Bishop Michael McGovern opened the Synod process in the Diocese of Belleville on Oct. 17, 2021. This followed several months of an introduction to Synodality and a call for frequent prayer to the Holy Spirit, asking the Spirit’s assistance in the process. Over the course of months, the People of God in southern Illinois participated in the Synod in a variety of ways, including parish gatherings, gatherings in religious communities, and On-line participation.
The initial efforts took more time than expected, requiring more information about what a Synod is and what the goal of the Synod is. We also learned that we had to create mechanisms for the people to participate, communicating the different options people had for live participation in their area. We also realized that concerns about the COVID pandemic gave many people pause about gathering in person, so electronic methods of contributing were important.
There was a palpable intensification of the Synod once we arrived at Ash Wednesday. More parishes began their in-person meetings during Lent and sessions were held both during the day and in the evening. Prayers for the Synod continued throughout these months, especially during the Universal Prayers in parish liturgies.
Bishop McGovern had requested that the participants also consider commenting on the person of Jesus Christ in their lives and what the Lord means to them. This led to some very deep, beautiful spiritual sharing about the importance of life with Christ that preceded further conversation about journeying together with the Lord and with the community of the Church.
We learned over the course of the months that our people were eager to share their faith in Jesus in the sharing format used for the Synod. People were also willing to openly share their hopes for the Catholic Church in the future. All of this took place in an atmosphere of prayerful reflection and respect for the people gathered at each session, as well as respect for the clergy and for the hierarchy.
Some insights about the process include the clear realization that the more often we exercise Synodality, the more comfortable we will become with the idea and the process. Another insight is that we need ways of continuing to communicate with the People of God in the future direction of the Synod up to and including the meeting in Rome in October of 2024.
Next, we turn to the comments and hopes shared in the parish sessions as well as those who contacted the diocese in written form. Many people who participated in the parish sessions or contributed by writing expressed beautifully how Jesus attracts them and why they respond to him. Many people cited Jesus’ example of unconditional love; they rejoiced that he truly loves us. Many commented that Jesus forgives us, and that he gave his life for the forgiveness of our sins. People are attracted to Jesus because of his strength, mercy, kindness, humility and self-emptying love. People identify with Jesus, particularly with his struggle in the Garden of Gethsemane.
In addressing the topic of “journeying together” there were numerous observations. As the Synod process unfolded, we could identify several ways people experience “journeying together” in our diocese: as a member of the Catholic Church, as a member of a family, as a member of a parish, or as a member of a religious institute. Below are several reflections that came from parochial meetings in our dioceses:
Comments included the importance of journeying together as a thankful people, with hearts that are grateful to God. Others noted that journeying together is happening in a parish with increased inclusion and involvement from the laity, especially women, in leadership roles, decision making and the spiritual life of the parish. Parishes that share the services of a priest in a parish partnership cited that they experience journeying together through the life and ministry of a priest who pastored two or three parishes simultaneously.
One parish summary noted “journeying together is happening in our parish today through our many opportunities for ministry, including groups for men, women, youth, seniors, service, prayer communities, small Christian communities, RCIA, etc. There are many parts of the body, but we are fully the body of Christ. Our parish is more than its buildings, its priests, its staff or its location: the parishioners make up the community and journey together.”
Parishioners also expressed that they most clearly experienced journeying together in the celebration of the Eucharist with the participation of the priest, deacon, and the faithful as lectors, musicians, ushers, etc. They also mentioned the importance of praying together frequently in parish life: before or after Mass, at parish meetings. There are also parish bible study programs and faith formation programs and the parish school of religion for children. Those who are involved in Catholic education experienced journeying together by working in a direction with a common goal.
Our diocese has 100 churches that serve the Catholic population of 28 counties. Concerns were raised that parishes often quibble among themselves and that some parishes are simply trying to survive. There is concern that parishes will merge or close in the next several years.
A significant number of parishes in the Belleville diocese have closed or merged with neighboring parishes. Several participants noted that they experienced journeying together through the merging/closure process and the healing that has been taking place ever since.
People who are involved in charitable efforts (food pantries, soup kitchens, bringing meals to the homebound) have a sense of journeying together with t hose who serve with them and those people that they serve. Many cite a strong sense of satisfaction in performing the corporal works of mercy through their parishes.
Not everyone has experienced a sense of journeying together at the parish level. Concerns were expressed that parishes are not always welcoming or inviting. People can be satisfied in their own cliques. Some felt the parish was more of a social club than a community of disciples. Some parish partnerships are slow in developing a growing sense of togetherness. One stated: “The Church must be more open to people; even a minor temperature change would help to show people how welcoming our Church can be.”
Catholics identify with our core beliefs and practices, especially prayer and the sacraments. Participation in the Holy Eucharist and the Sacrament of Penance are vital aspects of Catholic life. Several commented on the importance of beauty in worship and the inclusion of the laity in the various liturgical roles. We are less likely to attract and retain young Catholics unless we have good preaching, good music, and liturgies that touch not only the mind but the soul. Young people are looking for an experience of the sacred; our liturgies need to be places where people experience the holy.
People commented about the attrition of people who no longer practice as Catholics, especially family members. They asked for ways that we can invite those who have left to share why they left and whether they could consider returning to the practice of our faith. There is also concern about the erosion of Christian values in our society, whether in family life or professional life.
Much was said about the importance of attracting and retaining young people in Catholic life. Many participants stated that “we need our young people.” The need for stronger groups for youth and young adults was emphasized. There were also comments that grandparents can do more to build bridges with their grandchildren. There was also concern that our parishes must do better with welcoming young families to Sunday Mass and parish life in general. Young families need to connect with other young families so they can share the journey of faith with other couples and support one another in raising their children.
There is an important need to empower the laity; there is a warrant and power that comes from Christian baptism that should not be overlooked or diminished. The laity should be encouraged to use their gifts in the service of the Church as their response to the Lord’s call to follow him and serve in his name. Like the disciples on the road of Emmaus, the Holy Spirit invites us to join more deeply in this journey through illuminating the good news of Jesus Christ in the holy scriptures, communicating to us the grace of the Sacraments, and inspiring us to live as disciples and witnesses in our community as we share this common mission.
There were also times that participants expressed concern about the lack of priests in our diocese and concern for the health of our priests. Questions were raised about vocation promotion as well as questions about who might be admitted to Holy Orders. The presence of extern and international priests as well as religious has helped us meet our pastoral needs given the decreasing number of diocesan priests.
The need for unity was a recurring theme of the sharing sessions: Unity in a parish, unity in our diocese, and unity in family life. There were also repeated calls for increased and more visible efforts to foster unity with other Christians. Southern Illinois is home to many people who are Lutherans, Baptists and evangelical Christians. What can we do to build bridges with our neighbors who are of different households of faith?
People expressed hope that our Church will find ways to reach out and connect more with people who are poor or marginalized. Several commented that their own participation in the St. Vincent de Paul Society helped open them more to the plight of the poor and to serve those who are disadvantaged. There is great concern about the growing mental health issues afflicting people and the homelessness that often results from a mental health crisis.
A number of people mentioned they would like to see the Church be more open to the people in the LGBTQ community. Parents especially expressed the hope that the Church would listen more to the concerns being raised by their children in the LGBTQ community.
Several participants expressed concern about the environment, asking that the Church take a stronger stand on protecting creation.
Many participants called for increased programs for catechesis, bible study and faith-sharing. There is concern that we help one another know, embrace, and share our Catholic faith.
The insights listed above reflect comments made at many of our parish-based Synod meetings as well as comments offered by those who submitted written documents.
Below are several reflections that came from non-parochial meetings in our diocese:
A good example of “journeying together” is found at the Newman Center at the University of Southern Illinois in Carbondale. This is a community that includes older adults from the local area as well as students, faculty and staff from the college. There they seek opportunities to strengthen the bonds between the various members in a multi-cultural and multi-generational worshipping community. Members who participated in the Synod expressed the draw of the patient, tender, unwavering and unconditional love of Jesus. In a place where some students are newly arrived and some adults have been part of the community for 20 years, they experience the Lord calling them to be his friends. They also work together on projects that seek to assist the poor and the vulnerable.
The young people at the Newman Center expressed their hopes for the future, especially that all the baptized become passionate; that as they learn to trust more in Christ and Divine Providence, they will have a missionary zeal. It is particularly important for young adults to reach out to other young adults in the college.
Our diocese is also blessed to have many adults involved in the Cursillo movement. Members expressed that they journey together as they learn to call on the Holy Spirit and keep Christ at the center of their lives, including Jesus in their everyday decisions. Members expressed that they are grateful for “the joy in the journey” and believe that as they radiate this joy, it will attract others to Christ. This is especially true that parents must witness to their children, sharing the joy they have in their life with Christ. This joy must also reach those Catholics who have left the Church for whatever reason.
The diocese is blessed with the presence of vowed religious. The Community of Poor Clares noted that the pilgrim church is by her very nature missionary. A key way that their religious community participates in the missionary life of the Church is the Intercessory Prayer they offer daily for the whole People of God. The community life of the Poor Clares and their commitment to prayer become a sign of hope and healing to a torn and fragmented world.
The diocese is also blessed with the presence of many priests and brothers who are members of the Oblates of Mary Immaculate. In their sessions, they noted that journeying together is facilitated by recognizing that the Holy Spirit works differently in each of us and helps us to understand our differences and gifts. As disciples, it is important to look at the concrete actions of Jesus as examples of how we can touch the lives of others.
A key insight offered by the Oblate community is this: “Many of us knew the Church before we even really knew God and Jesus. It was only through maturing in our faith that we began to realize the transcendence of God and the call to be of service to others. At this point in our lives, given the experiences we have had in many places and with so many people, the Church is anything but an abstraction. We see the Church in the persons we serve, whether they are prospering or struggling.”
The Belleville Diocese is blessed to have these groups of faithful who enrich the local Church with the way that they journey together as a community.
THE NEED FOR DISCERNMENT
In light of the sharing in the Synod and in seeking the guidance of the Holy Spirit, we believe there are several areas in which we need further discussion and discernment.
(a) How do we grow stronger in understanding our Catholic faith? How do we establish programs for faith formation at every level: adults, young adults, children?
(b) The importance of the Holy Eucharist and the Sacraments was affirmed at the Synod. We realize increased liturgical formation is needed. Many people expressed a desire for additional priests. We need catechesis concerning the Sacrament of Holy Orders, and a better understanding of admission to Holy Orders.
(c) What is the state of our ministry toward the youth in our Catholic Community? How do we best assess the hopes and needs of our Catholic population under the age of 24?
(d) How can grandparents be instruments of catechesis and evangelization in their families? Many children spend significant time with their grandparents; what can we do to better equip grandparents to share their faith and spiritual lives with the next generation?
(e) The church has repeatedly affirmed our commitment to the safety of children entrusted to our care in a parish, a school, or a camp. What is the state of our efforts to protect children from harm? What work needs to be done to address those who may have left the church over the abuse crisis?
(f) How can we work toward a greater appreciation of the gifts of women in the Church? How can we utilize the members of the Belleville Diocesan Council of Catholic Women for help in assessing the strengths and areas for growth in our connection with women of all ages?
(g) What has been our outreach to those Catholics who have experienced divorce? How can they be included more in parochial and ecclesial life? What resources does our Marriage Tribunal need to help facilitate the requests for a declaration of nullity?
(h) How is our local Church connected with those who identify as LGBTQ? What methods of outreach can be utilized?
(i) The Synod underscored the need for inclusion of African Americans and Hispanics in our diocesan life (the Hispanic population in southern Illinois has increased 100% since 2000). What methods of outreach should we utilize for greater unity in our diocese?
(j) Rural life in southern Illinois is changing; how can the local Church support those families engaged in farming and recognize the gifts they can bring to us? Many people spoke about the need for more communication about threats to ecology, as well as the promotion of steps that will ensure a habitable planet for future generations.
(k) How do we build bridges with other Christians in southern Illinois? In what ways can we seek points of contact and, in an intentional way, work together on projects of mutual concern (the homeless, race relations).
(l) Concern was raised about the drop in the number of people who seek to become Catholic in the past ten years through the RCIA program. There were also concerns about the lack of retention of new Catholics who go through the program. How can we invite recent converts to engage or re-engage in the Catholic faith?
It is important to annunciate the “next steps” that the Diocese of Belleville will take in the Synod process.
First, after submitting the documents to those responsible for organizing the Synod, this synthesis of the local Synod will be available for the clergy and laity of our diocese to read via the diocesan website and our diocesan newspaper.
Second, using the diocesan consultative bodies (Diocesan Pastoral Council, Presbyteral Council, Council of Catholic Women, etc.) we will recommend goals for our diocese based on what was shared in the Synod. The consultative bodies can also help identify leadership to meet those goals.
Finally, it would be good to re-engage in the Synod process during Lent 2023, so that we can continue listening to the Holy Spirit and discerning priorities for our local Church. This synthesis has been reviewed, and I submit the document as the contribution of the Diocese of Belleville in the Province of Chicago (USA).
Most Reverend Michael McGovern
Bishop of Belleville