While a surge in COVID-19 cases has slowed the start of the local phase of the global Synod of Bishops on Synodality, organizers in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles expect listening sessions to start both in person and online in the coming weeks.

“It’s a precarious time,” admitted Vice Chancellor Father Parker Sandoval, who serves on the archdiocese’s synod steering committee. “But right now, we’re looking at January through Easter as prime time for listening sessions to be hosted in parishes and communities, religious congregations, and apostolates and ministries.”

The listening sessions make up the initial phase of the two-year synodal process.

Synods in recent decades have been largely Roman affairs, bringing together bishops from around the world for several weeks to reflect and deliberate over a certain theme. The decision to make this synod a multiyear process (2021-2023) and to base it on input from ordinary Catholics represents a novelty of the Pope Francis papacy.

Parishes and communities in Los Angeles are being encouraged to hold a series of three, two-hour listening sessions outlined in a set of materials published online earlier this month, including a listening session “toolkit.” The meetings begin with a prayer, followed by the reading of a pre-selected Gospel passage, silent reflection, and time for sharing in small groups.

Father Sandoval said the format is intended to ground conversations “in a common listening to the word of God” with help from a series of discussion questions proposed by the Vatican.

Among the questions listed in the synod materials:

— Who is and who is not walking together with Jesus Christ in the Church today?

— What keeps us from speaking with courage and charity on what matters to us for the life of the Church?

— How might the Holy Spirit be inviting our Church to “journey together” more fully through a richer celebration of the liturgy in the years to come?

The sessions, Father Sandoval told Angelus, “are not open-ended discussions” or “town hall meetings where everyone comes with his or her own issues or agenda,” but rather opportunities for a serious, frank dialogue guided by the Holy Spirit.

“Nothing is stopping” a parish from holding the sessions virtually, Father Sandoval said. But he hopes that an anticipated decline in COVID-19 cases in the coming weeks will allow delayed sessions to be held in person soon.

Online training sessions for local “synod team facilitators” — at the parish level, usually designated by the pastor — are being held this month, including in Spanish. Translated synod materials in several languages are being uploaded to the LA Catholics synod website. And an all-out “blitz” to encourage the participation of people in the pews is already underway, Father Sandoval said.

“I think you’ll see much more energy in February, when there’s probably a higher likelihood of hosting in-person sessions,” he said.

Summaries of the conversations from the listening sessions will be submitted online for teams in each of the archdiocese’s five pastoral regions to sift through and synthesize. The same will be done at the archdiocesan level, and eventually, the national one, before the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops sends its summary report to synod officials in Rome later this year.

Steering committee member Heidi Villaluz said that following the lead from the Holy See’s preparatory documents, organizers have discussed how the synod can better involve women and young people, as well as Catholics who are harder for existing ministries to reach.

In a sense, Villaluz can count herself as one of them: an experienced pastoral minister, she recently moved out of a parish and hasn’t yet registered at a new one. 

“That’s part of the outreach that we’re also considering,” said Villaluz. “How do we reach people who aren’t established in the traditional parish structure and make sure that their voices are still included?”

Since the official start of the synodal process in Los Angeles last October, Villaluz and her fellow steering committee members have hosted “interest sessions” around the archdiocese. Beyond parish boundaries, she says she’s heard Catholics asking how they can engage those on the margins of society, too.

“Are we engaging migrant communities? People experiencing homelessness? Those are all things we’re considering,” she told Angelus.

Villaluz understands that the “broadness” of the synod process at the local level can “feel a little overwhelming” at times, in addition to the steady stream of ideas and materials provided by Rome and now, her committee.

“The resources are a tool,” said Villaluz. “But the really exciting work is helping to animate and empower people to use the tool, and take it out widely beyond the walls of the parish.”

For more information on the synod process in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, visit Synod.LACatholics.org.