Pope Francis wants Catholic leadership to hear from faithful around the world
By Jim Wogan
The Diocese of Knoxville received a Vatican directive on Sept. 7 that set into motion a process that may be unmatched in recent Church history and will culminate in the XVI Ordinary General Assembly of Bishops led by Pope Francis in Rome in 2023.
The preparatory document on For A Synodal Church: Communion / Participation / Mission outlines a course of action that the Vatican calls both “a gift and a task” for dioceses and “invites the entire Church to reflect on a theme that is decisive for its life and mission.”
The Vatican’s choice of words is intentional, and the reference to “the entire Church” isn’t figurative. Pope Francis’ desire is for Catholic leadership to hear and understand the words and thoughts of the faithful from around the globe.
In effect, Pope Francis and the Vatican want to know what you think.
“It is precisely this path of synodality which God expects of the Church of the third millennium,” Pope Francis said in a communication received last month by Bishop Richard F. Stika.
Cataloguing the thoughts of more than 70,000 Catholics in the Diocese of Knoxville and nearly 1.3 billion Catholics worldwide into a concise report for the pope to potentially act upon won’t be easy, but the process starts this month and has been defined in a series of instructions and guiding principles that will assist those charged with implementing them.
“This process touches everyone in the Church, so if you are a parishioner or a member of the Catholic faith in the Diocese of Knoxville and have a thought, you are going to have an opportunity to share it,” said diocesan chancellor Deacon Sean Smith.
The process, which will take more than a year to complete, begins in Rome on the weekend of Oct. 9-10, and officially starts in the Diocese of Knoxville and all dioceses around the world on Oct. 17.
Deacon Smith and Catholic Charities of East Tennessee executive director Lisa Healy have been appointed by Bishop Stika to lead the diocesan effort.
But help is needed.
“My No. 1 goal is to keep it simple. I want to get into the trenches with parishes, schools, and our other Catholic groups in the diocese and give them simple instructions to carry out this mission, which has been given to all leaders of the Church,” Deacon Smith said.
Beginning this month, dioceses will have six months in which to gather input from the faithful and compose a report that will be sent to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in April 2022. The USCCB will then forward a report on behalf of U.S. dioceses for further discernment at the continental level.
The Vatican will use those reports to draft a final working document (instrumentum laboris) for the bishops’ general assembly in 2023.
“I think the key themes for this synod are listening and discernment,” Deacon Smith said. “If you are the Holy Father, and the magisterium of the Church, and the Vatican, and you do something like this, what is critical is that you listen to all the faithful, not just in North America, South America, or Africa, but the whole Church. In this fashion you can get down to where the faithful are and listen to their thoughts after they discern them. You can’t address the faithful unless you go to the faithful.”
To reach the faithful, Deacon Smith said he is seeking members to form a diocesan synodal team, a “small advisory group” that will help recruit and train group leaders at each parish, school, mission, ministry, and religious community in the diocese.
“It’s important that this core team represents the diocese as a whole and includes each region,” he said.
The second step is to find group leaders who can implement the actual feedback process with the faithful at their parish, school, ministry, or religious community.
“What I envision, let’s say you are a coordinator for a parish, and you are going to gather feedback, you can decide how that works. It might be an online survey; it could be a parish townhall meeting; it’s really up to you and your pastor or organization leader.
“Once your parish or community has an opportunity to offer input, the coordinator is required to send the diocese a one-page report or synthesis that can be in the form of bullet points, a list in numerical order, or verbiage in text form. It can be that simple. We will then take the input from all our parishes, schools, and any other ministry or community that participates, and craft a 10-page report from the Diocese of Knoxville that will be forwarded to the USCCB,” Deacon Smith said. “The critical thing is, we only have a limited amount of time to get this done. We need to get clicking right now.”
Anyone interested in becoming a member of the diocesan synodal team or a group coordinator can visit dioknox.org/synod-2023 for additional information and a sign-up link.
Deacon Smith said group coordinators will be trained before any type of input gatherings is scheduled and the Vatican has provided detailed guidance outlining suggested topics or questions. The input process is meant to be spiritually driven and open to discernment.
“It is not a mechanical data-gathering exercise or a series of meetings and debates,” the Vatican stated in its official “Handbook for Listening and Discernment in Local Churches.”
Bishop conferences, like the one coming up in 2023, also known as synods, aren’t unusual, but their impact can be profound. In each of his three previous ordinary synods,
Pope Francis has issued an apostolic exhortation, a document written by the Holy Father that brings clarity, insight, and guidance to the faithful on the chosen topic.
The 2023 gathering will be the fourth ordinary synod held by Pope Francis in his eight years leading the Catholic Church. The previous synods have focused on evangelization (New Evangelization for the Transmission of the Christian Faith, 2013), family (The Vocation and Mission of the Family in the Church and in the Contemporary World, 2015), and youth (Young People, Faith, and Vocational Discernment, 2018).
After each of his three previous ordinary synods, Pope Francis has issued important papal documents: Evangelii Gaudium (The Joy of the Gospel, 2013), Amoris Laetitia (The Joy of Love, 2016), and Christus Vivit (Christ is Alive, 2018).
“Understandably, I think everyone is wondering where this is going,” Bishop Stika said. “I believe this is a good thing, and Pope Francis recognizes and has stated quite clearly that this is part of a bigger journey. That we are a Catholic community, and that as Christians, we are part of the largest faith group in the world. But we’re not too big to still communicate with each other. The Holy Father has also reminded us that this is a spiritual process that requires discernment. It’s not an exercise in holding meetings and having debates. We need to listen to each other, but mostly listen to what God and the Holy Spirit might be trying to tell each of us.”
In the meantime, Deacon Smith is working to assemble a diocesan synod team and then line up group coordinators for what might be the largest Church undertaking since Vatican II in the 1960s.
“This is happening. It’s a big deal. The whole world is doing it and we must, too,” he said.