Utah Catholics to Pope Francis: We need to be more welcoming, more accepting of LGBTQ members and improve LDS ties

With a global synod underway, they also call for wider roles for women, stronger bonds of fellowship and a firmer foundation of faith.

(Gregorio Borgia | AP) Sitting at the top right, Pope Francis participates in the opening session of the 16th General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops in the Paul VI Hall at The Vatican, Wednesday, Oct. 4, 2023. Pope Francis is convening a global gathering of bishops and laypeople to discuss the future of the Catholic Church. The Diocese of Salt Lake City sent the Vatican its input for the gathering.

Two years ago, Pope Francis launched a momentous campaign to take the pulse of global Catholicism. It was to be an exercise in self-examination whose goals were lofty and potentially life — or church — changing.

And this week, bishops are gathered at the Vatican to discuss the findings, including wide-ranging thoughts about the church’s stances on LGBTQ members, the role of women, and the value of the laity, among other issues.

“What is historic about this synod is that the pope opened up the process beyond bishops,” says the Rev. John Evans, who acted as Utah’s point person on the effort. “The world-level delegates to a synod have always been bishops and cardinals, but now we have nonbishop delegates, including priests and deacons, laymen and women, religious sisters and men and non-Catholics participating.”

Indeed, that diversity and openness were reflected from the beginning.

“It is,” says Evans of St. Thomas More Catholic Church in Cottonwood Heights, “very different from the past.”

In 2021, the charismatic Argentine pope directed every diocese across the world to ask everyone — people in 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 — to offer their perspective on what the church was doing well, what it needed to improve, and where it should go in the future.

(Gregorio Borgia | AP) From left clockwise, Synod of Bishops' Rapporteur Cardinal Jean-Claude Hollerich, Synod of Bishops' Secretary General Cardinal Mario Grech, Pope Francis, and Coptic Catholic Patriarch of Alexandria Ibrahim Isaac Sidrak, attend the opening session of the 16th General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops in the Paul VI Hall at the Vatican, Wednesday, Oct. 4, 2023. Utah Catholics sent their report for the synod as well.

It was called a “synod on synodality,” a synod on “communion, participation and mission” — a program of “listening and consultation of the people of God in the particular churches.”

Millions responded. Answers were compiled from every region, every continent, and then forwarded to the Vatican.

Responses from the Catholic Diocese of Salt Lake City, representing all of Utah, were among them.

Though all parishes throughout the state were asked to host “listening sessions” with their members, the diocese reported in its summary, “only 60.4% held their listening sessions and submitted their results.”

Of the 300,000 Catholics in the diocese, 4,993 (1.7%) people participated in 248 listening sessions, it said. “However, if we consider that about 20,000 Utah Catholics go to Mass on any given weekend, then our participation rate in the listening sessions is 25%,” which the report said “is quite spectacular.”

Some parishioners were hesitant to join the conversation for fear of how their answers might be used, but once they felt comfortable, many spoke candidly.

At St. Anthony of Padua Parish in Helper, for example, some participants said, “Oh I don’t want to say anything because I’m afraid,” note taker Lenora Callor explained. “Once they opened up and realized we weren’t there to judge them, we were there to listen to them, and we weren’t going to stop them in the middle of a sentence, they were very open.”

What Utahns want

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Salt Lake City's Cathedral of Madeleine, shown in 2021, is the mother church for Utah Catholics.

Here are some observations from the Utah diocese about what members experience and how the church could do better:

• Be more welcoming.

“Those already within the Catholic community, but also those by association or interest, sometimes feel unwelcomed,” the summary said. “Although not universal, the experience of being marginalized (differences in culture, generations, ecclesiology, ideology, language, LGBTQ+, women, youth, etc.) is still a very significant reality for many people.”

Catholics in the Beehive State, it said, “need a generosity of spirit in how we view one another.”

• Build a foundation of fellowship through social interaction and activities.

“A culture of fellowship will have everyone knowing each other by name, not just the ministry leaders,” the report said. “A strong sense of fellowship leads to more participation in ministries, leadership, formation and deepened friendships.”

• Address the needs of the thousands of non-English speakers.

Language and cultural barriers, according to the report, remain “a very real challenge.”

• Make faith “formation” a higher priority, including among adults.

“There is a great appreciation for the Catholic schools and religious education in the parishes, but it leaves one wondering if the sense of responsibility of the parents is being lost.”

• Expand women’s roles, even short of ordination.

There was a tangible feeling that “women are treated as second class” in the church and that, according to some participants, they “might be heard, but not listened to.”

Many did mention that “women need a more prominent and respected role in the “church,” the summary noted. “Some view the church as a ‘male-dominated church’ that is reluctant to change, with a remedy being that women should be admitted to ordination to the diaconate and priesthood.”

One participant, though, described complementary rather than the same roles for women and men in the church, saying, “I am speaking as a highly educated woman who had a successful career. I do not think Jesus wanted women to be ordained as priests, otherwise he would have named his mother or other faithful women disciples as apostles.”

• Help LGBTQ Catholics feel they belong.

“We need to do a better job of welcoming the LBGTQ+ community, recognizing they are made in the image and likeness of God,” the diocese found. Respondents did not agree on what acceptance entailed.

“One may view it as based on the dignity of the person, or another may view it as accepting a lifestyle or different morality,” it said. “When there is uncertainty, there can be more apprehension in feeling accepted and even coming out publicly as gay.”

• Improve relationships with those in The Church of Jesus of Latter-day Saints.

Some noted those ties with Utah’s predominant faith vary “greatly.”

“In the best of relations, it is familiar, warm and loving. In the middle, it is tepid and at times indifferent. In the worst, it is skeptical, suspect and sadly hateful,” the report said. “These realities are shared equally from both religions. Fortunately, positiveness is predominant and encouraged by both churches. The negative speaks to a fearfulness and small-mindedness, and we need to be on guard so that we may charitably advance the good.”

The pope’s goal

The purpose of the synod was “not to produce documents, but to plant dreams, draw forth prophecies and visions, allow hope to flourish, inspire trust, bind up wounds, weave together relationships, awaken a dawn of hope, learn from one another, and create a bright resourcefulness,” Francis said in his instructions to the worldwide faith, “that will enlighten minds, warm hearts (and) give strength to our hands.”

For Evans, the key question was: “How do we listen thoughtfully and faithfully to help build up the body of Christ — whether Catholic or not — to journey to God?”

For its part, Utah’s diocese is already implementing some of the proposals.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) The Rev. Martin Diaz, shown at the Cathedral of the Madeleine in Salt Lake City in August, says Utah Catholics are already working on ways to improve the church here.

“One of the values is that we got to talk to each other, using the proposed questions,” said the Rev. Martin Diaz, who ministers at the Cathedral of the Madeleine in Salt Lake City. “We’ve set our goals for the next couple of years.”

Utah Catholics are working on being more welcoming and engaging young people, especially single adults.

These are the same issues, Diaz said, being addressed right now in Rome.

“In this beautiful ‘journey in the Holy Spirit’ that we are making together as the people of God,” the pope told the assembled bishops in the opening of the summit, “we can grow in unity and friendship with the Lord in order to look at today’s challenges with his gaze.”

Catholics here, Diaz said, are following that ‘“gaze,” too.