‘Prayerful discernment’ will be the guide
It is called a diocesan synod – a grassroots gathering of priests, deacons, religious and laypeople – with the expressed purpose of assisting the bishop in leading his diocese.
It is also a lot of work, but it is something Archbishop Gregory Aymond believes the Archdiocese of New Orleans is being called to engage in to set priorities for mission and service over the next three to five years.
Archbishop Aymond wants a few things to be crystal clear about the Ninth General Synod of the Archdiocese of New Orleans, which he will convoke officially by signing, along with synod leaders, a scroll at the end of the Chrism Mass at St. Louis Cathedral on April 15:
➤ He wants input from as many people as possible.
➤ There are no pre-determined outcomes.
➤ This is not an exercise targeted at merging or reconfiguring parishes.
➤ The comprehensive process, while requiring a lot of extra work and prayerful discernment, will produce three to five targeted priorities, with measurable goals and objectives, by Pentecost Sunday, May 24, 2015.
“The purpose of the synod is to prayerfully discern God’s vision and priorities for our local church for the next several years,” Archbishop Aymond said. “And, the key words here are ‘prayerfully discern.’ What we are discerning is not our vision and priorities, but what is God’s vision for us to accomplish in our ministry over the next several years.
Won’t be as long
The last time the archdiocese convoked a synod was in the 1980s under Archbishop Philip M. Hannan. That synod produced a document that was 360 pages long and was promulgated in 1987, about seven years after the process had begun.
The new synod process is envisioned to last 14 months and will be more targeted in its focus, Archbishop Aymond said. It will produce goals and objectives that are measurable and attainable, which should make the implementation process easier.
Implementation will be key
The previous synod document was “very valuable and made numerous suggestions,” Archbishop Aymond said. “In retrospect, it probably made far too many suggestions that are not all accomplishable. There also was no one designated to implement the synod. We hope at the end of this process that we will have three to five priorities with goals and objectives that are measurable and able to be accomplished in the next five years.”
The synod process will be coordinated by four people: Sisters of Mount Carmel Beth Fitzpatrick and Mary Ellen Wheelahan; Father Patrick Williams, vicar general of the archdiocese; and Paul Breaux, a leadership consultant with the Philadelphia-based Catholic Leadership Institute, who will serve as facilitator.
Synod Leadership Team
A Synod Leadership Team, made up of about 12 members, will evaluate input gathered by seven Foundational Ministry Focus Teams, consisting of about eight to 12 members each.
Those seven ministry focus teams will look at archdiocesan life in these areas: Sacraments and Worship; Education and Formation; Governance and Finance; Social Justice and Outreach; Vocations to the Priesthood, Diaconate and Religious Life; Evangelization and Discipleship; and Marriage and Family.
Much of the real work of the synod will take place in 16 “consultative sessions,” open to all Catholics, held throughout the archdiocese from May through August (see the list of sessions on page 4).
Ten of those sessions will be held in deaneries – geographical areas – across the archdiocese and are open to all; others are designed to hear specifically from youth, young adults, priests, deacons and religious (women and men). A separate consultative session also will be offered in Spanish.
Archbishop Aymond will attend all 16 consultative sessions and offer the opening prayer and a few introductory remarks.
“After that I will close my mouth and open my heart and my ears,” Archbishop Aymond said. “I will be there to listen attentively to what people are saying, without giving any response. They will be answering the questions, what is the Catholic Church in the Archdiocese of New Orleans doing well, what are we not doing well and what could we be doing better in service to and leadership for God’s people?”
It’s time to do it
Recognizing the enormous task ahead, Archbishop Aymond admitted that he tried to delay a synod because he didn’t think he had the time to devote to it. However, he said, that idea changed over months of prayer.
“Part of my response to God, as I felt the spirit moving me, was to say, ‘You know, God, I really don’t have the time,’ to which he responded, ‘Greg, you will never have the time, so just do it,’” Archbishop Aymond said.
“In the prayer, there was a great deal of my gratitude to God for many things that were very positive that were happening in the archdiocese and a profound gratitude to the people who made that possible – the clergy, religious and lay faithful. I see us with a rich history of ministry and moving in some very positive directions.
“At the same time, when you move in positive directions, that requires prayer, coordination and a certainty that the direction is that which is of God. As I see our archdiocese growing in numbers and in programs, I want to carefully assess what we’re doing, why we’re doing it and where we’re going.”
Synod is a vehicle
The best way to accomplish that kind of discernment is through a synod, he said.
“It’s a lengthy time of reflection and planning,” Archbishop Aymond said. “A synod requires very broad-based consultation. Translated, that all means it’s a lot of work by a lot of people for about a year and a half.”
Archbishop Aymond consulted with various, internal archdiocesan committees and councils to float the idea of convoking a synod, and he got positive feedback.
Especially in light of the restructuring that occurred after Hurricane Katrina, Archbishop Aymond said he wanted to be sure that the synod is not viewed as a catalyst for closing churches.
“This is not a pastoral plan to close or combine parishes,” Archbishop Aymond said. “In fact, I do not foresee that even being considered as a topic in the synod. This is God’s people coming together to plot out a plan through the wisdom of God. The first step in the synod are the consultation sessions. It is very important to me that we hear from the grassroots, the people in the pews, the people who live their faith, day in and day out.”
Facilitation sharpens focus
Archbishop Aymond said he valued the help of the Catholic Leadership Institute in keeping the synod process on track. He noted that Breaux, who does consultations across the country, lives in the archdiocese and knows the local church well.
The timing of the archdiocesan synod coincides with a major synodal gathering of the universal church. In October, Pope Francis will convene an extraordinary session of the Synod of Bishops to discuss the blessings and challenges of family life. Archbishop Aymond believes the New Orleans synod also will include much discussion about family issues.
“We have to be totally open to God’s wisdom,” Archbishop Aymond said. “I would be very surprised if family life did not surface as one of the major issues or perhaps the major issue of the synod. At the same time, I don’t want to predict that. I really want to be open to the process, but it would surprise me if that did not happen.
An appointed time
“When we look at what’s happening in the world today – just the fact that we as an archdiocese are trying to reclaim Sunday as a day of family prayer and spending quality time – says that family life is changing. What can we do to be a positive instrument of bringing families together?”
Archbishop Aymond said even though he knows the synod will be a time-consuming exercise, it will be time well spent.
“I’m very excited about the synod, even though it will be a lot of work and meetings – not only the public meetings but literally hundreds of other meetings by the various committees,” he said. “But I think it’s exciting when you take time to look at the blessings of the present and move toward a lively, faith-filled and exciting future. This is not only a historic moment for the archdiocese but a moment that will encourage us in faith, teach us more about the new evangelization and help us to grow as an archdiocese, spiritually and in terms of witness.”
Any surprises expected?
Does he expect any surprises?
“I hope so,” Archbishop Aymond said, smiling, “because I believe in the God of surprises. Very often, we have our plans and God intervenes and says, ‘Yeah, that’s fine, but let me move you and lead you in another direction.’ Quite frankly, I hope there are some surprises because we don’t want this to be a humdrum affair. We don’t want a document that we can place on a shelf that will collect dust. If that were to happen, this would be a miserable failure.”
Prayer to the Holy Spirit
For the Ninth General Synod:
Answering God’ s Call ~ Following God’s Lead
Here we are, Holy Spirit.
We stand before you gathered together in
your name, burdened by our faults,
yet aware of your enduring love.
Come to us, Holy Spirit,
teach us what we are to do and how we
can breathe your life into this world.
Enable us to discern together your vision
and priorities for our local church.
Heal and renew all in us that is hurt or
broken. Unite us to one another and to
you, and awaken in us the joy to shine with
your light in every moment of our lives.
Stay with us Holy Spirit of God,
you who live and reign with the Father
and the Son, one God, forever and ever.
– Prayer adapted from the Adsumus, the prayer used to open
each session of Vatican Council II, 1962-1965