“When the angels went away from them to heaven, the shepherds said to one another, ‘Let us go, then, to Bethlehem to see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.’ So they went in haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the infant lying in the manger. When they saw this, they made known the message that had been told them about this child…” (Luke 2:15-20).
This wondrous revelation from Luke’s Gospel for the Mass of the Nativity of the Lord at Dawn inspires each of us, the shepherds of our world today. We are the 21st-century successors of these first-century evangelizers. What better way to contemplate our role than to participate in local conversations for Synod 2021-2023. The Diocese of Davenport has just completed a guidebook to assist us in making those conversations happen in a meaningful way, and it is available online (https://tinyurl.com/5n756ntd). Listening sessions begin now through April 29.
The Synod on Synodality in the Diocese of Davenport responds to Pope Francis’ request to Catholics around the world to think about and reflect on what it means to be a Church that listens to one another. He delayed the scheduled World Synod of Bishops from 2022 to 2023 to allow more time for this inclusive listening process. A synodal church, as diocesan Evangelization Director Patrick Schmadeke observes “… is the people of God journeying together in a posture of ongoing discernment about the direction to which the Holy Spirit is calling us.”
Schmadeke and other members of the diocesan Synergy Committee produced a guidebook incorporating essential elements of the Vatican Synod Handbook (Vademecum) and a diocesan approach to fostering conversation. Many of us might view the Church as a pyramid, a top-down institution where the pope, bishops, priests and deacons do the talking and teaching, and the rest of us do the listening. Now imagine the Church as a circle in which all of us gather in Christian fraternity for conversation. While visiting with one another and listening to one another, we listen together to the Holy Spirit.
Our conversation emphasizes listening to one another with the aim of understanding rather than of responding. The diocese offered training sessions for parish representatives to help lead the way in these conversations and to serve in a consultative and liaison capacity for the synod. They should be active listeners, natural collaborators who have a heart for the Church’s mission of evangelization. Others may join them, depending on the parish’s needs for engaging in the synod process.
When, where and how the conversations take place is up to each parish. The guidebook encourages prayer, discernment and dialogue to identify existing structures in the parish that might play a key role in the synodal journey. Parish councils, evangelization committees, prayer groups, volunteer networks and parish mentors are good leaders and structures to engage in leading the synod process. A central goal of the synod is to listen to people we do not usually hear from. They may have been part of our parish at one time or never a part of our faith communities.
The guidebook provides a template for facilitating a conversation in a variety of places: Catholic-owned businesses, community colleges, Catholic schools, community outreach centers, day centers for adults with disabilities or for older adults. Listening sessions could take place at food pantries, homeless shelters, family resource centers, jails, malls/shopping centers or places where local artists and musicians gather, among other ideas.
One of the creative ideas for conversations is the “58,000 cups of coffee” initiative, an invitation to each of us to have one-on-one conversations with another person. Members of the Synergy Committee brewed up the initiative in response to the annual diocesan “Mass counts” for 2021. This year’s count totaled just over 19,399 persons in our pews across the diocese, a little more than 60% of the 30,000+ people in our pews in 2019, pre-pandemic. If each of the 19,399 people has three, one-on-one conversations during the diocesan synodal process, they will have engaged 58,000 individuals. Who knows where the Spirit might lead them?
The guidebook envisions one-on-one conversations with someone in our pews, someone who hasn’t been in our pews since the pandemic, and someone who has never been a part of our faith community or stopped practicing religion at some point. So, what kind of questions do we ask? First: based on your personal experience, what fills your heart and what breaks your heart about the Catholic Church (e.g. in your parish and beyond your parish)?
We need to create an environment for listening in which all people feel welcome and know that their voice is valued and heard. We must be especially mindful of those voices that often go unheard, inside and outside our faith communities.
Like the shepherds in Luke’s Gospel, we (shepherds with a small “s”) have received “good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For today in the city of David a savior has been born for you who is Christ and Lord” (Luke 2:1-14). May the listening begin.
Barb Arland-Fye, Editor