Listening and Learning: Synod on Synodality Delegate Is Relishing His Participation

Rather than seeing synodality as a way of changing the Church and its teaching, José Manuel De Urquidi came to understand it as a way of listening to people so the Church can better know how to help them encounter Christ.

José Manuel De Urquidi (l) chats with a fellow delegate during the synod.
José Manuel De Urquidi (l) chats with a fellow delegate during the synod. (photo: María Langarica)

VATICAN CITY — One week into the Synod on Synodality’s monthlong assembly in Rome, it’s safe to say that José Manuel De Urquidi is a believer in the process.

“Here, everyone talks. Everyone is being listened to,” De Urquidi told the Register. “The value of doing this for a month is very rich; not just individually for each one of us participating, but as a Church.”

The 39-year-old digital entrepreneur is participating in the Oct. 4-29 assembly as one of the synod’s few married laymen, his trademark ball cap and suitcoat-over-T-shirt look sticking out in Paul VI Hall amid the plethora of black clerical shirts and religious habits. Although he currently resides in Dallas, the native Mexican is part of the delegation from Latin America and the Caribbean.

But De Urquidi understands that some Catholics might have concerns about the synodal process, which began in October 2021 and has included diocesan, national and continental stages and will conclude with another assembly at the universal level in October 2024. 

At an earlier point in the multiyear global consultation process, he had his own doubts, too.

The founder of Juan Diego & Co., a marketing service that helps connect Catholic organizations in the U.S. with Latinos, recalls his hesitation when he was asked by the Vatican in November 2022 to help lead a “Digital Synod.” The online consultation was aimed at asking Catholics more present in digital environments than in their parishes to share their experiences with and desires for the Church.

“Are we sure we want to do this? To listen to people on the Internet?” De Urquidi recalls asking at the time.

But De Urquidi said that the experience helped convince him of the value of synodality in the life of the Church. Because while some of the responses, 31% of which were from non-practicing Catholics, were in tension with the Church’s teaching on ordination and sexuality, the underlying takeaway was that people wanted one thing:

“The Gospel!” said De Urquidi. “They want to know God, they want to be reached in their heart and soul; they want to be loved and welcomed.”

And rather than seeing synodality as a way of changing the Church and its teaching, the Catholic influencer came to understand it as a way of listening to people so the Church can better know how to help them encounter Christ — similar to how a doctor listens to his patient before making his diagnosis.

“It’s the most simple stuff — that we should be doing anyway,” said De Urquidi, who has a longtime passion for evangelization and operates the Juan Diego Network of Catholic podcasts.

Now more than a third of the way into October assembly, De Urquidi tells the Register that he is confident that the synod’s focus on listening, encounter and prayer — and the absence of an ulterior agenda — will bear real fruit in the life of the Church.


Listening to God — and to Each Other

Part of De Urquidi’s confidence in the synod is due to its emphasis on ongoing prayer as an essential part of the process — which was evident even before the synod assembly officially began on Oct. 4. 

In a first for a Synod of Bishops, a three-day spiritual retreat (held 20 miles north of Rome) preceded the discussions and deliberations. While most media coverage of the retreat focused on the controversial comments of the designated retreat master, Dominican Father Timothy Radcliffe, De Urquidi highlighted the value of time for communal prayer, silent reflection and simply the opportunity to get know some of the other 450 or so synod participants before the assembly began.

That emphasis on prayer has continued — not just with ample opportunities for liturgical and devotional prayer outside of Paul VI Hall, but within the synod assembly itself. Each day’s work not only begins with morning prayer at 8:45 a.m., but is punctuated by prayerful moments throughout the proceedings. For instance, De Urquidi shared that during small-group discussions, members pause for multiple minutes of silent prayer after every few contributions.

The lay member quipped that the synod “wastes” two hours of prayer every day — an intentional focus on listening to God that he believes could make a big difference.

“If we continue this way for the next three weeks, I am hopeful healing inside of the Church, real communion, can in fact be reached,” he told the Register.

While prayer gives participants the opportunity to listen to God, De Urquidi says another synod feature has helped the 365 voting members listen to each other: the “conversation in the Spirit” methodology guiding discussions in the synod’s 35 small groups.

Born into a charismatic community in Mexico founded by his parents, and currently a part of three small groups back home in Dallas, De Urquidi is no stranger to the experience of sitting in a circle with others and discussing important topics. But he says that the conversation-in-the-Spirit method helps avoid some of the pitfalls common in this kind of setting — such as the conversation being dominated by the loudest voices, or missing the contributions of more reserved members. 

Instead, he says the conversation-in-the-Spirit methodology allows for each member at the table to contribute equally. Members take turns sharing their reflections on the topic at hand, and then each individual has a chance to comment on what “burned in their heart” as they listened to the contributions of others — either because it resonated with them or because they found it troubling. 

Members also get to comment equally on whether they think the final report from their table accurately reflects what was shared and can ask for changes before voting to accept it. 


Opportunities for Encounter

De Urquidi tells the Register the synod small-group format has allowed him to listen and learn from other Catholics from different walks of life — especially those from other parts of the world. In fact, despite Spanish being his first language, he chose to sit at an English-speaking table for the synod proceedings to get a more global experience. 

During the synod’s opening phase, De Urquidi was seated at a table with members from every other continent — except for the Middle East, which synod organizers have classified as its own entity.

The experience has helped him to realize “how the Church is living” in different parts of the world — from contexts where the Church is experiencing a springtime, to places where persecution is a live and ongoing threat. Depending on participants’ own local context, words like “evangelization,” “inclusion” and even “vocations crisis” can mean entirely different things.

“That’s the Church in all its richness,” he said. “It’s always good to get out of your bubble.”

Coffee breaks and other periods in between sessions also provide ample opportunity to meet and get to know other members — from high-ranking cardinals to religious sisters.

De Urquidi’s also talked about the importance of meeting those with very different ideas about what is needed in the Church today. In such encounters, De Urquidi says that he tries to engage to “get a sense of what they have on their minds.”


Synod’s Agenda?

On the question of “an agenda” at the synod, De Urquidi says that it’s “safe to assume” that the different members of the synod each have their own ideas and their own hopes for what they would like to see in the Church. But in terms of some overarching “agenda” or master plan steering the direction of the synod toward predetermined outcomes, “I haven’t experienced an agenda at all on those lines,” said De Urquidi, adding that he has spoken to other participants about “having our eyes and ears open” to detect things that could contradict the Church’s teaching.

Rather, De Urquidi says the only overarching agenda at the synod that he has noticed is to listen to the Holy Spirit and to the members gathered.

As for his own “agenda” at the synod, De Urquidi said he simply feels called “to be Catholic, in what that really means.”

“That’s why I try to engage with everyone in the Church,” he said. “We are meant to be one. We have to be [Christ’s] instruments for this dream and call he has of us as a Church. I take this very seriously and intentionally in my everyday life and ministry.”

He also emphasized that, despite some unhelpful characterizations, this is really what being a “Synodal Church” is all about.

“When people say it’s a new way of being Church — no, it’s not! It’s not about changing doctrine. It’s being open to and listening to each other — that’s it.”