Synthesis report of diocesan listening sessions


The listening sessions called for by the Holy See come in the midst of a movement already occurring in the Diocese of Jefferson City — a movement to a stewardship way of life and ongoing, intentional pastoral planning to encourage the laity and clergy to engage in a co-responsible manner, which will build our parishes’ capacity as centers of charity and sanctuaries of mercy.

This process has allowed the faithful to embrace Pope Francis’ “Evangelii Gaudium,” especially No. 28:

“The parish is not an outdated institution; precisely because it possesses great flexibility, it can assume quite different contours depending on the openness and missionary creativity of the pastor and the community. While certainly not the only institution which evangelizes, if the parish proves capable of self-renewal and constant adaptivity, it continues to be ‘the Church living in the midst of the homes of her sons and daughters.’ This presumes that it really is in contact with the homes and the lives of its people, and does not become a useless structure out of touch with people or a self-absorbed group made up of a chosen few. The parish is the presence of the Church in a given territory, an environment for hearing God’s word, for growth in the Christian life, for dialogue, proclamation, charitable outreach, worship and celebration. In all its activities the parish encourages and trains its members to be evangelizers. It is a community of communities, a sanctuary where the thirsty come to drink in the midst of their journey, and a center of constant missionary outreach. We must admit, though, that the call to review and renew our parishes has not yet sufficed to bring them nearer to people, to make them environments of living communion and participation, and to make them completely mission-oriented.”

In calling for a diocesan pastoral plan, Bishop W. Shawn McKnight noted that the Holy Father’s encyclical echoed what he was hearing from the faithful in the diocese. The pastoral planning process is focused on the mission to “review and renew our parishes … to bring them nearer to people.”

Therefore, when the Synod opened and a call came for dioceses to engage in a synodal process, we believed it to be prudent to compare the objectives and processes of the Synod on synodality with what the people of God were already doing in the Diocese of Jefferson City.

We concluded the local diocesan process is, indeed, synodal and in alignment with the journey being undertaken by the universal Church. Echoes of the main questions for consultation, proposed by the Vademecum, are found in the questions used in local listening sessions prior to the launch of the pastoral planning process, and in the review instruments provided to parishioners to discern how their parish was renewing itself, to be closer to all people.

Therefore, the bishop and his diocesan commission determined to include appropriate discernment from the diocesan pastoral planning in our synodal process. That discernment is included in this synthesis, especially in the conclusion.

In obedience to the instructions from the Holy See, we also provided listening sessions specific to the two main questions proposed by the Synod Office, in English and Spanish, in person, through Zoom and by an online survey tool. The responses to those listening sessions and survey have been compiled and are included in this synthesis.

Spiritual dimension of the journey

Recognizing Catholics in our diocese had already participated, since 2018, in several online surveys, two series of listening sessions, and pastoral planning, we attempted new ways of attracting people to engage in the Synod listening sessions, including banners on roadways, advertising in local print publications and paid “boosts” in social media. Despite these efforts, the responses tended to be the same demographic: disproportionately people over age 59, who self-identified as active in the Catholic faith. This demographic has been more engaged in other aspects of the pastoral planning for the diocese, too.

A consolation experienced was that, when people honored the process developed for the listening session, we were able to hear diverse voices and begin to observe some of the fruits of the Holy Spirit. Listening in a synodal way is a challenge for Americans. It is perhaps ironic that it was easier for the facilitator of online sessions to ensure each person had the opportunity to speak and keep within the limits of three minutes. Technology does not have a reputation for facilitating calm, reflective dialogue, yet we found this exact attribute in our Zoom synodal sessions!

What we heard: responses to the Fundamental Question

Many told of personal experiences of forgiveness or welcoming, as they returned to the Church or experienced a crisis in their own lives. They spoke warmly of how the priest they approached welcomed them, encouraged them to return to the faith community, often through the Sacrament of Reconciliation. Others spoke warmly of the formation they experienced through relationships with religious women.

Conversely, others pointed out the serious responsibility the clergy have in leading the Church forward on a synodal path. Priests’ reluctance to engage in dialogue, listening or considering new means of fostering community are a major stumbling block, in their minds. One participant eloquently described the concern in this way: “Makes me think of a family, when the father bangs on the table and then leaves the room. The mom and the kids are left to figure things out. I just wish they (the Church Fathers) would stick around more to work with us.”

The pain expressed by individuals who see their children and grandchildren disengaging from the Church was palpable. While acknowledging societal influences, they firmly believe the Holy Spirit is calling on the Church to reflect honestly and sincerely on what has happened (or not happened) within the Church for their loved ones to disengage.

Lay women and men offered specific examples of how their concerns for others have been silenced or thwarted by pastors. These examples included children with disabilities needing special assistance in receiving the sacraments; the ability to develop programs and initiatives such as training for youth, catechetical leaders, liturgical musicians; and those who felt ostracized from the parish community because of divorce, gender identity, race, etc.

Several reflected that perhaps the laity have a responsibility in re-engaging younger people, too. One individual stated, “Our job is to show love and care for others, especially younger Catholics, who don’t have the benefit of Catholic education and religious/priests.”

Others spoke of how they were formed in the faith in their childhood and youth. They expressed the desire that our parishes provide a space for children, families and young people to experience the call of the Spirit, especially to serve. “We need to do more than just ask young people to clean up and pick up chairs,” one stated. “They should have a voice in the liturgy and in the life of our Church.”

One of the few parents with school-aged children who attended a listening session spoke of her yearning for more support from the parish in raising her children as Catholic. She was not seeking material support, but noted how she knew she could not provide everything her children needed to grow spiritually. Yet, she struggled with finding ways to invite other parishioners to be part of her children’s spiritual journeys. “We are missing out on helping parents raising their kids,” she said.

A young woman whose parents are recent arrivals to the United States, and do not speak Spanish, spoke powerfully of a desire for all parishioners to celebrate the liturgy together, not in separate Masses for English-speaking and Spanish-speaking. Her intervention suggested a practical response to the great mandate of Christ: “That they may all be one.”

Perhaps one participant’s intervention provides a good summation of these responses: “The Spirit is asking us to take better care of each other and daily listen to God’s word. The Spirit also challenges us to help lead each other to a deeper relationship with God and each other. Personally, I think the Church needs to look at all the rules and pare it down to what is really important.”

Many individuals questioned why some should be denied a place in the community because they were gay or divorced.

Some participants stated clearly they believed the Holy Spirit was calling the Church to engage more in action to reduce harm to the environment, to support pregnant mothers, to address racism and to engage in other societal issues.

Participants in the listening sessions often shared how much they treasured the Eucharist. They find reception of Holy Communion to be of great consolation and a source of strength for them in their spiritual journeys. They often expressed bewilderment as to why other Catholics do not appreciate the supernatural aspects of Holy Communion, and sorrow for them, in that they are missing this joy and sustenance provided from a devotion to the Eucharist.

The Holy See has granted permission for the use of the “Missale Romanum” of 1962 at one church in the diocese. A listening session was held at the parish, scheduled immediately after the Latin Mass. Participants at that listening session expressed appreciation for the Latin Mass and how their spirituality was deepened by participation in that liturgy. The bishop also received eight pieces of correspondence which contained very similar text, expressing support for “the Traditional Latin Mass.”

There were also concerns expressed, both at that listening session and in other sessions and venues, regarding the divisiveness that is sometimes resulting from the use of the “Missale Romanum” of 1962. One online participant wrote, “Also, for the people who embrace the Latin Rite, how can it be taught that the Novus Ordo is also valid and beautiful? And, that it is actually sinful to attack the beautiful Novus Ordo Rite just as it would be a sin to attack the beautiful Tridentine Rite?”

Next steps

This synthesis is being shared with diocesan consultative bodies and being integrated into the ongoing pastoral planning of the diocese. While these “next steps” are not specific tasks or action items, the concerns raised by the faithful deserve further reflection and discernment. Some of these “next steps” could be considered by the Synod of Bishops in 2023. Some of the same, and others, could be considered by our local diocese. May we discern always with the Holy Spirit, seeking the gifts of the Holy Spirit for the salvation of all.

Before considering the concerns raised by the faithful, it is necessary to recognize possible concerns not articulated. The pattern of disengagement by people under age 60 requires serious consideration. While these parents, business and civic leaders, teachers and farmers, health care professionals and other community members may be fully engaged in the faith through small groups, acts of charity, devotion to the Eucharist and other aspects of the faith, the Church is missing their insights and their leadership.

In some parts of our diocese there is an understanding that the culture and majority of residents are Catholic. Yet, the Catholics who are political, civic and community leaders are not serving in leadership positions in their parishes or contributing to planning and synodal movements in their diocese. It appears they have left this work to their elders; or perhaps the elders have insisted on reserving this work to themselves. In addition to considering what groups or individuals are left on the margins because of their societal status of being “outsiders,” we may need to consider how to accompany even those who are in the center of their communities, so that the Church may “walk together” with them.

The generational aspect of this disengagement appears within the larger societal changes happening in the United States. Public opinion polls show a large majority of Catholics do not accept the Church’s teaching on birth control, are accepting of divorce and civil marriage for gays, women taking leadership roles, etc. Younger Catholics tend to be less in alignment with Church teaching on these matters. Could this be one reason why they shy away from engaging in discernment within the Church?

The concern of the laity, and some clergy, in finding means for laity to enter into their proper co-responsibility for the good of the parish and the community is apparent. This concern was expressed in many ways, both in the diocesan pastoral planning process and specifically in the listening sessions. We struggle with providing examples or definitions of co-responsibility and with providing formation for both laity and clergy. The days of laity understanding their functions to be “pay, pray and obey” are gone. Can the universal Church discern a common definition and formation in co-responsibility?

On a local level, the diocese is actively engaged in a formation exercise for parish pastoral, finance, school and stewardship councils. We believe this will be a viable method to engage more parishioners in their responsibility for the parish. Consideration of strengthening this by calling specifically younger parishioners into these councils could be considered.

Also on the diocesan level, in their review of their pastoral plans, many parishes acknowledged more can be done to reinvigorate their roles as centers of charity and sanctuaries of mercy. These methods of outreach have been highlighted in numerous studies, and research indicates this aspect of the Catholic faith is appealing to younger Catholics. Catholic Charities and alliances with non-Catholic agencies serving the marginalized are two immediate avenues for addressing this need.

While not specifically addressed in the 10 questions of the Vademecum, the theme of welcoming was raised at every synodal session. The consistency of this concern and desire suggests that it is a calling of the Holy Spirit. It is also a theme that surfaced in the review of our parishes’ pastoral plans in recent months.

Our parish leadership report satisfaction with how people are received into the Church and how guests are welcomed, although they acknowledge improvements can be made in hospitality, such as reducing physical barriers, providing nursery space and more intentional follow-up after an initial encounter.

Yet, there appears to be a disconnect. At almost every listening session, someone expressed the desolation of being excluded. One retired man spoke of how he was raised Catholic, drifted away from regular participation, then returned to regular Mass attendance. After 11 years of being a “regular” parishioner, he reported he was finally invited to an Advent faith-sharing group. He told this story after a self-identified parish leader spoke of how the parish is welcoming.

One participant expressed it eloquently: “We sing, we pray, we say ‘all are welcome,’ but we don’t ‘do’ all are welcome.” This may be the most significant aspect of the synodal listening process for the Diocese of Jefferson City to discern: How can we become a more welcoming Church?

As we experience increasing polarization and division in our society, the Church should do more to encourage people to develop a “spirituality of synodality.” The power of deep listening and discernment is a gift of the Holy Spirit, given to the Church, and greatly needed by all people today.