For a Synodal Church: Communion, Participation, and Mission
Pope Francis has asked the whole Church to “walk together” in preparation for the Synod of 2023. The Catholic University of America answered this call, organizing three “Synod Sessions” during which faculty, students, and staff came together to pray, listen, and discern as a community the challenges and opportunities facing the university and the Church today. These sessions were organized by The Catholic Project staff out of the Office of the President, with particular assistance from the Office of Campus Ministry.
In our experience, the primary obstacle to the synod was a lack of awareness and interest in the synod process among Catholics across the board. To kick-off the university’s participation in the synod–and to raise interest in the process among students, faculty, and staff–The Catholic Project hosted a conversation between University President, John Garvey, and the apostolic nuncio, Archbishop Christophe Pierre. The topic of that conversation was: “Synodality: Why Should You Care?” The event was well publicized but drew only about 50 in-person attendees with another 50 watching online.
Following the first session, Bishop Cozzens of Crookston, Minnesota was invited to campus to offer a Mass of healing and reconciliation followed by a Holy Hour. Approximately 100 people, mostly students, were in attendance.
Each of the three synod sessions opened with the group praying the Adsumus. This was complemented by brief introductory remarks connecting the theme and questions for the day to the words of Scripture (taken from the day’s mass readings) and the words of Pope Francis.
The “listening sessions” themselves were conducted in small groups, led by a facilitator and scribe, according to a formal structure: Each small group consisted of six to eight participants (a mix of faculty, staff and students); Each participant was given a chance to speak and reflect on the questions before the group; Only one person spoke at a time, with a “speaking piece” passed around to indicate whose opportunity it was to speak; candor was encouraged. Rebuttal, debate, or argumentation were discouraged to emphasize careful listening and discernment.
This structure allowed for honest expression: for example, students were not compelled to justify their opinions or engage in theological debates with professors. Everyone came to the discussion on equal terms. And while each participant was given the chance to speak on every question (or remain silent) the structure made it clear that the primary mode of engagement in the discussion was listening to others.
At the conclusion of each listening session, groups were asked to discern the main themes of their conversation. These syntheses form the basis for this report.
The Synod Sessions
The first session was attended by approximately 50 students, staff, and faculty. The questions for consideration were drawn from the Archdiocese of Washington synod materials, but tailored to the campus environment. Three questions were considered:
- What is an instance in which you experienced genuine healing and reconciliation here at Catholic University?
- How have you contributed to healing and reconciliation between others or between yourself and someone else?
- Where is healing and reconciliation needed at the university and in the Church?
The second session was attended by approximately 55 students, staff, and faculty. The questions for consideration were:
- How can the university better foster a sense of communion, participation, and mission? How is this already being done?
- How have you contributed to the communion and mission of the university?
The third session was attended by approximately 35 students, staff, and faculty. The questions for consideration were:
- What is an experience you have had here at the University which has exemplified for you what it means to be Catholic?
- How do you see your experience at Catholic University as shaping your vocation or mission?
One major theme that emerged from these discussions was that the need for healing and reconciliation was universal. Our sense of being hurt, and wanting to be forgiven for having hurt others, was “common ground” and a powerful starting point for dialogue. Importantly, participants became aware that a shared need for mercy and forgiveness–to confess and be forgiven for our own failings–makes it easier to forgive and offer mercy to others who have wronged us.
Overwhelmingly, the discussions underscored the importance of community, both as a source and fruit of reconciliation. Communication and dialogue–both as a means of avoiding and overcoming conflict–were emphasized. In this regard, the Sacraments stood out as a source of healing and reconciliation for many participants.
Not only were the Sacraments (especially Reconciliation and the Eucharist) cited as being healing in themselves but they also served as a powerful experience of the bonds of community and fraternity–bonds which often serve as the foundation for good-faith dialogue. Participants noted that this was especially true in moments of difficulty or tragedy in the community.
A third theme which emerged, and which was repeated throughout all three sessions, was an appreciation for the opportunity to gather with other members of the University community–students, faculty and staff all gathered as equals–for discussions about the life and mission of the University and Church. This was true even for participants who were initially skeptical of the synodal process. There was a palpable desire for increased opportunities, formal or otherwise, to establish and strengthen relationships through listening, conversation, and shared participation.
A fourth theme which emerged was that authentic synodality is something we learn by doing. Whether one refers to “accompaniment” or “community engagement,” any division within a community cannot be overcome unless the people in the community are willing to make a good faith effort to engage one another across perceived boundaries. In this regard, synodality came to make more sense to the participants as they engaged in the synodal process of listening and discernment. A willingness to listen to members of our community, even those we think are wrong, does not resolve divisions; but is a necessary prerequisite to establishing the bonafides that genuine dialogue and synodality require.
A fifth theme which emerged is how The Catholic University of America is and ought to be a place where this kind of genuine dialogue takes place on a more regular basis. Our university is a true microcosm of the Church in the United States– there are Catholics of “every stripe” who call it home. It is a privileged place, in the best sense of that word, for the work of communion, participation, and mission. The more the university community grows into this mission, the stronger the university will be, and the better service it will render to the Church, the nation, and the world.
Finally, synod participants recognized that the work of communion, participation, and mission is ultimately a work of charity and grace. It is a work that both creates and emerges out of a sense of shared responsibility and action. This charity, in turn, both reflects and finds ratification in the sacramental life of the Church, especially the Eucharist. Communion is not something we can simply will out of nothingness. We cannot create a sense of mission ex nihilo. The protagonist is always God Himself. He creates; we participate. This recognition was most often expressed through gratitude.
There existed a fair amount of skepticism and antipathy towards the synod and synodality on campus at Catholic University. Some of this was hostility, but mostly it was simply a lack of familiarity or understanding of what the synod was or was meant to be. Many members of the Catholic University community–faculty, staff, and students, alike–did not know what to make of the synod listening sessions, but those who made time to participate overwhelmingly expressed appreciation for the experience.
The synod was a chance to get to know better the members of the community to which we all belong. It was an opportunity to deepen a sense of belonging, of understanding, and of appreciation for the institution and its mission. Perhaps the greatest testament to the synod was the number of participants who expressed a hope that something like the synod listening sessions would continue in the future.
As an exercise in communion, participation and mission, our listening sessions underscored for many participants the reality that Pope Francis has often emphasized: that synodality is not just an event, still less a parliament or plan or program for implementation. Synodality is a way of being the Church in the world today. The synod sessions at Catholic University gave participants a real sense of what that means in practice.