Will the Synod on Synodality Move the Needle on Evangelization or the Vocations Crisis?

ANALYSIS: Hot-button doctrinal matters draw the headlines, but local Catholic leaders in the U.S. are waiting to see how the synod will impact bread-and-butter issues that need fresh energy.

A statue of Christ is seen during the weekly general audience on Sept. 27 in St. Peter’s Square at the Vatican.
A statue of Christ is seen during the weekly general audience on Sept. 27 in St. Peter’s Square at the Vatican. (photo: Daniel Ibáñez / EWTN)

MENLO PARK, Calif. — The 16th Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops on Synodality begins in Rome on Oct. 4, and the lion’s share of media attention has centered on possible changes to Church doctrine and the “ideological rifts” this has provoked among high-ranking prelates.

Indeed, the synod’s 366 voting members are expected to tackle contentious issues like lay governance and priestly celibacy. But the assembly will also address less controversial, bread-and-butter matters, like evangelization and seminary formation, and local Catholic leaders in U.S. dioceses and parishes are waiting to see how the deliberations could assist — or complicate — their work back home.

“The synod’s focus on evangelization, missionary outreach and conversion is important because we need to recapture the apostolic spirit of the early Church,” said Deacon Dominick Peloso, a parish leader at the Church of the Nativity in Menlo Park, California, where he administers the sacraments, teaches and preaches and handles pre-Cana and pre-baptism faith formation. 

Yet despite his busy schedule, Deacon Peloso is always looking for new opportunities to grow the faith, so he’s trying to keep abreast of Pope Francis’ two-part Synod on Synodality, which is designed to strengthen “communion, participation and mission.”

“These days, many Catholics view our religion as no better than any other,” the deacon told the Register. “But the early Church was intent on bringing the good news of the Gospel to the world, and we can’t back off from our work on missionary engagement.”

He acknowledged, however, that he was still trying to understand the full meaning of synodality and what it would mean for the Church. 


Meaning of ‘Synodality’

Deacon Peloso is not alone. Most of the lay leaders contacted by the Register said they were too busy to follow the synod closely and still had not carefully studied the instrumentum laboris (working document) that will guide the discussions.

As a result, they offered mostly tentative responses to questions about the synod’s priorities or suggested simpler ways of framing Pope Francis’ approach that could help ordinary Catholics follow the proceedings and filter media coverage. 

“What I’ve told people is that synodality already exists in every part of the Church that is thriving and growing, even if nobody thinks to call it that,” Stephen White, executive director of The Catholic Project at The Catholic University of America, told the Register. 

As White sees it, “synodality as an idea has been done a disservice by being oversold as a kind of revolution.

“But if Pope Francis understands synodality to mean a living out of the ecclesiology articulated by the Second Vatican Council’s dogmatic constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium — that all the baptized share responsibly for the mission of the Church and that the laity take seriously their missionary vocation” to engage the world, he said, then the goal is lay collaboration with clergy, not competition “over certain offices and authority.” 

Last year, The Catholic Project released a high-profile survey that registered serious levels of mistrust between priests and their bishops. With this context in mind, a synodal focus on open dialogue and sharing of experiences could foster healing in the body of Christ.

“Where the distrust and disagreement exists, I don’t see any other way forward apart from this kind of discussion,” he said.


Prayerful Discernment

Isaac Cuevas, the director of immigration and public affairs for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, agreed on the need for more opportunities for dialogue and prayerful discernment within the Church. 

It is no secret that lay Catholics and their shepherds often take opposing positions on U.S. immigration policy. And Cuevas believes that when it comes to the migrant crisis, laypeople allow political priorities to supersede core moral values. 

“Our focus needs to be on the true formation of individuals and helping people understand the struggles of every human being,” he told the Register.

A robust culture of life protects “the unborn, the destitute, the migrant, the elderly and the disabled,” Cuevas said. Indeed, the synod’s working document reflects a broader effort by Pope Francis to identify solutions to stubborn problems such as declining Mass attendance and priestly vocations in the West, while also encouraging the accompaniment of Catholics on the margins of parish life.

One section of the document asks delegates to consider how to “create spaces where those who feel hurt by the Church and unwelcomed by the community feel recognized, received, free to ask questions and not judged.” This point refers to the sidelining of migrants, the elderly and the disabled, but, according to the document, also the “remarried divorcees, people in polygamous marriages, LGBTQ+ people.”

Delegates will consider how Church structures and a culture of clericalism may impede lay participation and other needed changes. And synod participants will be weighing the suggested benefits of a more synodal, less hierarchical Church that encourages bishops, priests and lay Catholics to share their gifts and decision-making powers.

The synod’s “working document” includes an explanatory text as well as worksheets that will guide small-group discussions. 

It places three priority issues at the center of the synod’s work: “growing in communion by welcoming everyone, excluding no one; recognizing and valuing the contribution of every baptized person in view of mission; and identifying governance structures and dynamics through which to articulate participation and authority over time in a missionary synodal Church.”


Early Church’s Experience

Tory Baucum, director of the Center for Family Life at Benedictine College in Atchison, Kansas, told the Register that he had not completed a review of the 60-page working document and still needed to assess the synod’s orientation. But he suggested that the assembly’s work on evangelization and conversion would benefit from an examination of the early Church’s experience with similar challenges. 

To prove his point, Baucum pointed to the Holy See’s 2022 document, “Catechumenal Pathways for Married Life,” which offers guidelines for reorienting the Church’s approach to marriage preparation.

“That is a radical document, because Pope Francis takes something that is normally understood to be under the domain of pastoral care and puts it under the domain of evangelization,” said Baucum.

The Pope is making the point that “just as the ancient Church once developed the catechumenate to prepare pagans for baptism — because catechesis alone wasn’t enough — today we have to detox and socialize” young couples who have adopted a pagan lifestyle and its accompanying view of marriage, he explained. 

Baucum held up the Pope’s rich approach to pre-Cana faith formation as a valuable resource for the synod delegates. 

“Bishop Robert Barron has said that evangelization is the heart of what the synod is all about,” he noted, referring to the popular Catholic media figure and leader of the Diocese of Winona-Rochester, Minnesota.

“It really isn’t supposed to be focused on [changing] doctrine, but on how to help the Church recover its full redemptive potential when it comes to evangelization in the modern era.” 

“If the synod sticks to that,” he added, “I am all in.”


‘Conversation in the Spirit’

Synod delegates will also consider how the Church can adopt and advance a more synodal culture across all parts of Catholic life and practice, from seminary formation to the liturgy and Church governance.

“Conversation in the Spirit,” described in the instrumentum laboris as a process of personal and group discernment and prayer that involves listening and making space for others and the Holy Spirit, has been put forward as a new way of being Church that should be adopted by bishops as well as seminarians and lay Catholics.

Among other suggested changes, the working document calls for the renewal of seminary curricula to include a greater focus on “a synodal style and mentality.” 

Asked what this would mean in practice, Father Carter Griffin, rector of St. John Paul II Seminary in Washington, D.C., was cautious about identifying potential changes to priestly formation that could arise from the synod. 

Instead, he expressed his hope that synod delegates would reaffirm Pope St. John Paul II’s groundbreaking 1992 apostolic exhortation Pastores Dabo Vobis, which provided a blueprint for forming “holy, generous and faithful priests,” and fueled “the renewal of seminaries throughout the world.”

Likewise, Father Griffin urged the delegates to avoid “shortcuts” as they tackled the vocations crisis in the West. 

Vocations flourish through the example of holy priests and the painstaking work of “choosing new candidates very carefully and forming them in healthy seminaries,” the rector told the Register.

He added, “Anything the synod can do to promote a true culture of vocations that takes this ‘long view,’ without any shortcuts, will be the most beneficial to the Church as a whole.”

Dan Cellucci, CEO of the Catholic Leadership Institute, an apostolate that provides training and consulting to 120 U.S. dioceses, has witnessed firsthand the hopes and anxieties provoked by the synod. 

The Catholic Leadership Institute helped conduct surveys and listening sessions for a number of dioceses during the initial phase of the synodal process, and as Cellucci reviewed the submissions, he was moved by a common theme: Catholics wanted to go deeper into their faith. 

“The syntheses and summaries from all the different dioceses and countries and continents all speak to a need for personal conversion and for encounter,” Cellucci told the Register.

“The syntheses and summaries from all the different dioceses and countries and continents all speak to a need for personal conversion and for encounter,” Cellucci told the Register. 

And yet, “many Catholics on all sides of the debate over the meaning and goals of synodality may be missing a more fundamental question: Is the world illuminating our faith or is our faith illuminating the world?” he asked.

Widespread confusion on the nature of Christian discipleship, he said, speaks to the need for all Catholics to develop a closer relationship with the Lord.

Thus the synodal process may already have produced spiritual fruit by exposing major gaps in faith formation that need attention. 

And Cellucci, for his part, will be praying that “the real intention of the synod is to invite everyone into a deep and serene listening to the Holy Spirit.” The focus, he concluded, “should not be on how we should change the Church, but on how the Church should change us and our discipleship in the Lord.”