Listen up: parish listening sessions for Synod 2023 direct our hearts and minds back to God
Devastating. That’s how Marla Trevino described the impact a two-year pandemic had on her parish in Mineral Wells.
“Few people came to Mass,” remembered the longtime member of Our Lady of Lourdes. “A lot of people got sick, and we lost many of our elderly.”
Isolation, caused by the health crisis, seemed to amplify the separation between the Anglo and Spanish speaking communities in the rural parish. The different groups came together for fundraisers but little else, observed the parish’s bookkeeper.
Two listening sessions, part of a global consultative process prior to the 2023 assembly of bishops in Rome, the Synod on Synodality, helped parishioners reconnect and discover common ground.
“Everything that was said in the English session was echoed in the Spanish session,” said Trevino, who facilitated each discussion with a series of questions provided by the diocese. “By listening to each other, parishioners realized they want to be drawn together — not apart. The sessions were valuable and stressed the importance of really listening to each other.”
Challenged by Pope Francis to focus on the meaning of synodality by “listening to the questions, concerns, and hopes of every church, people, and nation,” the Diocese of Fort Worth encouraged parishioners to reflect and dialogue with each other based on two main questions: How am I personally listening to God to serve His will? How am I listening to my brothers and sisters so I can learn how God is talking to them?
More than 90 listening sessions hosted by parishes and faith communities allowed participants to share their experiences of worship, discipleship, and evangelization. Guided by the Holy Spirit, the conversations were designed to be collaborative, inclusive, and non-confrontational. Notes taken during the sessions were summarized, delivered to the diocese, and further synthesized into a 10-page document for submission to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. The three-year process toward the Synod will continue at the national and North American level before ending with the bishops in Rome in October 2023.
Bringing people together and developing an ability to actively listen to one another is key to the consultative phase of the synod, according to Paola Quintero-Araujo. The director of the St. Junipero Serra Institute is spearheading the diocesan synodal process with Father Jonathan Wallis, vicar general.
“Just having the experience of being back together to learn, listen to God and each other is the result we’re looking for,” she explained. “The call of the synod is not to produce documents. It’s the journey. Being in this journey is already a result that allows us to start changing minds and hearts again.”
Finding our identity in Christ is what is at stake, Quintero-Araujo emphasized, adding, “That’s what has been lost. We see more people finding their identity in political parties, common groups they like, or personal interests.”
The pandemic — on top of other divisive national issues — caused stress and separation.
“So, one of the immediate results is the joy of gathering with each other, learning to listen to each other, and finding our anchor in Christ so we can move forward.”
Asking pastors to oversee the listening sessions gave them the opportunity to interact with parishioners. The catch phrase for the synod is “journey together.”
“We’re all called to participate,” the director explained. “This journey will happen through listening and discernment guided by the Holy Spirit. We’re discerning how God is calling us to work together and walk together.”
Voicing Concerns, Strengths
Father Tim Thompson, pastor at All Saints since December 2021, welcomed the opportunity to host listening sessions in English and Spanish at the historic Northside parish.
“I like the process. I like people coming together to think about their faith and the Church,” he told the North Texas Catholic. “I think it will help the Church not just consider its future but recognize the strengths it has and how it can grow and build from there.”
The pastor sees a passion for the faith in the people he serves.
“That hasn’t died,” he assured. “People have a hopeful and positive feeling for the faith and that will guide and inspire them.”
Keeping young people involved in the Church was a concern voiced by many All Saints participants attending the morning session in English. The listening sessions provided an important forum to discuss “what’s in people’s hearts,” said Deacon Ricardo De Leon.
“We want to bring people back into the Church,” he explained. “We have to get input from parishioners in the pews, so we know why so many are leaving.”
People have a strong desire to be heard and feel a sense of belonging. That’s why strangers sometimes call his parish office hoping just to talk with someone.
“I invite them in,” added the deacon, recalling how one man poured his heart out for two hours. “There’s a lot of people like that out there who want to be heard. Listening to people now will have some effect on the future.”
Communication Builds Community
Before the listening session began at St. Thomas the Apostle, Deacons Mike Handler and Humberto Serrano led participants in a bilingual service that centered on Scripture, prayer, and meditation inside the church’s chapel. During frank and informal roundtable discussions, those present shared their views on how better communication can build a more involved church community.
“All of us are so busy. Until we intentionally take the time to stop, listen, and pray, we’ll continue to do what we’re doing,” said the parish’s Safe Environment coordinator Bruce Mallory. “I think this exercise is an attempt to get us to stop and focus on the Blessed Sacrament and listen to what the Holy Spirit is telling us.”
Many expressed hope that the listening sessions would become a continuing exercise at the parish. More interaction between ministries and people would allow the parish to grow closer together as a community.
“People at our table liked this idea and want to see it happen more often,” commented Ricardo Baez, one of the Spanish-speaking participants. “We talked about the Church being sensitive and willing to pay more attention to people’s needs.”
Listening to Everyone
Hoping to reach as many people as possible, the diocese invited participation from Catholics belonging to small faith communities. Father Ken Robinson attended listening sessions with fellow retirees at St. Francis Village as well as the deaf community — a group he has served for 25 years.
“They each have a different perspective but no radical differences,” observed the priest, who used American Sign Language to celebrate Mass for the group before the April 3 listening session at St. Rita Parish in Fort Worth. How we listen to God and the temptations that prevent us from listening to Him are going to be the same across the board.”
Assisted by the Diocesan Coordinator of Deaf Ministry and interpreter Connie Martin, participants remembered a time when deaf Catholics were content to sit back and watch liturgies from the pew. There was little involvement or awareness of the hearing impaired in the diocese.
In recent years, with more deaf community members serving as altar servers, sacristans, and Eucharistic ministers, that is slowly changing, they agreed. But much more outreach is needed.
“There are more deaf Catholics out there,” David Cassanova pointed out. “We need to find them and invite them [to our Mass] along with our friends and family. Sharing our faith can be difficult but it’s important to do.”