Massimo Faggioli paints an accurate picture of the lack of engagement with the synod at Catholic colleges and universities (“Unexcused Absence,” January 28, 2022). A few years ago, a high-ranking administrator at a Roman Catholic university sent me some Power Point slides about declining church attendance and engagement among young people in the United States. The subtext of our email exchange was that the rate of return on engagement with the Church is shrinking. Attaching an institution of higher learning to the Church is a flailing, if not failing, proposition. Such an attitude presupposes that a Catholic university is somehow separable from the Church. The Synod on Synodality calls this bluff. If Catholic colleges and universities lack the will or creativity to engage, then our missions and charisms are bankrupt.
Whether the impediment is administrative apathy, faculty independence, or concerns over students’ time and energy, universities need to engage. I’m reminded of Jesus’ response to his disciples, when they point out to him that the huge crowd has no food: “You give them something to eat” (Mark 6:37). In other words, we shouldn’t just wait around for someone else to fix the problem. For anyone who cares about a future Church incorporating more diverse voices, the synod presents an opportunity. I offer four ideas of how a Catholic college or university can engage the synod, each of which we are implementing at St. Ambrose University.
First, gather a group of stakeholders. Don’t just leave the work to the campus ministry staff or a couple of faculty members. Engage the local bishop and diocesan offices. I am fortunate to work at a diocesan university where we work hard to forge a positive relationship with our bishop, and vice-versa. This may not be the experience in all contexts.
Second, utilize class time. Our theology faculty have committed to holding listening sessions in every theology class this spring. We will ask two questions: “What about the Church fills your heart?” and “What about the Church breaks your heart?” Half of these students will not be Roman Catholic, and many may have been wounded by or estranged from the church. Some will be from other world faith traditions, or atheists. A matriculant at a Catholic, diocesan university, even if in the broadest sense, is part of the Church. The synod’s listening should not be construed as only flowing “up the ladder.” The listening will enrich all those involved; all participants, and the universities themselves, have things to learn.
Third, with care and sensitivity, engage under-heard voices through campus organizations. Our president, who has made the Synod a priority, will lead listening sessions with a variety of groups on campus, including those with political affiliations; PRISM (Promoting Respect in Sexual Minorities); student government leaders; Latinos Unidos; and the Black Student Union. Campus ministry will engage with peer campus ministers, Bible study groups, and service ministry groups.
Fourth, remember faculty and staff. Listening sessions should be held for all employees. They are also stakeholders in the school’s mission, and ultimately the Church. Their voices should be heard as well.
With the synodal process underway, there are some who have chosen the path of proactive listening. In doing so, we hope to be following the advice of St. Ambrose of Milan: “For the one who delights to listen, urges the other on to speak.”
Micah D. Kiel
Professor of Theology
St. Ambrose University, Davenport, Iowa
Massimo Faggioli introduces yet another category of missing potential responders to the synod. As a lay and older woman who has been keenly interested in this once-in-my-lifetime opportunity to have a voice in the Church, it has been challenging to pursue the process. I have connections to the archdioceses of both Portland, Ore., and Seattle, and the Diocese of Honolulu, all differing in their approach and timing, as are the various parishes. There seems to be an effort by some parishes to offer a method for feedback; the best I’ve seen by far is the examen used by St. Ignatius in Baltimore. Our parish on Maui finally offered a specific question about evangelization—missing the point, in my opinion, about this being a synod on synodality.
A “listening-to-all” process is what the pope has called for, and that means finding a way to hear from, yes, the university communities, especially students and certainly former students, many of whom have ceased being active in the Church. I have not found any information on how they and all the numerous “fallen away” Catholics are to be heard.
I wrote to both Catholic universities from which our daughters graduated to ask if they were, or would, reach out to their alumni with a process for participating in the Synod, particularly to draw in those alumni not active in a parish any longer. Santa Clara University responded with a format that is open to anyone, available at their website. I have yet to hear from Gonzaga University.