Shepherd's Voice

Synod process assesses people’s connection to the Church

More than 8,000 people in the Archdiocese of Omaha participated in the diocesan phase of a worldwide process of discernment to gather feedback on people’s sense of integration into the life and mission of the Catholic Church. Called for by Pope Francis and titled “Synod 2021-2023, for a Synodal Church,” the process will culminate in a gathering, or synod, of bishops in October 2023 who will discuss the findings and provide their feedback to the pope.

Archbishop George J. Lucas discusses the information-gathering process in the archdiocese, some of the key findings and his gratitude for people’s response to the pope’s invitation to participate.

 

Q. The diocesan phase of the synod has concluded in the Archdiocese of Omaha. Before we talk about what you learned from the information that was collected, can you tell us why the survey was conducted, and what is a synod?

The “Synod on Synodality” is an invitation from Pope Francis to Catholics around the world to participate in a process that’s become a normal part of the life of the universal Church since the Second Vatican Council. Every few years, the Holy Father calls together a number of bishops from around the world, representatives from different countries, to look at a pastoral or a doctrinal topic that’s important at a particular moment in the life of the Church.

They come together to talk about it, to get input, and then to provide him with some input from which he can give a teaching to the whole Church. We’ve had a number of those in recent decades. But this one is a little bit different. Pope Francis, of course, is always full of surprises. So he’s asked that this synod be different.

It’s actually extending over a period of time. It started in the fall of last year and will conclude with the gathering of the bishops in Rome in 2023. In the meantime, in addition to hearing from those bishops at the end of the process, the Holy Father is inviting Catholics all over the world to participate and to share their experience, their hopes, their desires about our life together in the Church, in their local Catholic communities.

It’s our job then to collate that information and send it in to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. Eventually, it’s going to go into the hopper for consideration at the time of the synod in 2023. So it’s an enormous undertaking, but a beautiful one, as the Holy Father has invited us all to share something with him to the extent that we can.

It’s not an opinion poll about Catholic life. It’s not a question of changing things, changing teaching, or things that can’t really be changed. The Holy Father’s not looking for that. That’s really not the purpose of it. But the synod is constructed around three themes – communion, participation and mission.

We’re invited, in dioceses around the world, to think about our Church, according to those three themes and to share with one another first, and then with the Holy Father, our thoughts and reflections. He’s given us the image from the Second Vatican Council of the Church on a pilgrimage. And he sees this synodal process as a way of more consciously traveling together as the people of God, moving forward with the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

And we do that moving forward in his plan by listening to each other, by being aware of each other and then by speaking with him in a way that he can listen and pray about. I’ll be very interested to hear and see what the papal teaching is that comes at the end of this process.

 

Q. Information was gathered from more than 8,000 people through both listening sessions and questionnaires. Can you talk about how that process occurred?

I was really pleased with the response. We took the opportunity to amplify the Holy Father’s invitation to get the word out to as many people as possible in our archdiocese to respond to the Pope’s invitation to participate in this process.

At the beginning of this year, we had a series of listening sessions. And I was very happy to see that we were able to identify people in the Catholic community who are at work in what the Holy Father calls “the periphery” – people who are regularly in contact with our brothers and sisters in situations that perhaps wouldn’t allow them to be part of normal parish life, but we were able to reach out to them and have conversations with them.

That included homeless, incarcerated people, elderly persons, others who might not show up at Mass on Sunday. There were also other opportunities for listening sessions in parishes across the archdiocese. We invited our pastors to bring groups together, of their leadership or anybody who wanted to participate. We provided a guide for asking questions on particular topics.

But, most participation was through an online questionnaire. Elizabeth Sondag, who’s our vice chancellor, created a beautiful instrument that was easy to use online. And I think that’s how most of those 8,000 people were able to participate. They could answer questions in a very simple way, and there was room to expand on their responses by making comments on particular topics.

We had people of all ages and from all around the archdiocese who responded. It’s not a scientific sample of Catholics in our archdiocese, but it was a fulsome response to the invitation. And I’m grateful for that. So it wasn’t just a murmur. It was a pretty strong response and a very open response, both in terms of the beautiful and positive experiences in the Church, and also some difficulties or challenges that people identified.

 

Q. Regarding the findings, what was the biggest thing or things that you learned, were there any surprises, and what was your reaction to the findings?

I was not surprised, but it was good to be reminded of some areas where the experience of the Gospel perhaps is not as clear or as full as it could be. It’s also a good reminder that there are people who find themselves separated from the Church in a way that they don’t want to be. We don’t want people to be separated either.

About seven or eight years ago, we did a series of listening sessions as we initiated a process to articulate a pastoral vision for our archdiocese. It was a different process from this one, but there were some similarities. This time, we heard some of the same things. We heard overall, among the overwhelming majority of people who participated, a great sense of gratitude for the life of the Church, for the ability to participate so readily in our parishes and in other apostolates and groups.

We also heard what we had heard previously, a desire on the part of many people for a deeper encounter with the Lord, for more opportunities to participate in retreats or in other areas of continuing formation or education that would enable them to move from the place they are at in their journey of faith to a further experience of God’s love for us in Jesus Christ. So that’s encouraging, to know that there are many opportunities in our parishes and there are many people who are taking advantage of them and finding them to be real blessings.

I think at the same time, a couple of things came to the surface, not surprising, but still good for us to note. One of them was the experience of a number of people concerning what I would call some politicization in the Church. Maybe they didn’t call it that, or wouldn’t even see it that way. But some who thought that the Church, as they experienced it, is too liberal, whatever that might mean to them. Others who think that the Church is too conservative, whatever that might mean.

Of course, we want to be rooted in Christ. And we want to be formed by him and by his teaching as it’s expressed through the Church. So to the extent that it’s coming across to people as too something, in political or worldly terms, that’s a concern to me because it means that it’s not so clearly the voice of Christ, but they’re hearing something else. So we have to sort that out.

But I’m glad that the people expressed themselves, and in some ways, I’m not surprised. Politics and political categories have leached into every part of life in our country, it seems, and into the life of the Church.

People also experienced some tension in our parish communities during the time of COVID. Again, this is not a surprise. We were all aware that we were navigating something unprecedented. And when and how we celebrated the liturgy – what restrictions were required or suggested in terms of presence, distance, of masks or no masks in churches and in schools – that was something there was disagreement on. That was fresh in the minds of people, especially when they were responding to the synod process.

And we’re also aware that there are people who may either disagree with the teaching of the Church on some moral issues, or who feel that because of their experience in their own lives, that they may not be as welcome as they would like to be in the Church. For example, people who have been divorced and remarried, who are not currently in a sacramental marriage, not able to approach the sacraments, but still love their Catholic faith and desire to participate as much as possible. Others who would identify as part of the LGBTQ+ community, who also feel that the Church may have nothing for them or that their gifts or their presence would not be welcome.

To the extent that there are any who desire relationship with Jesus Christ, who feel that they can’t find a place in the Church or that the Church has nothing to offer them, that’s something that we want to look at and see how the Gospel stirs us, first of all, and then, how might we have a dialogue or relationship with people who would want to have a relationship with us in the Church?

 

Q. So, what’s next in this process?

I’ve already begun to look at the results of our local consultation with my leadership team and with others in our archdiocese. In the Curia, I’ve shared it with our Priests Council and with all of the priests in general. So I would hope that we would look at what we’ve heard from our people, consider it prayerfully, see how it corresponds to our own experience, and then see in prayer what we might be called to do differently.

I think we’ve received an affirmation of our pastoral vision, that the Lord is calling us to be more rooted in discipleship, to be closer to him ourselves, and then to become equipped to share the light of the Gospel with others. So it’s one thing to say, “We have this vision and the vision is affirmed.” We have to continue to live it and to accomplish the goals that would help us reach that vision.

We’re involved now in a process, which is not related directly to the synod, called Journey of Faith. Our parishes are meeting in groups or in families of parishes to make plans for the future of the Church and in various areas of our archdiocese. In particular, we need to take note of the way that our demographics have affected us in recent decades in terms of where people live and in terms of who and how many actively participate in the life of the Church.

But also, as we move forward, we not only want to have the structures that take into account our current reality and recent trends, but we’re also looking for a way forward as an evangelizing Church, a Church that reaches out in the name of Jesus to share the light of the Gospel with more and more people. I think what we’ve heard in the synod process will help us reinforce the idea that outreach is important and necessary at this particular moment.

We have forwarded a summary of our diocesan conclusions, what we’ve heard and received, to the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, as we have been asked to do, where it will be synthesized with information from other U.S. dioceses. Ultimately, all of that compilation will be forwarded to the Holy See.

I’m grateful to all who participated. Let’s continue to pray together that the Holy Father’s desire for a Church that’s truly traveling together on pilgrimage in union with Jesus, inspired by the Holy Spirit, will become more and more our experience. And we’ll pray for the guidance of the synod fathers who will ultimately look at all this information and try to offer something that will be helpful to the Holy Father and to the Church.

 

A synopsis of the information gathered in the synod process is available at archomaha.org/synod. An article summarizing the findings can also be found here on the Catholic Voice website.