By Jim Wogan
If your parish seems especially chatty this month, the voices you hear might be coming from special listening sessions or town hall meetings organized to gather opinions on the Church and its mission.
The 2023 Synod of Bishops, commissioned by Pope Francis, is calling on every diocese in the world to offer feedback to the Vatican on issues they consider important— anything relating to the Church and the Catholic faith.
When the call went out in early September, it sounded impossible. How does the Church reach nearly 1.3 billion people and compile feedback and data for the bishops and the Holy Father to review and maybe even act on in just over a year from now?
“It seemed like an impractical thing to do, but we have come a long way in just a short period of time,” Bishop Richard F. Stika said. “The participation of our parish leaders, and leaders of other Catholic organizations in the diocese, has helped keep this process on track. It’s been a very good effort.”
Parishes and Catholic organizations in the diocese were offered information and training in December and were also provided with a link to an online survey that allowed Catholics and non-Catholics to answer 46 questions covering a host of issues. There also was room for essay-style answers that required more detailed responses.
The online survey closed on Jan. 31 with 4,816 responses of which 4,581 identified as Catholic, 229 as non-Catholic, and 25 people responded as homeless.
“During the survey period, we asked our group leaders to make sure they reached everyone possible, including those living in crisis situations,” Deacon Sean Smith said. Deacon Smith was assigned by Bishop Stika to help lead the diocesan Synod effort along with Catholic Charities of East Tennessee executive director Lisa Healy.
“Catholic Charities of East Tennessee and a few other groups connected with people that they serve—the homeless, those living in our shelters, and asked how they felt. This fulfilled two purposes. First, it gave these people a voice and a genuine sense that they matter in society. It also gave us some perspective on how those living on the fringes feel, or don’t feel, about certain issues,” Deacon Smith added.
With the online, anonymous survey now completed, parishes and Catholic groups in the diocese have had the option of holding in-person meetings or listening sessions.
All Saints Parish in Knoxville started that process a few weeks ago. The parish plans a total of four listening sessions, including an online version using Zoom.
“We have held one listening session so far. That session had a small attendance, but it was a great opportunity for the team to learn from the process and for parishioners to hear from one another what a great opportunity the listening session can be,” said Carrie Manabat, Synod group coordinator at All Saints.
“Parishioners who attended were excited to share their thoughts, open to hearing from one another, and able to disagree respectfully,” she said.
Humberto Collazo is a Synod group coordinator at St. Dominic Parish in Kingsport, where plans also call for multiple meetings.
“Meetings were set up to give opportunities to different groups, and therefore (they will be held at) different times of the day,” Mr. Collazo said. “We expect some small ones, with one major meeting. The meetings will be led by our parish team with help of our parish council and our pastor,” Mr. Collazo added.
Listening sessions aren’t required, but several parishes in the diocese have elected to conduct them.
The Synod is meant to serve the universal Church, but Mr. Collazo acknowledges that parishes will also benefit. The feedback “may impact future programs and direction of resources,” he said.
Parishes and other Catholic groups participating in the Synod are required to have their one-page report submitted to Deacon Smith, who serves as the Diocese of Knoxville’s chancellor and chief operating officer, by March 1.
The diocese will submit a report to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops by April 1.