As some U.S. dioceses convene local synods to discuss topics ranging from the family to evangelization, bishops are preaching the need to discover a true sense of synodality.
Pope Francis has called in recent months for a more synodal Church, suggesting that “synods,” or gatherings intended for discussion and discernment of the Church’s direction, are an important aspect of an engaged and missionary Church.
At the annual fall meeting of the U.S. bishops in Baltimore, Maryland, CNA spoke with bishops who have recently held synods or are preparing to hold them, asking them to explain what “synodality”is and how the Holy Spirit was present at their gatherings.
Archbishop Allen Vigneron of Detroit told CNA that a synod, to be an authentic exercise of discernment, has to begin with prayer, and interior conversion on the part of attendees.
A synod is not a democratic assembly to draw up a five-year plan, he said, but something much greater—a “vehicle” for the Holy Spirit to renew the church, if participants engage prayerfully to discern the will of God.
In November 2016, the Archdiocese of Detroit held a synod for the first time in almost 30 years.
Hundreds of people from around the archdiocese gathered to share thoughts on how the archdiocese could proclaim the Gospel better than it already was.
Several months afterward, Vigneron published his letter “Unleash the Gospel” as a result of the synod, outlining a pastoral plan for evangelization. Some critiques of the church he included in his letter were “a worldly notion of the church,” “fear,” and “spiritual lethargy,” while prescriptions included “docility to the Spirit,” “confidence in God,” and “apostolic boldness.”
Ultimately, the synod concluded that evangelization needs to become the very “form” of the Church in coming years, Vigneron said.
The archbishop added that the reason the archdiocesan synod was so successful was because of prayer and docility to the Holy Spirit.
“A synod in the history of the Church has been a privileged vehicle for the working of the Holy Spirit,” Vigneron told CNA.
Two years before the Detroit synod even took place, prayer groups were formed at the parish level to pray and fast for the upcoming gathering, asking the Holy Spirit to be present at the synod.
“We had some very extended periods of prayer and formation for anyone who was going to be a participant in the synod,” Vigneron said. “To come into the synod, a person has to undergo a conversion.”
The very “template” of a synod, he said, “is the Holy Trinity,” not a “democratic assembly.” In a synod, the bishop acts in the role of God the Father as the “leader,” allowing the lay faithful to act as a “communion of persons” while not hindering “his own setting of a direction,” he said.
As a result of the Detroit synod’s docility to the Holy Spirit, there has been an abundance of spiritual fruit in the archdiocese, Vigneron said.
“It was of inestimable worth for us to have a synod,” he told CNA on Tuesday, nearly three full years after the gathering. It “galvanized the diocese from bottom to top,” he said.
Meanwhile, in the Archdiocese of St. Paul-Minneapolis, the church is preparing for a synod in 2021, through prayerful discernment, Archbishop Bernard Hebda told CNA.
In recent years, the archdiocese has dealt with the resignation of its archbishop, bankruptcy, and fallout from a serious sexual abuse crisis in the region.
Several years ago, in 2015, then-Archbishop John Nienstedt resigned after the archdiocese was charged with mishandling sexual abuse cases.
The years-long efforts to deal with the pressing clergy sex abuse crisis put other important priorities such as evangelization on the “back burner,” Archbishop Bernard Hebda said in a June letter announcing the synod.
Now the church needs to turn toward these priorities without abandoning its work of rebuilding from the abuse crisis, he said.
“Without losing sight of either the critical importance of our Catholic schools or the urgency of creating safe environments and engaging in outreach to those who have in any way been harmed by the Church, we now need to be deliberate in moving forward on other fronts,” Hebda wrote.
A diocesan synod, Hebda said, draws from the 1983 revised Code of Canon Law and can be “a tool for the bishop to engage the People of God (laity, clergy, consecrated men and women, and bishops all walking together) in exercising the responsibility that flows from our common baptism, always in the hope of strengthening the communion that is the Church.”
In preparation for the synod, 20 listening and prayer events have been scheduled, seven of which have already taken place, Hebda told CNA. He plans to attend each session, with auxiliary bishop Andrew Cozzens attending most of them.
Each gathering lasts around three hours, he said, the first half of which is spent in guided prayer followed by small group discussions for the second half. Discussions feature participants sharing their view of God’s blessings and challenges in their lives, and where God is leading the church.
Attendance at the sessions has been greater than expected, Hebda said, and the results of the meetings will be collated for discussion at the parish level next fall.
Some of the main points of discussion have been concern for baptized Catholics who have drifted away from the faith—especially among youth and young adults—as well as “connecting catechesis and evangelization” and “the importance of liturgy as a means of drawing people to the truth of the faith,” Hebda said.
He emphasized trying to help the lay faithful listen to the Holy Spirit and to discover the “gifts” God is bestowing upon the lay faithful, and “seeing that as a possibility for really hearing what it is that the Lord wants us to know and to do.”
Healing from the abuse crisis has also been a point of discussion at the meetings, Hebda said, as at most events attendees hear from a “victim survivor of abuse.”