Pope Francis wants to know what you think about the Catholic Church — what it’s doing well, how it’s falling down, and where it should go in the future.
By “you,” the pontiff means people in the pews, people not in the pews, Christmas and Easter Catholics, former Catholics, priests, nuns, the laity, younger members, older members, non-Catholics and outside observers.
Starting next week, the Vatican is launching a three-year synod on “communion, participation and mission” — a program of “listening and consultation of the People of God in the particular churches.”
It is an invitation, Francis says, for the whole church to question itself about its life and mission.
Each diocese in the 1.3 billion-member church is being urged to survey its members, asking questions about ministering to the needs of those in their midst, especially those on the faith’s margins.
It is intended to offer a grand as well as specific look at the church from the local level to the universal and from the top to the bottom. It includes a call to deepen Catholicism’s relationship with other Christian communities.
And, in a bold move, it will ask Catholics about how the priest abuse crisis has been experienced in every region.
The church “must face the lack of faith and the corruption even within herself,” the Vatican document says about the synod’s purpose. It quotes the pope as acknowledging the suffering experienced by minors and vulnerable people “due to sexual abuse, the abuse of power and the abuse of conscience perpetrated by a significant number of clerics and consecrated persons.”
Everyone has “something to learn,” Francis says. “The faithful people, the college of bishops, the Bishop of Rome [or pope]: all listening to each other, and all listening to the Holy Spirit.”
Such in-depth self-scrutiny is quite “revolutionary,” says the Rev. John Evans, the pastor at St. Thomas More Catholic Church in Cottonwood Heights, “especially when other leaders [before him] have not tried it.”
Evans will serve as the point man for the survey in the Catholic Diocese of Salt Lake City, under the direction of Bishop Oscar Solis. It will take a year to gather all the responses from Utah’s 300,000-plus Catholics and then compile them into a coherent report. The effort will culminate in 2023.
“The pope wants to hear from minorities in every sense of the word,” Evans says. “Listening to the voices of those who are often missing or covered over.”
The role of women
Where do they see God leading the church? The world? What are the challenges of these times?
The first issue that comes to mind is “the role of women — or the lack thereof,” says Rosemary Baron, who works in the Salt Lake City area as a hospital chaplain. “Looking at the sea of men who are supposed to represent all members of the church, it is obvious that women are not present among them. The sad reality is that women are delegated to the perfunctory tasks within the church but never to the leadership roles.”
There are plenty of “highly educated, articulate, profoundly devout women leaders who continue to stand in the shadows of a patriarchal leadership,” Baron says. “Yet these women bring a perception to life that only comes from women. Both men and women are necessary.”
What would Jesus do?
“He would be the wondrous, inclusive person,” she says, “that we see him as being in the New Testament.”
Baron was pleased to see the pope ask about how Catholics can “journey” with other faiths.
“Some of the richest relationships of my life have been in relationships with people of other faiths,” she says. “Though privileged to travel and live in other countries and live [with] the cultural and religious array of faiths, people of other faiths in our own community are often what sustains me.”
Baron meets regularly with friends from five faiths — “Mormon, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu and Buddhist” — and, though they “do not solve problems, we lift our voices on many concerns and always leave our group with expanded minds.”
A ‘true shepherd’
Patrick Lambert, the principal at Judge Memorial Catholic High School in east Salt Lake City, says the church of the future needs to be “driven by inclusion.”
“If we make decisions based on including everyone,” Lambert says, “we can make a whole lot of progress.”
That is working in this diocese, the principal says, under the direction of the Filipino bishop.
“Bishop Solis models Pope Francis in the way he leads,” Lambert says. “He listens first, then understands, then influences — the sign of a true shepherd.”
Young Catholics are idealistic, not judgmental, and want to serve, he says. “The church needs to give them direction, while supporting those who are suffering.”
There has been a “breach of trust” due to the abuse crisis, Lambert says, and “fallout among people who were dedicated to the Catholic Church.”
He wonders whether the church is creating a safe environment for kids.
“It’s going to take time to heal and a genuine acceptance of the fact that real mistakes were made,” he says. “Instead of giving up on the Catholic Church, we are going to do everything we can to provide a caring, loving pattern of service, giving back to our local and global communities.”
Utah is a “mission diocese,” Lambert says. “We are not in the business of throwing away people.”
Indeed, during the Black Lives Matter protests of 2020, Solis issued a bishop’s letter to the diocese, proclaiming, “We must learn to listen to the voices of our discriminated brothers and sisters and raise the voices God has given each of us to challenge the culture of death evidenced in violence, inequality, and injustice not only against innocent lives of the unborn, the sick and the elderly, but also of our Black brothers and sisters and other people of race, faith affiliation, sexual orientation and economic status.”
For his part, Brother Basil Franciose, a former Utahn who is working to become a Benedictine monk in New Hampshire, believes the core of Catholicism rests in the family, the local parish and religious education.
Those three areas have “taken a hit” in recent times, Franciose says. “How do you buoy up and strengthen those three? How do you rejuvenate them?
For the monk-in-waiting, the key is education.
“The church is a fount of wisdom on all things,” Franciose says. “It is crucial to teach the faithful the beauty of her teachings beyond ‘Jesus loves you.’ There is so much depth in its doctrine, dogma and history.”
The great strength of this synod, he says, is that the “Holy Father seems to be applying the notion from Catholic social teaching that some issues can and should be handled at the most local level first. The interest of the church is not just with the bishops, lay leaders, or those who work in the diocesan office — but with all the people.”
So how, Franciose asks, “can we bring the wholeness of the faith to them?”
The weakness of such a grassroots effort — especially in the U.S. and Europe — is that it can turn into a democratic expression, he says. “What is the popular opinion of the faithful? Should it be taken up as what we put forward?”
But the Catholic Church is “not a democracy,” Franciose says, and the synod recommendations are not “a popular vote.”
To move forward, he says, the church has “to be guided by church teaching — and by the [Holy] Spirit.”