Cardinal Robert McElroy celebrates Mass, September 8, 2022 (CNS photo/David Maung).

Last year, the Catholic community in the United States undertook the largest non-governmental process of interpersonal dialogue and consultation ever held in our nation’s history. More than five hundred thousand men and women gathered together in prayer and discernment in their parishes, schools, cultural communities and service organizations to share their joys and their sorrows, their hopes and their fears for the life of the Church. 

This initial process of dialogue produced a rich sense of exhilaration and unity among its participants. As the Catholic communities of the West Coast observed “many who conducted listening sessions described being transformed by the process of listening to others’ stories and hearing about their faith journey. Those who shared their stories, especially those who participated in small group sessions, stated that they felt listened to by the Church for the first time.” 

One of the most striking realities reflected in our national dialogues was the commonality of the perceptions and questions of the People of God across dioceses, regions and cultures within our country. While sometimes framed in different language or with different emphases, the joys, the hopes, the sorrows and the fears of God’s people were remarkably similar. For this reason, it is truly possible to see in the results of the dialogue a composite picture of the Catholic community in the United States today and a picture of where we must move in the years to come. 

These synodal dialogues constituted the first step in responding to Pope Francis’s call to the global Church to undertake a penetrating synodal process of renewal that seeks to touch and transform every element of our ecclesial life and our outreach to the world. It is for this very reason Pope Francis has stated that “it is precisely this path of synodality which God expects of the Church of the third millennium.” 

The holy father is emphatic that the synodal process is by its very nature an effort to “plant dreams, draw forth prophecies and visions, allow hope to flourish, inspire trust, bind up wounds, weave together relationships, awaken a dawn of hope, learn from one another and create a bright resourcefulness that will enlighten minds, warm hearts, give strength to our hands.” 

It is also, in the most fundamental sense, a call to conversion to the whole Church, recognizing that the current synodal process seeks an outcome far beyond the issuance of new documents, or even a moment of change, but rather an ongoing process of reform and renewal that constantly enhances ecclesial life from the parish to the diocese to the world Church. 

In the preparations for the synod, Pope Francis pointed to eight major marks of a synodal Church: journeying together, listening, discerning, Eucharistic, inclusive, participative, humble, and missionary. 

These eight characteristics form a template against which the Church is called to measure itself constantly. And this same template provides a pivotal framework for understanding the picture of the Church in our nation that emerged during the local dialogues last year. For this reason, it is important to examine in depth these eight marks of a synodal Church, and the realities and hopes which each of them revealed in the local dialogues. 


1. Synodality points to the reality that the whole of the People of God are journeying together. 

This means that we cannot operate from a mindset of complacency or one that accentuates the differences among the baptized. Rather, we must view ourselves as the people of Israel in the desert, united in their faith and in their understanding that God was calling them to a common pilgrimage on this earth. 

The synodal dialogues gave deep witness to the beautiful forms of community that flourish at all levels in the life of the Church. So many participants spoke of the profound relationships that they have formed in their parish, their school, and in their ministries to the poor and the suffering. The Diocese of Reno noted, “clearly people find their faith and experience of God through a community that welcomes, sustains and challenges them.” 

People spoke lovingly of the webs of faith, friendship, searching, love, compassion, justice, and hope which have enriched their lives in the communities of the Church. These include a vast array of prayer and formation groups, liturgical ministries, outreach to the sick and the marginalized, schools, cultural communities, and social activities which truly give shape to the body of Christ in our nation. The Catholic community is journeying together because, in its vibrant and disparate communities, families rejoice together, mourn together, question together, grow together and find a home, all within the framework of faith. 

Yet even as the synodal call to journey together highlighted the beautiful bonds of friendship and community that exist within the Church, it also accented the polarization that is a cancer in our Church in the present day. One dialogue participant observed sadly, “the divisive political ideologies present in our society have seeped into all aspects of our lives.”

Another lamented that “people at both ends of the political spectrum have set up camp opposing the ‘others,’ forgetting that they are one in the body of Christ.” It was noted widely in the dialogues that there was no unity among the bishops on key questions of pastoral life and mission in the world. This is a scandal of division that is deeply dispiriting to the laity and indeed the whole of the Church. 

The synodal call to journey is a rejection of these divisions. It is a call to replace our ideologies and partisan lenses with the unifying love of the God of mercy who makes us one. We must purify our communities of this polarization, this unwillingness to see in those who disagree with us our sisters and brothers called to walk in harmony along the path that God is preparing for us.

The current synodal process seeks an outcome far beyond the issuance of new documents, but rather an ongoing process of reform and renewal that constantly enhances ecclesial life from the parish to the diocese to the world Church.


2. Synodality demands a profound stance of authentic listening from every believer who seeks to participate in and contribute to the life of the Church. 

The scriptures tell us that God listens attentively to the cry of God’s people. Listening is the respect we owe to others in recognition of their equal dignity. Listening flows from a recognition that we have so much to learn. Listening lies at the heart of true encounter with the other disciples we meet in the life of the Church. Yet a stance of authentic listening is hard to embrace and sustain. It can be frustrating, and it is always demanding. But it is the only pathway through which others can without fear truly open their hearts, and through which we can genuinely open our hearts to others. 

The synodal dialogues were a moment of tremendous growth for so many participants because they revealed the power of listening to others, placing ourselves totally at their disposal to understand their experiences, joys, and pains. As the Church of the Midwest testified, “the value of simply listening is a clear message of the synod process. People must be able to speak honestly on even the most controversial topics without fear of rejection. We must be open to new ideas and new ways of doing things. That will require an understanding of what is central to the identity of the Church, diocese and parish; and what changes can help us grow rather than feeling threatened.” 

The Diocese of Fresno noted that as a result of the dialogue experience, there “was the sense of gratitude for the safe space that was created to share thoughts, opinions, hopes, disappointments, and sorrows, without judgment or prejudice, even when thoughts conflicted or were the opposite of someone else’s.” 


3. Synodality is continually rooted in listening to the Word of God and celebrating the Eucharist that is the source and summit of the Christian life. 

These elements are both constitutive realities that form the Church and vital nourishment for the community as a whole. Synodality demands a deeply celebrative understanding of the life in the Church that proceeds from Word and sacrament and embraces the building of community in the Church at all levels through diverse cultural, interpersonal, prayerful, and structural forms. The joy of basking in the overwhelming gift of the Resurrection of Jesus Christ should continually animate this celebrative dimension of the Church’s life. 

The synodal dialogues testified overwhelmingly to the power of the Eucharist in the lives of believers. As the Diocese of San Diego noted in its synthesis, “the principal joy that emerged in the synodal sessions was participation in the sacramental life of the Church. The declaration of one participant that ‘experiencing the beauty of Mass with our families is what brings us hope’ was emblematic of comments in virtually every small group sharing.” 

The vast majority of synod participants pointed to the sacramental life of the Church as the richest source for sustenance and growth in their spiritual lives. They expressed great gratitude to their priests for the sacrificial, prayerful, and caring love that they bring to the sacramental life of the Church as celebrants of the Eucharist and in bringing the sacraments to those in desperate need. At the same time, there was a significant current of unease and sadness about steps taken to limit the use of the pre-conciliar Mass in our nation. 

In pointing to the centrality of the Eucharist, the synodal witness made clear that there is a tremendous need for enhanced formation in Word and sacrament for the People of God in all stages of their life. “Participants of every age and demographic group spoke of the need for lifelong formation. They would like to see more opportunities for bible study, in-person and online courses, lectures, small group discussions and convocations.... Members of the dioceses also wish the Church to do more to support their spiritual growth by exposing them to the rich aspects of the rich heritage of Catholic spirituality.” 

This theme of ongoing formation speaks to the role of disciples as active participants in the life of the Church and the world. If we are to be on a journey together, united in Christ, our faith must grow at every stage of our life. 


4. A synodal Church is a humble and honest Church. 

It acknowledges and seeks to atone for the wounds it has brought to others. It seeks to shatter the culture of clericalism that has wrought grievous harm by distorting the beautiful gift of priesthood into a possession or a caste, with all the sinfulness that such a sense of privilege brings with it. A synodal Church genuinely seeks to discern its woundedness and embrace reform. Its holiness is exemplified by its humility, not by denial or the protection of its reputation.

One of the strongest themes of the synodal dialogues throughout the country was anger at the way in which bishops knowingly reassigned priests whom they knew to have sexually abused minors in their past. 

The dialogues did point to the positive role that bishops play in the general life of the Church. But the strength and starkness of the anger against our nation’s bishops over reassignment is revealed in the comments of the national synthesis of the local dialogues: “Trust in the hierarchy is weak and needs to be strengthened. The sex abuse scandals and the way the Church leadership handled the situation are seen as one of the strongest causes of a lack of trust and credibility on the part of the faithful. Feedback revealed the strong, lingering wound caused by the abuse of power and the physical, emotional and spiritual abuse of the most innocent in our community.” 

The wounds of the Church are terrible, but the wounds of those victimized are enormously greater. In our humility as a Church, consolation, assistance, love, honesty, and profound regret can be the only possible response to those whom we have injured. 

If trust in the leadership of the Church has been enormously undermined by our history of covering up the sexual abuse of minors and adults, wider issues of trust also surfaced repeatedly in the local dialogues. 

The People of God repeatedly called for a radical transformation in the secrecy with which so many elements of Church life have been handled, especially regarding finances. The Diocese of Monterey stated: “In listening to God’s people it is apparent that there is still mistrust within our Church. Many shared a desire for more transparency in leadership, decision-making and financial matters. They called for more accountable leadership among the clergy and parish staff.” 

Such a level of transparency requires consistent and comprehensive communications between bishops, priests, deacons, religious, and the People of God. As the Church in the Midwest stated, “transparency was mentioned over and over again: transparency in the sex abuse crisis, transparency in making difficult decisions, transparency in financial matters, transparency in admitting when something goes wrong, transparency in planning, transparency in leadership. To be a trustworthy Church, transparency is going to need to be an essential component in every level and aspect.” 

A humble Church is a transparent Church, not in the belief that all decisions will have been made correctly, but in the recognition that openness to the examination of our actions by others strengthens the body of Christ, rather than weakening it. 

Synodality demands a deeply celebrative understanding of the life in the Church and embraces the building of community in the Church at all levels through diverse cultural, interpersonal, prayerful, and structural forms.


5. A synodal Church seeks inclusion. 

The synod synthesis from your own Diocese of Bridgeport reported that “the call to the Church fostering an inclusive community was one of the most predominant themes throughout the listening sessions. All must be welcomed to our Catholic faith with love, as Jesus taught. That includes infants, the elderly, people of all races and cultures, the LGBT community, married, divorced, widowed, young adults, disabled, marginalized, and children. One Bridgeport parish commented: “There is a sense that the future of the Church may be hindered if leaders don’t address the lack of acceptance of these groups, their gifts and values.” 

The breadth of the witness in the local dialogues to this reality of marginalization points to an enormous task before us in our synodal journey. This tapestry of marginalization is captured in the testimony of the Church in Los Angeles: “The divorced long for participation in communal life. Likewise, the divorced and remarried yearn to return to sacramental life but feel the annulment processes are too burdensome. Individuals without housing or jobs, recent immigrants, the elderly, those with disabilities, those suffering from alcoholism, drug addiction, and mental health issues, and the incarcerated and their families also live on the margins of our parish communities. At times, lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender individuals and their loved ones experience hurt and rejection and are confused by the harsh words of some Church leaders.” 

This searing question of the Church’s treatment of LGBT+ persons was an immensely prominent facet of the synodal dialogues. Anguished voices within the LGBT+ communities in unison with their families cried out against the perception that they are condemned by the Church and individual Catholics in a devastating way. One parish community desperately sought help: “There is an urgent need for guidance...we believe we are approaching a real crisis in how to minister to the LGBT+ community, some of whom are members of our own families. We need help, support and clarity.” Faith-filled parents of LGBT+ children were especially vocal in their call for greater inclusion from the Church, as were young adults. It is clear that the Church in the United States must transform its outreach to LGBT+ persons if it seeks to be a truly welcoming presence in the world. 

In addition, the Church must recognize patterns of racism, prejudice, and discrimination that still deforms the body of Christ. The Church of the Northwest spoke powerfully to this imperative: “Catholic people of color spoke of routine encounters with racism, both inside and outside the Church. Indigenous Catholics spoke of the generational trauma caused by racism and abuse in boarding schools.” 

Many synodal dialogues saw the multicultural identities of our parish and diocesan communities as a rich blessing, but also a challenge. A powerful imperative resonated throughout the country: “Rather than divide us, our diversity should be a source of strength.” There was wide recognition that this is not an easy task even when the best of intentions are shared by all. People constantly pointed to the ongoing need for deeper cultural understanding and more diversity in parish life—in faith formation, liturgical celebrations, and social experiences. 


6. Synodality demands a participative Church where co-responsibility flourishes. 

Such a notion of participation respects the historic structures of the Church and the essential role of the college of bishops in union with the pope. At the same time, it expands the ability of lay men and women to contribute meaningfully to the breadth of the Church’s ministries and apostolates and to the process of renewal and conversion that lie at the heart of synodality. 

The official proclamation of the present synodal process makes this clear. We “call for the involvement of all who belong to the People of God—laity, consecrated and ordained—to engage in this exercise of deep and respectful listening to one another…. Participation is based on the fact that all the faithful are qualified and are called to serve one another through the gifts they have each received from the Holy Spirit. In a synodal Church, the whole community, in the free and rich diversity of its members, is called together...” Reading the dialogue summaries across the nation, it becomes clear that the People of God believe much is lacking in the Church’s goal of becoming a participative and co-responsible Church. 

The issue of women constituted a central focus of critique in the national dialogues. The Diocese of Las Vegas concluded that “as regards the role of women, a small minority of respondents voiced the opinion that women should be excluded from any liturgical or ministerial roles.... The vast majority of respondents, however, strongly opposed this attitude and urged Church leaders to recognize the ‘unique charisms’ and ‘pastoral gifts’ women bring to the Church. Broad support for ordaining women was voiced by those participating in the synodal process, as were calls to include women in leadership positions, discussions and decisions on all levels in the Church.” The strength with which all of these ideas were expressed across every region in the country points to the enduring failures of the Church to engage and treat women in the manner which justice demands. 

As the synod prepares to meet in Rome this fall, it should seek fundamental changes in the role of women in the Church. It would be helpful for the synod to view all of these questions in light of the stance that women should be admitted, welcomed, and engaged in every ministry of the Church that is not doctrinally precluded. This would include eliminating barriers to women in the leadership of parishes and dioceses, allowing women to preach and admitting women to the diaconate. 

This exclusion of women in the Church points to the wider reality that lay Catholics are often marginalized in important ways in the life of the Church. Addressing this issue requires two elements. The first is the recognition that lay women and men have both the talents and the right to leadership roles in their parishes, diocese, and communities. The Church in Iowa, Kansas, Missouri, and Nebraska spoke directly to this reality: “Many want to see Church leadership take more seriously the talents and knowledge of the laity. Some expressed the need to use more effective parish councils and diocesan pastoral councils. Others want their pastors and bishops to explore more deeply with the laity how best to participate in understanding the mission of the Church and its efforts to evangelize its members and the world.”

This question of co-responsibility in the Church cannot be separated from the issue of clericalism in Catholic life. The synodal witness continually expressed profound gratitude to priests for their devoted service to the Church and the sacrifices that they make. As the people of the Diocese of Brownsville witnessed, “an overwhelming majority of the synodal consultations affirmed a love and appreciation for parish priests, many parishioners shared the impact of the pastor’s personal invitation and encouragement. They recounted examples of difficult times, moments of celebration, and of active life and service in the Church. Many had profound experiences with their pastor in the sacrament of confession, the celebration of the holy Mass, and funerals.” 

Yet the corrosive elements of clerical culture can erect a chasm between priests and bishops and their people. It surfaces in priests or bishops who do not see in their own limits the invitation to more collaborative relationships, not less. It surfaces when priesthood becomes a possession, a status rather than an invitation to servant leadership. It appears in the actions of those who confuse having the final decision-making role in a parish or diocese with seeking no alternate opinions, voices and ideas. 

The Church in on the Pacific Coast requested greater “formation for seminarians and those already ordained to better understand human and pastoral needs, cultural sensitivity and awareness, greater emphasis on social justice sharing resources with the needy, balancing the adherence to the dogmatic teachings of the faith with care for the emotional needs of the parishioners, how to include the laity in decision-making and learning to speak the truth with empathy, creativity and honesty.” 

Many synodal dialogues saw the multicultural identities of our parish and diocesan communities as a rich blessing, but also a challenge.


7. A synodal Church is a missionary Church. 

It is a terrible sadness that the greatest missionary challenge that emerged during the synodal dialogues was the need to invite our young adults back into the life of the Church. The national synthesis observes: “Practically all synodal consultations shared a deep ache in the wake of the departure of young people and viewed this as integrally connected to becoming a more welcoming Church.” The Church in New Jersey and Pennsylvania said, “youth who participated in synodal sessions...stressed that they should not be seen and spoken of mostly as the future of the Church, but should be recognized for their importance now and given a significant voice in the present. They want to be both seen and heard and included more in church life, especially by participating meaningfully in parish and diocesan councils and ministries.” Young adults often spoke of feeling as foreigners in the church in which they grew up. There were many calls for the Church to speak out about issues of particular interest to young adults such as justice, race, and climate change. 

The weight of this missionary imperative was reflected in the enormous suffering that tens of thousands of parents expressed over their children’s alienation from the Church. One parent said, “I feel like a failure because I was not able to hand down my faith to my children who are now adults.” Another lamented, “it breaks our hearts to see our children that we brought to Mass and sent to Catholic schools and colleges reject the Church.” 

That the effort to reach out to young adults has become a missionary endeavor is reflected in the vast and unending drift from the Catholic faith of young men and women of quality and character who grew up in Catholic families but now feel estranged. That this is the most pressing crisis in the Church in the United States today was the conclusion of virtually every diocese and region in the country. 

In tandem with this outreach to young adults, the missionary identity of the Church calls for a continuous transformation of every parish, school, diocese, and institution to be more welcoming. In spite of the fact that hundreds of thousands of Catholics spoke to the home they had found in the Church and its communities, there was a tremendous belief that on many levels our Church is not welcoming. The Church in the West conveyed that “the Church seems to prioritize doctrine over people, rules and regulations over lived reality. People want the Church to be a home for the wounded and broken, not for the perfect. They want the Church to meet people where they are, wherever they are, and walk with them rather than judging them.” 

But even beyond this need for a fundamental stance of accompaniment is a belief that our Church at times seems more institutional than intimate, more organizational than Gospel driven. In addition, a lack of welcome can often spring from the very success of establishing webs of ecclesial communities that nourish people deeply in their lives and bring joy to so many because these communities can often seem cliquey and closed to newcomers. 

A welcoming Church community always focuses great attention on those who are on the peripheries of society and of friendships, those in isolation and loneliness. Countless parish and diocesan communities across the nation have designed and implemented splendid initiatives that seek to make the stranger or the estranged welcome in our parish community. But the national dialogues make clear that we in the Catholic community have far to go in truly becoming a welcoming Church. 

One key element of synodality that was largely ignored in the local dialogues was outreach to the world. This includes both a lack of focus on the role of Catholic social teaching in transforming the world and a more general inattention to the missionary outreach to the wider world in spreading the Gospel of Jesus Christ in a sustained and comprehensive manner. 

Father Louis J. Cameli pointed to this reality in an article he wrote for America magazine. After reviewing the dialogue summaries from the Archdiocese of Chicago, he says a deficit “I found in the responses was something Pope Francis has called ‘ecclesial introversion,’ a sticky attachment to the internal life of the Church and its structural-institutional organization. The whole point of synodality is to be ‘on the road together’ in mission, going outside of ourselves. So many comments in the responses spoke to recommend changes in Church life, or, even more accurately, within Church life. The sense of outward mission was generally faint. Formation for mission, an ever-expansive sense of our purpose in the world, needs to take hold of our communities of faith.” 


8. A synodal Church is a discerning Church. 

The synodal dialogues were a massive effort to bring genuine discernment into the life of the Church. Discernment is the action of the Holy Spirit leading believers to understand on a profound basis what God is asking of them. Those who have engaged in true discernment in their individual lives of faith understand that a piercing stance of listening and openness is necessary to understand the call of the spirit. This is no less true for the communal discernment that lies at the heart of the synodal renewal.       

Discernment is the acquiescence in the reality that God is in charge. It is finding joy in that reality. And it is committing to discovering the Lord’s pathway for our lives, our families, and our Church in the openness to God’s action rather than our own desires, plans, and drives. It is crucial that this stance of openness and discernment characterize the role of all who participate in the synodal processes: bishops, laity, priests, religious, and deacons.

The people of the Diocese of Albany pointed to this avenue for grace: “There was a consistent theme of reliance on the Holy Spirit. We should help people learn to be open to the gifts of the Holy Spirit and how to use them in our communities. Even programming on how to discern gifts was recommended.” 

As the national synthesis stated, last year the Church in the United States planted a seed of renewal which can be summarized as “a commitment to relearn the art of listening and envision a new mission, goals, and priorities—remembering that we are on a pilgrimage together.” 

There was much joy in these synodal dialogues and, as the Church of the South stated, “it was frequently reported that the participants would welcome more opportunities to be listened to and hear the expressions of others’ views on the faith and life of the Church.... Some noted how few opportunities are offered for true listening in a culture where we routinely speak past each other.” 

In the synodal dialogues, a composite picture of the Church in the United States has emerged and will continue to the universal synodal process in Rome. This is a very significant accomplishment. 

But the most fundamental opportunity that emerges from the local dialogues is the possibility of making such discernment a regular part of the life of the Church in our nation. 

A seed has been planted. 

Will we water it and make it bloom?

Robert W. McElroy is the sixth Bishop and first cardinal of the Diocese of San Diego. This article is adpated from his February 23, 2023 lecture at Fairfield University: "America's Synodal Journey: God's People Point the Path Forward." 

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