Synodality in a ‘Missionary Key’? Minnesota Archdiocese Provides Compelling Example
ANALYSIS: In contrast to the way synodality has been exploited in places like Germany, the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis synod’s aim hasn’t been to dilute the Gospel, but to enhance Catholics’ ability to live and witness to it.
Pope Francis has often emphasized that synodality, the practice of “walking together” through internal consultation and discernment among the people of God, must be orientated toward the Church’s evangelistic mission. For instance, in his October 2021 address at the opening of the Synod on Synodality, the Holy Father said the process must aim to “forge a style of communion and participation directed to mission.”
But with wariness over the potentially schismatic trajectory of Germany’s Synodal Way, and even concerns that some factions are attempting to use the universal Church’s ongoing synodal process less as a basis for evangelization and more as a pretext for changing fundamental doctrine, many Catholics may be wondering if synodality is more of a hindrance than a help to the Church’s mandate to proclaim the Gospel in our contemporary world — or, at the very least, what synodality “directed to mission” looks like in practice.
If so, they should take note of what’s happening in Minnesota.
On Nov. 26, Archbishop Bernard Hebda of St. Paul and Minneapolis issued a pastoral letter reviewing the priorities discerned over the course of his archdiocese’s recently concluded three-year synod and detailing a plan for their implementation. Entitled “You Will Be My Witnesses: Gathered and Sent From the Upper Room,” the document places the Church’s evangelistic mission at its core, not by diluting the Gospel, but by equipping local Catholics to live and witness to it.
Reiterating that the archdiocesan synod was originally called “to discern and establish clear pastoral priorities in a way that would both promote greater unity and lead us to a more vigorous proclamation of Jesus’ Good News,” the pastoral letter puts forth a game plan for revitalizing the local Church’s evangelistic mission, drawn from the propositions voted on at the archdiocese’s June 2022 Synod Assembly and confirmed by the archbishop.
Upper Room Inspiration
With El Greco’s Pentecost adorning its cover, the document reflects on the “three mysteries of the Upper Room” — the washing of the feet, the Eucharist, and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit — to provide a thematic and scriptural structure to these insights.
For instance, in confronting a finding from the 2005 study Pillars of Faith that found only 3% of Catholic parishes in the U.S. are intentional about evangelization, the archbishop asks whether a practical separation of participation in the Mass from the evangelistic mandate given in confirmation has led to a “holy but non-witnessing Church.”
For instance, in confronting the fact that only 3% of Catholic parishes in the U.S. are intentional about evangelization, the archbishop asks whether a practical separation of participation in the Mass from the evangelistic mandate given in confirmation has led to a “holy but non-witnessing Church.”
“The power to witness to the risen life of Jesus,” Archbishop Hebda writes, “is the true power of the Church. … Have we lost this power today? If so, it may be because we have first lost the fire [of the Holy Spirit].”
“You Will Be My Witnesses” also draws heavily from the Second Vatican Council and post-conciliar papal teaching, such as Pope St. Paul VI’s teaching in his 1975 apostolic exhortation Evangelii Nuntiandi: “Evangelizing is in fact the grace and vocation proper to the Church, her deepest identity. She exists in order to evangelize.”
Citing Pope Francis’ teaching in his 2013 apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium (The Joy of the Gospel) that all the baptized are called to be missionary disciples and “agents of evangelization,” the document calls for each parish to establish a “Synod Evangelization Team,” made up of lay members “chosen for their capacity to draw others to Christ,” who will receive formation to serve as co-workers with pastors “in building a parish that is in the service of evangelization.” Archbishop Hebda compares these evangelization teams to a parish finance council, in terms of their ability to assist pastors in keeping a critical issue at the forefront of parish life.
“With this vision,” Archbishop Hebda wrote, “our priests will experience synodality where it matters most: the proclamation of the Gospel of Jesus Christ!”
The synodal-implementation plan also calls for an Office of Synod Evangelization, recently established to provide formation to parish evangelization teams, and the appointment of “vicars of evangelization,” priests tasked with encouraging pastors in their implementation of the synod priorities in the archdiocese’s various deaneries.
Issued the day after the German bishops’ contentious meeting with Pope Francis’ Curial heads over the wayward Synodal Way, the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis’ post-synodal priorities couldn’t be more different, despite both processes purportedly arising out of a need to foster trust and unity in the wake of sex-abuse crises in the respective local Churches.
Whereas the German Synodal Way calls for ordaining women, changing Church teaching on same-sex sexual relations, and establishing lay governance of the Church, the Minnesota archdiocese’s post-synodal implementation over the next three years will focus on fostering small groups for missionary discipleship, renewing the understanding and celebration of the Mass, and equipping parents to be the primary teachers of the faith to their children.
“You Will Be My Witnesses” was published the week after the U.S. papal nuncio, Archbishop Christophe Pierre, communicated Pope Francis’ vision of synodality in an address to the U.S. bishops, emphasizing that the universal Church’s ongoing synodal process must be understood in a “missionary key.” He asked the U.S. episcopacy to examine “how well our local Churches embody the characteristic of an evangelizing community,” as described by the Pope in Evangelii Gaudium.
If the Minnesota synod document seems to have already anticipated this message, it shouldn’t come as a surprise. Although the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis’ synod didn’t launch until 2019, Archbishop Hebda said ever since the publication of Evangelii Gaudium, he has been inspired to “look at everything in terms of evangelization and how it is that we’re able to be a credible witness” in spreading the Gospel.
As the apostolic administrator assigned to temporarily oversee the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis in 2015 following the scandal-induced resignation of Archbishop John Nienstedt, Archbishop Hebda held listening sessions to gauge the needs of the archdiocese going forward and recognized “a basic hunger to be more directly involved in the work of evangelization.”
“I heard people really expressing a desire to be able to reenergize their own faith and to be able to spread that to others,” Archbishop Hebda told the Register.
Synodal Lessons Learned
He advised whoever assumed the see to hold an archdiocesan synod as a way of restoring trust and fostering a unified mission going forward. When, in 2016, he was surprisingly appointed to stay in the Twin Cities as the archdiocese’s next ordinary, he knew he wanted to hold a synod geared toward missionary discipleship, and he relied upon a prayer team to help him discern the opportune time.
Auxiliary Bishop Joseph Williams, who, since his ordination to the episcopate in January 2022, has played an important role in the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis’ synod, isn’t a stranger to missionary discipleship. Before becoming a bishop, he was best known in the archdiocese as a pastor who had led the transformation of St. Stephen’s, a dying parish in urban Minneapolis, into a vibrant epicenter of Latino Catholicism and lay evangelization.
But Bishop Williams also acknowledges that synodality wasn’t necessarily a big part of his “missionary style.” His involvement in the archdiocesan synod has helped him see the importance of listening and wide consultation, by underscoring the relationship between the unity of the Church with its ability to boldly proclaim the Gospel.
“Those two goals aren’t mutually exclusive,” he told the Register. In fact, he said that Archbishop Hebda saw “getting more people at the table” through synodality “precisely as a way to increase the Church’s evangelistic reach.” He also pointed to Evangelii Gaudium, 31, where Pope Francis writes that the principal aim of “participatory processes” in a diocese “should not be ecclesiastical organization but rather the missionary aspiration of reaching everyone.”
Archbishop Hebda emphasized that the synodal act of inviting others into conversation and discernment has helped people discover their gifts and “recognize that they have a responsibility for the Church.” In inviting Catholics, including those estranged from the Church, to share their experiences, the archbishop made clear that “it’s not like we’re asking everybody to be theologians or to be the magisterium.” Rather, hearing about people’s concrete experiences can allow the Church to accompany them better.
Thus, though the synod’s listening sessions were prefaced by communicating the need for fidelity to the Church’s teachings, Archbishop Hebda said that even instances in which people called for changes to the Church’s doctrine helped reveal areas in which “we have to be pastorally sensitive,” enabling the Church to “walk with people, always with the hope of offering them that experience of Christ and his Church that helps them to recognize what a gift we have in the 2,000-year teaching of the Church.”
“I think that there are signs that the process itself, that invitation to listen carefully to what our sisters and brothers are saying, is a way in which we’re able to strengthen the fabric of our Church without changing what the Church teaches,” explained the archbishop. “So it is delicate, it is challenging, but I also think it’s fruitful.”
Bishop Williams described the synodal process as “a movement from below” meeting “a movement from above,” illustrating how the desires and insights of the faithful are taken up and discerned by the archbishop, who has been entrusted by God with apostolic authority.
“Let the Holy Spirit work through the sisters and the brothers; through the capillaries, let it rise up, if you will, to the shepherd that God has given this local Church,” he said. “But then there comes a moment when you need the prophetic word ‘from above’ to give light and interpretation, to focus the data ‘from below,’” in a way that neither passively receives the data nor “tramples” it.
With synodality such a significant and somewhat controversial topic in the life of the Church right now, it’s likely that the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis’ experience of synodality at the service of evangelization has lessons for Catholics in other parts of the world — both as they participate in the ongoing Synod on Synodality or in synodal bodies in their local Church.
Archbishop Hebda didn’t speak on the topic during the public sessions of the recent assembly of the U.S. bishops, but he told the Register he has been sharing his experience of synodality with his brother bishops. His key takeaway? “We can’t be afraid to listen,” he said, noting that people can grow apprehensive at the prospect of synodality.
“There has to be some trust that the Holy Spirit is in charge and is working, that indeed the Holy Spirit is going to be guiding the lay faithful as well as the priests and the bishops. It’s the same Holy Spirit.”
When asked why the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis’ synod has produced such different fruits than Germany’s Synodal Way, Archbishop Hebda declined to make a judgment about what’s taking place in Germany. But he did emphasize that, for anyone contemplating engaging in synodality, prayer must be at its foundation.
That was the experience in the Twin Cities, where the archbishop was supported by a dedicated prayer team, Masses and Eucharistic adoration were offered with the explicit intention of spiritually supporting the synod, and synodal listening events incorporated significant times of prayer. Archbishop Hebda characterized the prioritization of prayer throughout the synod as a recurring need to be dependent upon the Holy Spirit.
“I think that might be a little bit of the secret to the fruitfulness of our experience.”
Bishop Williams added one of the most significant reasons he’s confident about the missionary power of a synodal Church, in which all the baptized are reminded of their responsibility to contribute to the Church’s evangelizing mission and equipped to carry it out, is because the archdiocese has just experienced a taste of it in the synod.
“We anticipate some of the fears our brothers and sisters might have, but we want to enter those with them and realize we can do this. And having lived what we just lived, we feel more empowered and capable of that than ever.”
- archdiocese of st. paul and minneapolis
- jonathan liedl
- missionary outreach
- witness to the Gospel
- new evangelization