How can universities help ensure that student voices are heard in the synod and the Church? (CNS photo/Stefano Dal Pozzolo, pool)

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.

Barbara Bollinger
Issaquah, Washington


Rather than craft a careful answer, start contacting people you already know in your context and get to work organizing. We did, and it’s going fairly well so far.

Massimo Faggioli points to an apparent (dis)connection of the synodal process from Catholic institutions of higher education and their students when he asks, “Why aren’t colleges more involved in the synod?” His is a crucial question that evokes a range of emotions among those working in Catholic higher education, from defensiveness and deflection to anger and indignation. This is, nonetheless, the task at hand. We share Faggioli’s critical and constructive perspective, discerning no broad and active movement at work in the United States.

However, this raises another question: “Who can and should initiate this work at colleges and universities?” Rather than craft a careful answer, start contacting people you already know in your context and get to work organizing. We did, and it’s going fairly well so far. Dr. Emilce Cuda was a new member of the Loyola University Chicago community, having agreed last year to teach an online graduate course in Spanish at the Institute of Pastoral Studies, and she accepted an offer to be the keynote speaker at our launch event for an upcoming series on the synod. Early in our planning meetings, she encouraged us to view it not only as concerned with the synod but also as an act of synodality. Dr. Cuda is now the Head of the Office of the Pontifical Commission for Latin America, recently appointed to this role by Pope Francis, and her responsibilities include nurturing relationships with other regions of the world. An idea quickly percolated to the surface in our planning meetings—namely, the possibility of students “walking together” in a synodal mode across North-South borders. The  potential of the project and its motivating desire led to an insight: this is something Pope Francis would love! We joked, “Well, let’s invite him!” Dr. Cuda did, in fact, invite him, and so now Pope Francis will join a Zoom meeting on February 24 to offer a brief reflection and talk directly with university students representing regional working groups from across the Americas. We will livestream the encounter in three languages (Spanish, Portuguese, and English), making it accessible to all who register. Informed by their faith and relationships to their university and religious communities, these student groups are discussing their experiences, education, and constructive visions and projects for pursuing justice together, at home and in collaboration across borders in the Americas. A special focus of this discussion is migration and its drivers, including poverty and climate change.

Since the news of this event became public, it’s become clear to us that the Spirit is already at work. The organizing team continues to receive messages, requests, and ideas from around the world and there is a sense everywhere of something underway, a palpable momentum. There’s a potential vehicle for the expression of a shared yearning among these Catholic institutions: to center the voices and insights of students and facilitate their interdisciplinary and collaborative work in pursuit of inclusive, authentic, and sustainable human development as an embodiment of synodality. If the disaffiliation of many young people with institutions of all types is in large part due to perceptions of inauthenticity, obstinacy, and irrelevance, then a truly synodal exercise of engagement that does not merely listen to but centers the insights and voices of students in this way surely is surely a constructive path forward.

As more of us get to work, let us keep in mind that the call to synodality transcends the 2021-2023 Synod. It is a way of proceeding that should permeate our work now and long after the upcoming Synod of Bishops concludes. Emphasizing synodality as a mode, Pope Francis impresses upon us the centrality of the pastoral act: we must “walk together.” To walk with one another in love is to walk with God and toward God. Can we build something together that initiates or builds on the synodal process in our own institutional contexts? Something that models the importance and effectiveness of embodying synodality in all fields and professions? Something that connects Catholic students to the Synod of Bishops but also, and more importantly, connects them to each other, across boundaries of all types, to discern and pursue social justice and the common good?

Peter L. Jones
Interim Dean and Clinical Associate Professor of the Institute of Pastoral Studies
Loyola University, Chicago


I agree with Massimo Faggioli about the absence of an organized contribution to the Synod from Catholic universities. However, I would also remind Commonweal readers and the Church as a whole that over 90 percent of Catholic college and university students attend non-Catholic colleges and universities, many served by faithful campus ministers, lay and ordained, and often with little or no support by the dioceses in which they are located. If we are going to solicit input for the Synod in every way possible, I would not limit conversation or participation simply to Catholic colleges and universities, but invite a wider listening to Catholic young adults in every institution of higher learning. Indeed, we are hoping to gather just such a listening session in the Archdiocese of Chicago, and it is the directors of those Newman Centers who are spearheading the effort.

Mary Deeley
Evanston, Illinois

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