The faces – and voices – of the Ninth General Synod
It was a terrible night for cats and dogs, and one would have thought it would have been an even worse night for synods.
But even though the rain came down in buckets May 28 prior to the first of 17 “consultative sessions” of the Ninth General Synod of the Archdiocese of New Orleans, people carrying umbrellas kept filing into the evangelization center at St. Margaret Mary Parish in Slidell. An usher with a clicker counted 207 people, but it could have been even more.
“I must say that I am in awe at this crowd,” Archbishop Gregory Aymond said in welcoming the people who were there to offer important feedback that will be used over the next year to develop three to five priorities for ministry for the archdiocese.
The archbishop joked that after barely getting over the I-10 high-rise because of the blinding thunderstorm, he figured he might have to “look in the mirror” when he got to Slidell “so that at least two people would be here.”
The highly organized process revolved around three questions, on which people were asked to reflect and then to write a response. The three questions boiled down to this: what is the archdiocese doing well in terms of its current ministry, what could it be doing better and what should it be doing that it is currently not doing?
Process went smoothly
Participants were given several minutes to answer the questions individually, and then they formed groups of eight to 10 to share their answers. After that, a representative from each small group used a microphone to deliver to the entire assembly a concise, two-minute report reflecting the highlights of that group’s discussion.
In all, the process took just two hours. Paul Breaux, a consultant with the Catholic Leadership Institute in Philadelphia that is facilitating the synod, said he was thrilled by the openness and fervor exhibited by the people who attended.
“I was delighted, amazed, humbled, surprised,” said Breaux, a parishioner of St. Charles Borromeo in Destrehan who has facilitated similar processes for dioceses across the country. “They were an easy group to work with and very receptive. I think it was the spirit of the people.”
Archbishop Aymond offered a prayer and a word of explanation about what a synod is – it is a gathering of the people of God to determine God’s priorities for ministry over the next several years – but his role mainly was to sit and listen. He took his own notes during the session.
Many issues covered
What he heard covered the waterfront in terms of issues: the affordability of Catholic schools, evangelization of young people and those who have drifted from the faith, the quality of Sunday homilies, guidance from church officials on how to vote, outreach to those feeling marginalized because of sexual orientation, help for married couples, programs to foster mental health, adult faith formation and even parish fellowship.
“We should have donuts after Mass!” one group reported, saying it felt Catholics need to take a page from their Protestant neighbors and increase the level of fellowship.
“I belong to a large parish and I know only a few people in the parish,” another said.
Catholic outreach in disaster
One person noted that the perception after Hurricane Katrina was that Protestant churches were doing more on the ground to help those who were recovering. Another talked about the importance of emphasizing “pious practices” with Catholic school students.
One group mentioned as a positive the accessibility, availability and leadership of Archbishop Aymond.
“Several people mentioned getting a response to a letter a day after the letter was sent or even a phone call,” one group leader said. “The building blocks are there, and it’s encouraging to all of us.”
While some said adult faith formation activities abound in the archdiocese, others said they wanted more.
“We need to do a better job of educating the flock in the pew,” one group leader said. “So many people go to church every Sunday and really don’t know what we’re all about. We need to teach people what we believe.”
Open, accessible hierarchy
Many expressed the feeling that the archdiocese’s communication efforts were excellent. One group said they liked the recently adopted idea of assigning pastors to six-year terms, which can be extended after a review with the archbishop.
Someone mentioned that commitment to social justice programs – especially the St. Vincent de Paul Society – varies widely from parish to parish. The length of time it takes to get a decision on an annulment also was seen as a concern.
Several groups simply expressed thankfulness for the archbishop calling the synod. The process is expected to culminate on Pentecost Sunday, May 24, 2015, with Archbishop Aymond officially presenting the priorities.
“Thank you for having this evening,” one woman said. “A lot of people have spoken about support and outreach and love. God is love, and we are his church, and we are to express his love.”
All the information gathered at each consultative session – including every sheet of written information – will be given to the Catholic Leadership Institute, which will compile and distill the remarks.
Ministry Focus Teams
That feedback will be broken down by topic so that it can be evaluated more closely by seven Foundational Ministry Focus Teams: 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.
“I found the conversation insightful and helpful,” Archbishop Aymond told the crowd at the end of the night. “You affirmed the ways in which we as an archdiocese are doing things and ways in which God is calling us to improve. Some of them are easier to accomplish than others, and we have to look at all of that. I assure you it will be listened to, prayed over and pondered. I thank you for your time and effort. Each of you will have a voice.”
“We are the whole church, we are the body of Christ,” said Nash Bono, a member of Our Lady of the Lake Parish in Mandeville. “If the body is going to move forward, the body has to do it together.”
Father Gil Martin, pastor of St. John the Cross in Lacombe, said he likes the process because it allows everyone to give input. Even those who may not be vocal about their feelings have a chance to write their feelings down, he said.
“The process is great because it allows you to consolidate so many people’s opinions in an orderly way,” he said.