Philadelphia Archbishop Nelson J. Pérez joins young adults at a synodal listening session at La Salle University (OSV News photo/CNS file, Sarah Webb,

Disappointment, dismay, and disillusionment were in the air following the release of the synthesis report of the Synod on Synodality’s October 2023 session. Many had high hopes for what the gathering might produce. Yet many came away with expectations unmet.

But there’s likely greater reason for optimism than what can be gleaned from a forty-page report. Church history has shown how the movement of the Spirit can linger long beyond the moment a council’s words hit the page. We have already seen new developments in the short time since the closing of last fall’s session, like the release of Fiducia supplicans, the papal document on blessings. And we still have the concluding session of the Synod coming this fall. This leads me to believe that we shouldn’t focus on immediate change—but rather on the possibilities the synod promises for tomorrow. 

I found that hope last fall in Rome while accompanying a young-adult delegation of Discerning Deacons for the opening of the session. We met with voting delegates, visited holy sites, and sat in sessions with other young adults from around the world during the “Together” pre-synodal events. Hailing from different countries and speaking different languages, each young adult was there to grapple with the question of how the Church is called to address the needs of the day. In the process, I gained a better understanding not only of the synodal process, but also of the Synod’s scope. Though Pope Francis has said many times that we are a synodal Church, being in Rome allowed me to see firsthand how the Church, seemingly for the first time, learns to become one. 


I began to get this sense when the group I was with convened at the Jesuit Curia in Rome, where we experienced “conversations in the Spirit,” the process used at the synodal gatherings. We were split into small groups that engaged in three rounds of sharing. In the first round, each person was given two minutes to share on a topic brought forth in the synthesis report; there was no discussion, only listening. This round was followed by a time of silence. In round two, we shared thoughts sparked by the first round. Again, there was no discussion—just listening. A period of prayer and silence followed. In the final round, we worked together, speaking with each other for the first time. We were then asked to give a synthesis of our shared insights, in a total of just three words. These three words were decided communally and then shared with the larger group. 

This seemingly simple process demonstrated how and where the Spirit could pull us, together. We weren’t just asked to listen; we were shown how to listen in new ways—not to respond, but to encounter, with structured moments of silence. This time for silence was, itself, destabilizing. It was the type of silence Pope Francis says that “we are no longer accustomed to,” because it “forces us to face God and ourselves.” To know that this same process was taking place in the synodal sessions between lay and clergy gave me an idea of how we can listen anew in the context of a hierarchical church model. And it forces us to acknowledge that we may all have something equal to contribute to the Body we love.

None of this is to say that the synodal process is necessarily easy. Indeed, at a panel we attended while at the Jesuit Curia, Cardinal Jean-Claude Hollerich, relator general of the synod, spoke of the challenges. “There will be tensions,” he said. “It’s inevitable. It’s normal. It’s human.” He spoke in hope that in bearing these tensions, “we do not see enemies in people who think differently from us.” But he also noted that we instead sit in hope that these “tensions will bear fruit.” In practicing “conversations in the spirit,” we realize the Spirit at work doesn’t meet tensions with easy answers. It instead issues challenges and reveals questions. It begs us to look at the thing we’ve most tried to avoid and invites new ways we can respond.

This type of dialogue proves that synodality is more than a moment; it’s a method.

This type of dialogue proves that synodality is more than a moment; it’s a method—a method that can be hard to put into practice, as even delegates at the Synod discovered (with some storming out in anger during tense sessions). But for those who are willing, it offers a radical way of dealing with the polarization in our Church and world. This way of living the Gospel turns a divided world into a ground for mutual discernment. Not only does it sit in the questions, find comfort in silence, and wade into the tension, but it also never walks away from the chance to encounter the other—no matter how different they may be. This is the type of encounter that will be just as earth-shattering in ecumenical debate as it could be to the person we thought we knew beside us in the pew.

Some people may be skeptical, but I really believe this reflective silence and sincere listening can be powerful tools in a deafening and divided world. If we choose to live with the openness of the Spirit instead of the constraints of our prejudices and preconceptions, we become a place where we focus more on discernment than disagreement, a place we enter into not in protest, but in prayer. I dare to dream that this “methodology” could reach beyond the church doors to people in all areas of life: families in the midst of a divorce in heartbroken homes, children and parents affected by dysfunctional school and community systems, those impacted by unethical business practices, even those divided by our current politics. It could offer a truly revolutionary way to live, transforming the Church while healing the broken world we’ve come to know. It becomes a faith that doesn’t doubt that God can truly be at work everywhere—present in our words and speaking in the silence.


Though Francis made clear at last year’s World Youth Day that the Church is “for everyone, everyone, everyone,” it is no secret that many young-adult Catholics don’t experience it that way. In fact, for many, the institutional Church has become irrelevant, offering little in terms of how to live out their spirituality. Yet the Discerning Deacons delegation I traveled with embodied the “everyone” Francis was speaking of: there were men and women, lay and religious, college students and working professionals, parents and singles, people of color and those of the racial majority, straight and queer, devoted Catholics and Catholics on the peripheries of the Church. And the stories of their synodal journeys show how the invitational aspect of synodality can also be transformational—resuscitating what may seem like a dying Church. 

One of the delegates I spoke with was Rebecca MacMaster, director of parish life at St. Peter and Paul Jesuit in Detroit. She reflected on her work organizing synodal listening sessions in her diocese, stressing how the “importance and beauty of individual stories” continues to resonate with her. “The national and continental documents that came of that process were huge and groundbreaking, but nothing has felt quite the same as actually sitting down and listening to people,” she said. “I remember one particular story: a young woman stood up and said, ‘I love the Church but the Church doesn’t love me.’ I feel like that’s rattled around my brain ever since.” 

Unlike MacMaster, Aaron Sinner, a member of the Discerning Deacons young-adult delegation who works in health care in Minneapolis, has not played an organizing role in the synodal process. He is, however, a young father grappling with what it means to have daughters who might want to share their voice with the Church in ways that it has not yet found a place for. He is similarly invested in the Synod’s potential results. “There are perspectives beyond my own that see the things that I don’t see,” he told me. “I hope and pray that the same is true of the synodal gathering and that the listening truly does lead to the lifting up and elevation of perspectives that the Church does not always do a good job of listening to.” 

Though Francis made clear at last year’s World Youth Day that the Church is “for everyone, everyone, everyone,” it is no secret that many young-adult Catholics don’t experience it that way.

Allysa Van Allen, a respiratory therapist from Philadelphia, said the synodal pilgrimage gave her a new understanding of the Church, which she thought might help her reconnect to her Catholic identity. I asked her if she knew of others who felt the same, and whether more of the disaffiliated might get re-engaged. “I don’t know if it means they’d be present in this Church,” she answered.

But I think if they saw more of the passion and true belief that a lot of these people hold while still keeping that piece in the back of their minds of "yes, I know. This is difficult. I know. You know, there are troubles, and there are trials, and this is not easy." We’re talking about it, and we’re figuring it out together, because it’s complicated, and I don’t think the Church really ever will be perfect. The people in this group know that as well. I think we just have a sense of solidarity in coexisting with the imperfect. That solidarity, that connection, that togetherness that the people here understand and share.

Living within that tension was something I heard from others as well. Anna Robertson, director of distributed organizing at Discerning Deacons, thought the process can empower “all of the baptized to take responsibility for the life of the Church.” She thinks people saw for the first time how they could be called into what she termed an “active protagonism.” “I see a real shift in their sense of belonging in the Church,” she said. 

I think so many people leave the Church because they don’t feel that they have any power inside of it. They feel powerless. Like they’re just acted upon in it. That’s what I’ve heard over and over again from people in one-on-one conversations. And it’s true that many of us have been disempowered in the Church, but it’s not true that we don’t have power. We have this relational power and a responsibility to exercise it, and synodality is calling us, inviting us to practice that relational power together.

That relational power, it seems to me, is key in encouraging people who find the Church unable to deliver compelling answers to their lingering questions. It offers them the opportunity to raise topics they might think are taboo—rethinking women’s participation in the Church, how clericalism distances us from God rather than allows to be God’s vessel, how the Church has failed to respond to all the marginalized, those poor in spirit as well as the materially impoverished.  

I was particularly interested in the perspective of Becky McIntyre, an artist commissioned to be a visual note-taker for the listening sessions in Philadelphia. Her captivating drawings of synodal gatherings reflect a different kind of insight. She noted that she felt called to visually represent those on the margins of the Church, citing queer Catholics, women, young people, and “those who have left because of feeling angry or unheard or unseen” in particular. 

I think this trip has served as a reminder to show that we are the Church, we build and create the Church, and so yes, changes need to come from the top down, but also, we get to build from the bottom up and we get to imagine together, we get to create beloved communities together. And to decide what that looks like with our own imagination and creativity.

So, though we await the outcomes of the synod next October, we must keep in mind that it’s not the end. This multi-year synodal process could be just the bumpy, messy start of the transformation we’re seeking. If Vatican II is any indication, it may take sixty years or more to see how the effects of synodality reshape the Church—in the areas of participation, spiritual creativity, and the institution’s societal engagement. Just as there are now those who can’t imagine a time when Mass wasn’t said in the vernacular, there may come a day when synodality is a way of life. It may become a practice so ingrained in us that those will find synodality synonymous with the way we live as “the Church.” To do this, we must believe in a God that works in silence, a spirit still moving, even while we wait.

JoAnn Lopez, leader of faith formation at St. Basil’s Catholic Church in Toronto, expressed something similar. “Experiencing the synodal process revealed something deeper,” she said. “A sense of being connected to what has gone before. And then dreaming of the ones who will come after us. And how this is a moment…to become the church that we yearn for, and that God yearns for.”

That relational power, it seems to me, is key in encouraging people who find the Church unable to deliver compelling answers to their lingering questions.


The young adults I met show that synodality calls us to hold a mix of courage and humility. They need the courage to start conversations about the rising disaffiliation rates of the Catholic Church (particularly among young adults), the history of sexual abuse, the hypocrisy of preaching unity when we remain divided, the cries of the LGBTQ faithful to be recognized, and a Church that seems to fear these difficult questions more than it fears increasing irrelevancy. But this is where humility becomes necessary—humility to realize that there is something we will learn, even as we stumble forward. We will learn that our humility allows us to anchor to God, not our pride, as we have moments of life-changing encounters. We must be a Church that knows that it does not only have something to teach, but also something to learn. 

The Church is not simply embarking on a new practice. It’s embarking on a reimagining. In this reimagining, it’s not only the clergy who have a say in how we follow the Spirit. In this reimagined Church, the process is a transformation of the people who comprise it. Through the unprecedented participation of 120 laypeople, we have seen that the future is in the hands of all of the baptized. Each of us plays a role in the kingdom to come. 

In the end, we can become a Church (and world) where we’re less afraid of being with others than of being without them. In the end, those who most yearn for change and those who most fear it may find they both leave transformed. And if we allow ourselves to change, the Church and world will follow suit. Today, we can start by living in the tensions. We can invite the Spirit not simply to be the protagonist of the Synod, but to be the “protagonist of our lives.” We can begin to model a Church where we don’t come with ready answers, but rather with burning questions, asking God: Where do we go next?

Coming away from Rome, I couldn’t help but think of what Aaron Sinner told me as we spoke of the renewed hope spurred by the synodal beginnings. “Looking back decades from now,” he said, “I hope we'll see this was the starting point, when a way of being Church was born.”

Kayla August is a Commonweal Synod Writing Fellow and a student at the School of Theology and Ministry at Boston College, where she is pursuing a PhD in theology and education with a focus on preaching, particularly preaching from the lay perspective.

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