Diocesan Synods Provide Opportunities To Be a ‘Listening Church’

Done well, synods are a vital tool for local bishops in their pastoral care for souls

Bishop Thomas Paprocki of Springfield, Ill., during the closing Mass at the diocesan synod in 2017.
Bishop Thomas Paprocki of Springfield, Ill., during the closing Mass at the diocesan synod in 2017. (photo: Courtesy photo / Diocese of Springfield)

While serving as apostolic administrator of the Archdiocese of St. Paul-Minneapolis in 2015-16, then-Bishop Bernard Hebda prepared some advice for whomever would assume leadership of the vacant see: Hold a diocesan synod.

At the time, St. Paul-Minneapolis was struggling in the wake of a sexual abuse coverup, and the subsequent resignation of Archbishop John Nienstedt and an auxiliary bishop. Anger, sadness, and mistrust of local Church leadership colored the scene.

After leading listening sessions to gauge the needs of the archdiocese, Archbishop Hebda was convinced that a synod, a formal ecclesial gathering during which the laity, religious, and clergy of a diocese provide consultation to the bishop, would be both “possible” and “useful” in the Twin Cities area. Possible because of a laity already actively engaged in the life of the local Church, and useful, not only as way of building trust, but also as an exercise in finding a unified way forward in an archdiocese where a diversity of viewpoints and movements are simultaneously described as a strength and a challenge.

So, when the archbishop himself was surprisingly installed as St. Paul-Minneapolis’s archbishop in May 2016, he said he had no excuses for not following his own advice.

“I thought, ‘Oh, I really need to be able to carry this forward,” the archbishop told the Register with a laugh. 

The archdiocese is doing its best to do just that, having announced in 2019 plans to hold the first archdiocesan synod since 1939. The coronavirus, however, is complicating matters. Originally planned for 2021, the actual synod proceedings — during which synod delegates will discuss and vote on resolutions to be considered by the archbishop — have been postponed until 2022.

St. Paul-Minneapolis is using the additional time to further preparations, which have already included more than 20 prayer and listening events across the archdiocese in the fall of 2019 and into 2020. Other ways for the faithful to share their desires for the pastoral ministries of the local Church were provided, and after prayerfully considering the input, the archbishop identified three areas of focus for the 2022 synod: forming parishes that are in the service of evangelization, forming missionary disciples who Jesus’ love and respond to his call, and forming youth and young adults in and for a Church that is always young.

With parish consultations slated for Fall 2021, and the Synod Assembly itself planned for Pentecost 2022, the archdiocese is trying to maintain the momentum and unity established by the initial pre-synod events by offering educational programming around important topics like praying with Scripture and faith and culture. Even if the synod itself is delayed, Archbishop Hebda says the preparatory process has been a great opportunity to develop leadership among the laity and in the parishes.

Ultimately, as the “sole legislator” or lawgiver of the archdiocese, Archbishop Hebda will be responsible for accepting and promulgating whatever declarations or statutes come out of the 2022 synod. Even so, he stresses that he’d be missing out on an invaluable tool in the toolbox available to bishops in their governance of a diocese if he neglected to take seriously the insights and desires of the clergy and lay faithful.

“It’s a way of trying to listen for where the Holy Spirit is guiding the Church,” said the archbishop.


Synodal Revitalization

From the Greek synodos, meaning “assembly” or “meeting,” synods have their roots in the ancient Church. Regional synods of bishops played an important role in settling disputes over doctrine and discipline, such as setting forth the canonical books of the Bible (Synod of Hippo, 393) or even condemning heresies like Manicheanism (Synod of Gangra, 397).

Synods have received something of a revitalization in recent times. In 1965, Pope St. Paul VI established the structure for the World Synod of Bishops in an effort to deepen communion between bishops. At this level, delegated bishops gather to deliberate over a given topic and provide counsel to the Holy Father. Recent synods — some with a fair degree of controversy — have focused on topics like the family (2014), young people (2018), and, most recently, the Church in the Pan-Amazon region (2019). 

When Pope Francis celebrated the 50th anniversary of the establishment of the Synod of Bishops in 2015, describing a Church engaged in synodality as a “listening Church,” perceptive and responsive to the needs and experiences of the faithful, while also subject to Church authority and, ultimately, the Gospel and Tradition. A major theme of his pontificate, “synodality” has been chosen the Holy Father as the theme of the next Ordinary Synod of Bishops, which will be held at the Vatican in October 2022.

At the diocesan level, a synod “is a group of selected priests and other members of the Christian faithful of a particular church who offer to assistance to the diocesan bishop for the good of the whole diocesan community,” according to canon law. The 1983 Code of Canon Law, promulgated by Pope St. John Paul II and informed by the Second Vatican Council’s emphasis on the Church as communion made up of the faithful who share in one baptism, required the participation of the laity in diocesan synods, and even permitted observation by non-Catholic Christians, both changes from the 1917 code. 

Canons 460-468 provide the judicial norms for a diocesan synod, and in 1997, the Congregation for Bishops provided additional instructions on the implementation of synods at the diocesan level. A diocesan synod can only be convened by the diocesan bishop, and is can be held “when circumstances suggest it in the judgement of the diocesan bishop” after consulting with his presbyteral council. Canon law also makes clear that the votes of synod participants are consultative only. “Only [the bishop] signs the synodal declarations and decrees, which can be published by his authority alone.”


‘A Good Leader Listens’

In the U.S., diocesan synods were not uncommon prior to Vatican II, but they have certainly experienced a renaissance in recent decades. In the past 10 years alone, diocesan synods have been held in Milwaukee, Washington, San Diego, Bridgeport, Detroit, Burlington, Vermont, and Springfield, Illinois. The Archdiocese of Hartford’s Pentecost 2020 conclusion to its 2019 synod was postponed due to COVID-19, and Bishop Edward Burns just announced his intention to hold one in the Diocese of Dallas in the near future.

Christopher Ruddy, a theologian at The Catholic University of America, describes recent diocesan synods in the U.S. context as focused less on doctrinal or disciplinary issues, and more on “diocesan priorities.” As such, the issues discussed and the measures considered will vary widely, depending upon the unique factors of each diocese.

“What do we need to be doing? What are the problems here? What are the possibilities?” he said, describing some of the questions that animate diocesan synods. 

Ruddy says diocesan synods have a deep theological basis, flowing from an ecclesiological understanding of the Church as communio. Done well and according to the norms of the Church, they need not be “crypto modernist” ventures aimed at changing Church teaching, which he says seems to be the case with the way German bishops speak of synodality. Ruddy also added that diocesan synods have immense practical value, especially for busy bishops who might not always be able to have frequent and meaningful conversations with the people in the pews.

“A good leader listens,” he said, adding that diocesan synods are “one way of realizing that communion depends upon communication. And in any good relationship, communications has to be clear and it has to be open and it has to be honest.”


Potential Fruits

Not all diocesan synods necessarily result in meaningful change. Some have been described as merely perfunctory, or instances of “performative consultation.” 

But some synods have clearly borne fruit, and have led to important changes in the day-to-day lives of the faithful. In the Archdiocese of Detroit, for instance, questions about living the Sabbath that arose during the diocesan synod in November 2016 prompted Archbishop Allen Vigneron to no longer allow parishes and schools to schedule sporting events on Sundays. 

In the Diocese of Springfield, Bishop Thomas John Paprocki says the diocese’s 2017 synod helped “set a direction and a tone for the diocese for the indefinite future.” Prompted by sobering numbers that indicated Mass attendance had dropped 30% between 1996 and 2010, Springfield’s synod focused on ways to cultivate missionary discipleship and a culture of stewardship of God’s gifts. The synod process resulted in the promulgation of 12 declarations and 173 statutes, including a new diocesan mission statement, rooted in the pillars of hospitality, prayer, formation, and service.  

Concretely, the synod resulted in a movement towards the restoration of the traditional order for the sacraments of initiation: Baptism, then Confirmation, and then first Eucharist. Bishop Paprocki said the reform was seen as a way of correcting popular but mistaken notions of confirmation as “the sacrament of farewell,” when adolescents feel like they’ve “graduated from church.” By uncoupling religious education from merely sacramental preparation, his hope is that it can take on a character of preparation for a life of discipleship.

Bishop Paprocki said that support for the change was not unanimous, but that the dialogue afforded by the synod helped many to embrace some of the reasons behind the reform.

“I think a lot of catechists and pastors and religion teachers are just frustrated and tired of seeing their students get confirmed and then stop coming to church,” he said. “I think it was a recognition that, hey, what we’re doing is not working. Let’s try something else.” 

Bishop Paprocki added that the synodal process helped create a sense of “buy in” for the reform across the diocese. Many parishes have already realigned their sacraments of initiation, well before the end of the five-year window offered in the synodal declaration. He says that the excitement among the laity to be involved in the synod also helped motivate his priests to “come on board.”  

Implementing synodal measures related to tithing have been more difficult, but Bishop Paprocki expressed hope that the communal nature of the synod will increase support. 

“When you see that the laypeople are behind these declarations, it’s like, well these are my parishioners,” said Bishop Paprocki of priests’ perception of the synod. “And it’s not just a question of doing [these changes] because the bishop wants me to do it. I’m doing this because this is what the people of the diocese want to do.”

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