The synodal process bridged an international border March 27 when the bishops of the Diocese of Brownsville, Texas, crossed the Rio Grande into Mexico to celebrate Sunday Mass with the bishop of Matamoros.
An afternoon of synod workshops and discussions followed.
As late morning Mass began at Our Lady of Refuge Cathedral, Bishop Eugenio Andrés Lira Rugarcía of Matamoros opened with a warm welcome to Brownsville's Bishop Daniel E. Flores and Auxiliary Bishop Mario A. Avilés.
The Rio Grande Valley of far South Texas and the border cities of northeastern Mexico have historically enjoyed strong family, business and cultural ties.
Although these ties have been interrupted in recent years by border-crossing restrictions, the coronavirus pandemic and immigration issues, the events March 27 events were an opportunity to renew the close relations the two neighboring dioceses have maintained.
"The dioceses of Brownsville and Matamoros -- we are sister churches," Bishop Lira said. "This permits us today to have a binational synodal experience."
"We greatly appreciate this invitation, this honor of sharing this Mass that manifests in a very strong way the communion of the universal church," Bishop Flores responded.
"We ask Our Lord's help to keep us on this path that he has shown by his own example, and also the grace of the Holy Spirit to be able to open our hearts to the reconciliation and the communion -- the principal themes of today's Scriptures," Bishop Flores said.
The Gospel for the fourth Sunday of Lent was the story of the prodigal son. Angel Barrera, the synod coordinator for Diocese of Brownsville, explained afterward how this parable played a key role in the day's proceedings.
"The principal theme of Bishop Flores' homily was on reconciliation," Barrera said. "And that was woven in different ways into many synodal moments."
In the parable, after the son squanders his inheritance and is reduced to hiring himself out to tend pigs, he begins to think over what he has done, and how he got there.
"In Spanish, the passage reads, the Gospel says, 'Se puso reflexionar' -- 'He began to reflect.' ... That's what we're doing now. We're reflecting," Barrera said. "The other principal action of the son for this conversion was that he remembered. He remembered how good it was with his father. He remembered how generous his father was."
After Mass, the South Texas delegation met with Bishop Lira and his contingent at the Catholic University of Northeast Mexico for lunch and then synod workshops. The 43 participants comprised the bishops and five priests, five religious, five laypeople and five deacons from each diocese.
"It was the work of the Holy Spirit to get the right people there," Barrera told The Valley Catholic, newspaper of the Brownsville Diocese. "Some of our laypeople live and work on both sides. So they reside in Brownsville, but their workplace and business is in Matamoros. Many of them were coming from lived experiences of being on both sides, serving people on both sides."
The hospitality continued at the workshop site, Barrera said.
"We had a wonderful meal, that amazing image of breaking bread together," he said. "It was a very celebratory event."
"The way I would characterize (Bishop Lira's) presence was joyful. Every time I would see him with a group of people he had never met, he was just so joyful, so approachable," he added. "He was talking to them like they were dear friends.
"It was just a very warm and welcoming experience."
The delegations broke up into working groups for about three hours to discuss issues proposed by the general secretariat of the Synod of Bishops.
The church in the U.S. and around the world is engaged in a listening phase in preparation for the 2023 meeting of the world Synod of Bishops on synodality, called for by Pope Francis, around the theme, "For a Synodal Church: Communion, Participation and Mission." Diocesan phases of the synod are in progress through August 2022.
The questions posed to the groups at the Matamoros meeting included:
-- What has been your experience of "walking together" in the church, in your family and in society in general?
-- Do you feel that we are reaching the people on the peripheries and those most in need?
-- What steps do you feel the Holy Spirit is asking us to take in order for us to grow "walking together" in the church, in the family and in society in general?
-- Who would be good to invite to accomplish this together?
The questions echoed an oft-repeated theme of both Pope Francis and Bishop Flores about walking or journeying together through life. A saying often appears in Bishop Flores' sermons: "If we don't walk together, we're not going to get there."
The afternoon's discussions proved to be more of a start than an ending.
Barrera noted, "I was encouraged by what Bishop (Flores) said: 'We didn't finish, but we're getting started in articulating this.'"
"The questions were helpful, but we don't have a finished document yet," Barrera said. "For me, this could be the beginning of a series of conversations, or other ways of having these focused discussions.
"So what this really does for us is provides a witness to the communion of the church, and the potential in the world, because we are two countries. ... It's a sign of us moving toward that together."