Responses to synod questions mostly favorable, but more work is needed
July 26, 2022
If the Archdiocese of Omaha was to be graded based on responses to a recent synod questionnaire, undoubtedly the archdiocese would get a passing grade.
But the responses also show room for improvement.
The archdiocese evaluated the responses of more than 8,000 people who participated in the diocesan phase of a synod called by Pope Francis, “Synod 2021-2023, for a Synodal Church.”
The responses to questions regarding people’s experience of the Church were compiled into a report that was forwarded to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB).
“It is clear that most of the respondents feel blessed to be a part of the Archdiocese of Omaha and want to join in its mission and vision,” according to the newly released synthesis. “While there is still work to be done, the positive feedback was significant.”
The Holy Spirit has made clear, the report said, that work remains to help people know Jesus more personally, to increase efforts to reach out to the elderly and to people “on the peripheries” of society and to be more welcoming to those who don’t feel welcomed in the Church.
The responses also indicated a need for more native Spanish speakers to be formed as priests, to help shepherd about 20% of Catholics in the archdiocese whose native tongue is Spanish.
CASTING A WIDE NET
In February the archdiocese reached out to Catholics and non-Catholics with the questionnaire, which was made available online and in print, and through a number of listening sessions.
A special effort was made to reach people who are often marginalized, including the homeless, people with disabilities, prison inmates and immigrants.
In total, 7,678 people filled out questionnaires and about 500 participated in listening sessions. An archdiocesan team organized the efforts, led by Vice Chancellor Elizabeth Sondag.
Archbishop George J. Lucas expressed his gratitude for all who participated in the diocesan phase of the synod.
The archdiocesan responses “did not provide a scientific sample,” the archbishop said, “nor was it meant to be an opinion poll. At the same time, I believe we received a robust response, in the framework of the synod themes.”
Pope Francis’ theme for the synod: “For a Synodal Church: Communion, Participation, Mission.”
Respondents in the archdiocese ranged in age from teenagers to senior citizens. Most were Catholic.
“While it was hoped that there would be a more substantial response from people who no longer consider themselves Catholic and Catholics who do not participate in the life of the Church, it did not happen,” according to the overview of the responses.
“To present a holistic viewpoint of all Catholics, as requested by Pope Francis, comments were used to amplify the voices of non-practicing Catholics, those who no longer consider themselves Catholics, and non-Catholics.
“Some of the most noteworthy participants were survivors of abuse by Church personnel, immigrants, persons with disabilities, homeless, nursing home residents, incarcerated, non-Catholics, non-Catholic ministers, LGBTQ+ and their family members.”
The USCCB will compile the information from the archdiocese with that of dioceses from around the country and send a national response to the Holy See. A synod, or gathering of bishops will further discuss the findings beginning in October 2023.
Locally, Archbishop Lucas and other Church leaders will continue to review the feedback they received as they look for ways to more effectively preach the Gospel and form missionary disciples of Christ.
“One of the high points of the diocesan phase of the synod was the many people who said their lives were blessed by participating in the life and mission of the Church,” the report said. “Another high point was the enthusiasm of those who attended listening sessions. Those on the peripheries were particularly grateful that their opinion was sought since that does not often happen.”
Deacon Al Aulner, who ministers to prison inmates and at Holy Ghost Parish in Omaha, led a listening session in December at the Omaha Correctional Center.
“It was received very well,” he said. “They were surprised that anyone thought of them. They were happy that the archbishop and the archdiocese remembered them.”
Many people in the archdiocese expressed an interest in evangelizing and sharing their faith with others and indicated their commitment as servants of the Lord, the report said.
“In trying times, people have leaned on their pastors and their Catholic faith for strength, and they have not been disappointed,” the report said. In comments, people expressed respect and admiration for Archbishop Lucas. Some, especially in rural areas, said they wanted more access to the archbishop.
Responses indicated a clear divide between people who consider the Church too liberal and those who consider it too conservative.
“Catholics who report being more active in their faith life and parish tend to be more concerned that the Church is too liberal – particularly in Rome. These respondents see Pope Francis pushing a liberal agenda and (as) hostile toward conservative Catholics. Some of them are hurt by what they see as the pope’s disdain for the Latin Mass. They also believe the Church is following the culture instead of leading it.
“On the other side of the spectrum,” the synthesis continued, “respondents said that the Church alienates people because it does not accept same-sex marriage, makes it difficult to get an annulment, and is too conservative.”
COVID-19 also divided people, the report said, with participants commenting either that the Church did too much to restrict personal freedom or that it didn’t do enough to keep people safe.
Most respondents in rural areas said that they “believe the archdiocese invests more time and money into urban parishes, and they often feel ignored,” according to the findings.
Others noted that numerous pleas for money from their parish and the archdiocese were annoying.
The local synod responses identified several areas of need:
- Wounds from sexual abuse – “Survivors of sexual abuse by Church personnel spoke of the deep wounds they continue to carry and the need for further healing,” the report said. According to a preparatory document for the worldwide synod: “These are deep wounds that are difficult to heal, for which forgiveness can never be asked for enough.”
- Alienation – Two groups of people – Catholics who are divorced and civilly remarried and those who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or queer – said they feel alienated from the Church.
- Longed-for opportunities – People asked for more opportunities for faith formation, retreats and other events to learn more about their faith, so they can reach out to others.
- Overburdened priests – Some were concerned about priests being overworked, but they were unsure about how to reduce the burdens on priests.
When asked how connected people felt with the universal Catholic Church and with the Archdiocese of Omaha, the answer often depended on age. People over 65 reported the highest percentage (30%) of feeling very connected.
Teenagers tended to be more neutral in their answers, with 37% feeling neither connected nor disconnected, and just 6% feeling very connected to the universal Church and 9% feeling very connected to the archdiocese.
“Although many people in rural parts of the archdiocese expressed that they felt ignored, their feelings of being very connected or connected to the archdiocese (67%) were similar to those from urban areas (68%),” according to the report.
“There also was a clear theme of happiness and gratitude for the Catholic faith among Spanish speakers.”
“The majority of the negative comments centered around the fact that there is no longer a printed version of the Catholic Voice archdiocesan newspaper,” the report said. “This was particularly prevalent in the 51+ age group. The archdiocese is currently evaluating how to respond to this concern.
“Respondents also worry about the diminishing number of priestly vocations and their effect on the Church in the future,” the report said.
PARTICIPATION, MISSION, BLESSINGS
When asked “Do you participate in the life of the Catholic Church?” 96.5% said they did, and just 3.5% said they did not. The top two reasons for not participating: “I am not interested” and “My schedule conflicts with the parish activities I am interested in.”
The archdiocese’s recent move to align parishes into “families” might allow parishes to offer more flexibility in event scheduling and to include more topics of interest to parishioners, Sondag, the vice chancellor, said.
Fifty-eight percent of responding Catholics indicated that they participate in the evangelizing mission of the Church, with 72% of them believing they have the skills, knowledge and tools to do so.
They said that they evangelize “because they believe the Catholic faith is true, and they are called to share it with others. Parents and grandparents want to pass on their faith …”
“Those who don’t participate in the evangelizing mission of the Church cited various reasons, including not wanting to force their faith on anyone, disagreements with Catholic Church teachings, and the Church abuse scandal.”
The questionnaire asked “How has your life been blessed within the last three months by participating in the life and evangelizing mission of the Church?” The most common responses: attending Mass, going to Confession, praying, belonging to a Catholic group, participating in adoration and having children in a Catholic school.
“Many people said that participating in the life of the Church brings them inner peace and happiness, reduces stress, and increases gratitude,” the report said. “Others responded that their faith has been an immense help when they were suffering and that they feel joyful when serving the poor and sharing their faith.”
“Those who have a favorable opinion of the Catholic Church said they admired the charitable efforts of the Church and found the Church spiritually enriching and welcoming. The majority of these responses came from non-Catholics who were married to Catholics,” the report said.
“There were a variety of reasons for unfavorable opinions of the Catholic Church. Many respondents said they do not feel welcome because they cannot receive Holy Communion. Others said it was challenging to follow along and participate in Mass.
“Homeless individuals said that while the Catholic Church was willing to help them with their basic needs, parishes are not particularly open to having them be a part of the parish community. Over half of the homeless said they know where a Catholic Church is but cannot get there.”
Several people said they found some Church teachings discriminatory and not reflective of God’s love regarding same-sex marriage, the exclusion of women from the priesthood and not allowing non-Catholics and the divorced and civilly remarried to receive Holy Communion.
All the responses received were valuable, Sondag said.
“It was a particularly moving experience for the team coordinating the diocesan phase to read through all the questionnaire submissions and the results of the listening sessions,” she said.
“For me, it brought tears of joy to my eyes many times and some tears of sadness too. Some submissions included wonderful personal stories, such as how certain priests have dramatically impacted people’s faith journeys and greatly improved their lives.
“There were also beautiful expressions of the Catholic Church as a close-knit, caring community, for instance, in the Karen and Karenni refugee listening session and the African Mass Apostolate listening session.
“Tears of sadness happened though too,” Sondag said, “such as when reading the accounts by survivors of clergy sexual abuse and hearing how years later it still causes some of them to struggle with the Catholic faith.
“Each person’s experience of the Catholic Church is important. It was a privilege for me and the rest of the archdiocesan team to hear over 8,000 people’s experiences of the Catholic Church via this diocesan phase of the synod.”
Through the next months and years the archdiocese will be discerning how to respond to the feedback it has received, guided by the Holy Spirit, the synthesis said.
“The archdiocese awaits with joyful hope the outcome of the Synod of Bishops in October 2023 and any papal actions to follow.”