry, both positive and negative, and reflecting on how their understandings of synodality evolved through those experiences.

According to the small group reports published on the synod’s website, the priests almost unanimously said their experiences of synodality thus far had been positive, notwithstanding some obstacles in the 2021-24 synodal process. “Synodality has proved to be a joyful experience for every member of our group, overcoming difficulties (context and culture) and considerable resistance at all levels (faithful, priests, bishops),” one French-language group wrote.

One English-language group said that the listening sessions were “often used on the parish level as a place to vent, complain about the perceived state of the church, or to bring up the ways in which [participants] felt they have been hurt by the church. But again, all in our group found that these were occasions to walk with the people and listen. To accompany them in their hurts. It was brought up that it was a beneficial opportunity to hear them out.”

Several groups mentioned the difficulty of communicating what synodality is. The same English-language group added:

In some of the participants’ countries, the term “synodality” has been difficult to get across. It’s often met with blank stares. Or some have looked upon it as just another program to implement. Giving parishioners a proper understanding of it has been challenging, but this concept of “journeying” has been easier to get across and seems more accessible. Some participants mentioned how they don’t use the word synod, but “journey.”

The discussions at the priests’ meeting focused more on the synodal conversion of the church than on the 2021-24 process specifically. Many of the priests at the meeting stressed that incorporating synodality into their ministry would require more time with parishioners, which they wanted to give but did not feel they could because their resources are already stretched thin. “As a common denominator,” a Spanish-language group wrote, “we have an overload of work.” Another group spoke about burnout on the first day.

To that end, the priests stressed the importance of formation in synodality at all levels of the church—among bishops, priests, religious, seminarians and lay parishioners—so that laypeople would be better prepared to take on some of the responsibilities that priests have often had, and so that bishops would enable priests to shift their focus from “maintenance” to evangelization and building relationships in their parishes.

Day 2: What does a synodal parish look like?

The second day of discussion deepened that theme, focusing on “All Disciples All Missionaries.” The priests were asked to reflect on how they had seen different charisms, vocations and ministries at play in their parishes and dioceses, as well as what their parishes had contributed to the mission of the diocese. In the afternoon, most groups discussed what it meant to be a “synodal priest.”

Taken together, the small group reports from day two paint a picture of how the pastors hope synodality will play out in their parishes long-term. A “synodal parish” is described as being a home for evangelizers—laypeople and parish priests alike—where they can discern together their various charisms and missionary callings. “Trusting the charisms given our community frees us from the burden of undertaking everything ourselves,” an English-language group wrote.

Another English-language group summarized what most said: “In order to move forward as a synodal Church, we have to find a way to bring our people into new roles, including leadership roles in the parish. We need to help form and catechize our faithful so they can thrive and be evangelizers in their community.”

“Our role [as priests] is to be available to walk together,” an Italian-language group said. “This attitude is needed for the laity to feel that they are protagonists in the church, responsible, and thus actually called to mission.” Another added: “This is possible if we reach the maturity of letting the laity cooperate with us. It is not a concession that pastors make to some people, but rather the appreciation of their dignity as baptized persons and the recognition of their charisms.”

This shift in parish dynamics led to some practical questions. A French-speaking group asked, “How can we make catechesis a school for charisms, so that everyone can play their part in the score?” An English-speaking group asked: “How do we help people discern their gifts and charisms? This is a question we all have. Do there need to be structures in place to give synodality a foothold in parishes beyond parish councils? If so, what should these structures be?”

The parish priests mentioned some models they had already implemented, like evangelization courses, prayer groups and welcoming “new spiritualities” and lay movements that reach out to those on the margins of society. They “help to go where the pastor cannot go,” one Italian-language group wrote. “This is how Pope Francis' call to go to the ‘existential peripheries’ is fulfilled.”

One English-speaking group wrote about the contributions of women religious to their communities that “often bring a maternal touch to the parish that none of us can give, and that is appreciated by the faithful. But they are becoming increasingly less common,” the group said, pointing out that since most religious orders are national, they sometimes are not as involved at the parish or diocesan level as they “may feel called to be.”

The same group continued, “There is a need to find roles for women in the parish that go beyond the stereotypical roles of linen washing or flower arranging, as important as those are. We think that perhaps we need to discuss a ministry for women at the diocesan level.”

Group discernment and decision-making was also highlighted as a necessity, but one whose practicalities needed to be worked out.

Reflecting on the question of a “synodal priest,” the pastors highlighted two main needs for their own personal “synodal conversions.” First was the centrality of prayer: The need to pray with parishioners, for parishioners to see their pastors praying and for priests to ground their work in prayer.

The second, which was mentioned throughout all three days of the meeting, was the need for priests to enact synodality among themselves, building strong networks of relationships among priests. Several groups mentioned the positive impact this could have on the men’s mental health.

Summing up concisely what many groups said, one English-speaking group wrote: “Priests must gather regularly for prayer and mutual support. Bishops must make care for their priests a priority so that they can care for their people. This is not always the case and it shows.”

Day 3: Discerning together

The third day focused on the priests’ experiences of “the dynamics of ecclesial discernment”—group discernment that happens in existing synodal groups, like pastoral councils.

Several groups mentioned that moving from “maintenance to mission” could be a challenge for parish and diocesan groups that were primarily used to planning and organizing. Introducing communal discernment could be seen as a distraction from their work, but one English-language group wrote that “these existing structures need to be imbued with the life-giving grace of the Holy Spirit through which spiritual discernment takes place. Otherwise the meetings and gatherings attached with such structures and bodies become stagnant and routine.”

In addition to revitalizing existing synodal groups, several groups indicated the need for new synodal structures, while at the same time warning that structures are a means to evangelization and not ends in themselves.

There was a concern expressed repeatedly that the parishes, and indeed the whole church, needed to re-focus on mission and evangelization.

Multiple groups also acknowledged the need for synodal structures in the parish that could continue a parish’s mission work through multiple changes of pastors and through multiple generations within the parish.

The other primary concern expressed was the need to teach both pastors and parishioners how to discern together. “A major challenge is to teach all the faithful the importance of community discernment, which does not mean mere human reasoning,” an Italian-speaking group wrote.

Some groups raised questions in their reports about how to differentiate between the Holy Spirit’s movements and their own ideas. One English-speaking group sketched out some guidelines:

In the context of building an ecclesial community, we felt that if an idea is pitched and there’s some joy, that’s a good sign of a positive discernment taking place. If something is being forced, it won’t have that. It won’t be life giving. We’ll run into walls. If there’s joy, it’s a sign of life giving energy since the missionary experience stems from a spirit of joy.

On the third day, the priests wrote yet again about the need for greater cooperation among priests and bishops. One group suggested that diocesan councils of priests could be a way to “rectify any misinterpretations among the clergy about what this [synodal] journey is.” Another group wrote that they wanted their bishops to be more present: “Bishops need to visit their parishes, and not just for fleeting visits or one-off events like Confirmations. Truly pastoral visits over several days, building relationships with parish priests and lay leaders.”

Two small groups, one Spanish-speaking and one French-speaking, explicitly requested that parish priests be added to the October synodal assembly.

Correction 05/08/2024 4:44 p.m.: A previous version of this story stated the U.S.C.C.B. sent six delegates to the meeting; the conference sent five and a sixth was chosen by the pope. The story has been updated to reflect this correction.

Correction 05/10/2024 12:22 p.m.: A previous version of this story misspelled the name of Father Clinton Ressler as "Clifton." The story has been updated to reflect this correction.

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