NEXT STEP IN THE SYNOD ON SYNODALITY: THE CONTINENTAL PHASE
Anne-Marie Welsh and E-news staff
ERIE — In case you’ve lost track of the process in preparation for the 2023 Synod on Synodality taking place in Rome this coming fall, let’s start with a quick refresher.
A little over a year ago, Catholics from every country in the world were invited to meet at the local level in order to share and discuss their concerns — particularly about their experience of church — in response to a series of questions distributed by the Vatican. The magnitude of the effort was staggering, but for the most part, those who chose to participate found it to be an engaging, energizing and even emotional experience. The biggest takeaway? A refreshing sense of having had the church listen with an open heart. Among the recurring themes discussed were welcoming, inclusivity, mission and outreach, communication and leadership.
Group facilitators in the Diocese of Erie each submitted a report to the Chancery last spring. That information was synthesized into a single 10-page document, as planned. The full diocesan report, as well as the regional and national reports that followed, all remain available at https://www.eriercd.org/synod.html. It is worth noting that the report from Region III, made up of the dioceses of Pennsylvania and New Jersey, is referenced four times in the national document. The same website contains an introductory letter from Bishop Lawrence Persico about the synod, great resources about the history of synods in the church as well as important key terms. It also includes a link to the Vatican site dedicated to the upcoming 2023 Synod on Synodality.
Meetings for the continental phase of the synod have just concluded. Now the key points from the reports of both the United States and Canada will become one of seven continental reports that will be used when representative bishops from around the world come together in Rome this fall. Recognizing the significance of the effort, Pope Francis already has announced that the synod will be held at the Vatican in two parts: First in October 2023, and then again in October 2024.
As for the continental phase, delegates from around the world, including six from the Diocese of Erie, met via Zoom in sessions scheduled between mid-December 2022 and late January 2023. Participating on behalf of the Diocese of Erie were Bishop Persico, Msgr. Edward Lohse, vicar general; Sister Clare Marie Beichner, SSJ; Anne-Marie Welsh, director of Communications; and Jillian Zaczyk, director of Young Adult and Youth Ministry in the Office of Faith Formation. Deacon Steve Washek, executive director of the Office of Faith Formation and the person who led the diocesan phase last winter and spring, also participated in one of the international sessions.
“Our goal was to invite a mix of clergy, religious and lay people who had been involved with the process all along, but also represented a variety of ages and perspectives,” Deacon Washek said. Participation required not only reading the American and Canadian reports, but also spending time in prayer and reflection. Delegates from the diocese each participated in a different session. While more than 100 people attended each session, each person was assigned to a break-out group of six to eight people.
“I was very impressed with the experience,” said Welsh. “They sent us a detailed preparation guide laying out how the three hours would be structured. Delegates were asked to pray with Isaiah 54:2 prior to their sessions: ‘Enlarge the space for your tent, spread out your tent cloths unsparingly; lengthen your ropes and make firm your pegs.’ We also received the discussion questions in advance.”
Participants were asked to introduce themselves to each other by email ahead of time.
“That gave us a sense of community before we began, which was nice,” said Welsh. “One of the biggest themes that has been emerging from the synod is that the church is not a place of welcome. The organizers did everything they could to make us feel welcome.”
After the small-group interaction, delegates returned to the plenary session where a representative from each group summarized their conversations. Once the continental report is complete, it, too, will be made available on the diocesan website.
Bishop Persico said he recognized many more commonalities than differences among the delegates from across both Canada and the United States in the session he attended.
“We were talking about the same themes,” he said. “Inclusiveness. The challenges of polarization. Marginalization.”
He also reflected on the importance of the synod.
“In the 46 years since my ordination, I had never experienced a synod,” he said. “The last synod in my home diocese was in 1960. In Erie, we haven’t had one since 1942. And if you look back at the documents, they didn’t have the laity involved. What we’re doing now is a synod for the whole church.”
For now, Bishop Persico encouraged patience.
“People have been asking me what’s going on with the synod,” he said. “We have to understand this isn’t just happening in the Diocese of Erie. It involves the universal church. We are still in process, gearing up for the synod in Rome.” Now that the synod will meet for two sessions, with a year of conversation and discernment between them, a longer view needs to be taken.
“It’s going to take time,” Bishop Persico said. “When you think about it, even the hope people have that we will become a more welcoming church is a challenge. It will take time to address it.”
Deacon Washek has heard the comments about welcoming as well.
“What has struck me the most about the concept of welcoming is that every population of the church — those who prefer the Latin Mass, those with same-sex attraction, those who are either conservative or liberal — all of them have expressed that same feeling of not being welcome. If everyone feels they don’t belong, we certainly have work to do.”
He noted people have other concerns as well.
“Some fear everything will change. Others fear nothing will change,” he said. “But I do think this is a crucial moment. The process has given people hope. People were asked to speak and they felt the church was listening. The challenge is going to be how we get into the nitty gritty of responding.”
Find a story about the presentation of the diocesan report here:
Find a story about the common themes found in the national report here:
Read about Pope Francis’ decision to extend the international synod meetings to a second session here:
Learn more about the seven continental assemblies involved in the last step of the process before the October 2023 synod here: https://www.synod2023.org/