Synod on Synodality faces task of helping Catholics evangelize effectively, say experts

A woman is pictured in a file photo praying at the Cathedral of St. Paul in Minnesota. (OSV News photo/Dave Hrbacek, The Catholic Spirit)

(OSV News) -- "Evangelizing," Pope Francis has said, "is the church's mission. It is not the mission of only a few, but it is mine, yours and our mission."

How the church equips Catholics to carry out this mission to preach the Good News of Jesus Christ is a concern for the Oct. 4-29 gathering of bishops convened by Pope Francis in Rome -- often called the "synod on synodality."

Among the discussion questions for the 16th Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops are: "How can preaching, catechesis and pastoral work promote a shared awareness of the meaning and content of mission? How can it convey that mission constitutes a real and concrete call for every Baptized person?"

In short, the baptized are called not to be simply passive members of a parish. However, the synod faces the task of effectively mapping out how to form and deploy clergy and faithful to be energetic disciples in the church's mission fields all around them.

"At a deep level, a lot of Catholics picked up a strong sense that they were ordinary people who were not supposed to be active," Sherry Weddell, author of "Forming Intentional Disciples: The Path to Knowing and Following Jesus" and co-founder and executive director of the Colorado Springs, Colorado-based Catherine of Siena Institute. "Their job was to be obediently present and receptive to what the active people -- which would be the priests and religious -- were offering them."

That dynamic, Weddell added, has changed in recent decades.

"Now we're all talking about Jesus, and our relationship with Jesus and discipleship -- and this language has become normative. It was not normative for years," she told OSV News. "So the conversation has changed. But what we're now wrestling with is realizing where most of our people really are."

And where Catholics are right now may not, observed Weddell, fully prepare them for an evangelical role.

"One of the things that impedes the possibility of synodality having the kind of impact on mission that obviously is desired, is that most of our people are still spiritual preschoolers, not adults," she said. "So when I talk about evangelization and discipleship, emerging discipleship is like emerging spiritual adulthood for a Christian."

This stunted spiritual growth is not, Weddell emphasized, the fault of those laity who are uncomfortable evangelizing.

"The church is responsible for calling forth all the personal charisms of all the baptized, as well as all the vocations of all the baptized," said Weddell. "And we have almost zero formation, vision and structures in that area."

"That is what fundamentally undermines co-responsibility, governance, and in a lot of ways, the actual expression of the pastoral office," she said. "And especially, of course, the impact on the world and the mission of the church to bring Christ and his love to the world."

While the Order of Christian Initiation of Adults -- formerly referred to as the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults or RCIA -- would ideally form grownup disciples, Weddell finds in her work that "most of the time it's still, 'Here's a bunch of information. Do you want to be Catholic?'"

She qualified that "it varies from place to place, to be sure. But the vast majority of clergy are not used to collaborating with each other -- much less with their lay co-workers or even their leaders in their parishes."

In part, Weddell believes that's because there's no seminary instruction in collaboration with the laity.

"I've gone over this hundreds of times with clergy," Weddell said. "Everywhere I go, I ask, 'Were you formed in this in seminary? Did you get a class? Did you have a book; article; anything?' And I have never yet had a 'yes.'"

True collaboration occurs, Weddell explained, when "we see each other as peers on a common mission. We have different vocations; we have different charisms; we have different backgrounds," she said. "But you have to trust each other -- you have to be disciples together. You have to both see and be really committed to the common vision."

The result, Weddell said, is that the members of the church then "bring all (their) uniquenesses to that process," which then "makes it more effective -- instead of making it divisive."

Weddell shared that, "I know dioceses where this is actually happening. And so when you see that -- you see the fruit of it; you see it living -- you go, 'Oh, now I get it; now it all makes sense.'"

Michael Sanem, author of "Your Church Wants to Hear from You: What Is the Synod on Synodality?" and minister of evangelization at Church of the Nativity in Leawood, Kansas, had a similar message about evangelical co-responsibility.

"This synod on synodality I see as really a much-needed complement to the Second Vatican Council -- which did call for active, full, conscious participation of the laity in the liturgy. But it wasn't just the liturgy -- it was active, full, conscious participation in the life of the church, and the mission of the church," Sanem told OSV News.

"We don't just want the laity active in the liturgy and then passive in everything else. We need a robust, active laity carrying out the mission of the church," he urged. "It's not just the work of the ordained or religious -- it's the work of everybody. The synod is us coming together for the sake of mission."

Nor, explained Sanem, is effective preparation for evangelization as simple as a few classes; rather, it's a continuous process of both education and mission.

According to the synod's working document, "A synodal culture and spirituality are needed animated by a desire for conversion and sustained by adequate formation."

It advises, "We need integral formation, initial and ongoing, for all members of the people of God."

Sanem emphasized that "evangelization is not a program," noting the church already has "a ton" of programs for evangelization, including evangelization teams in parishes and directors of evangelization for dioceses.

"I'm a minister of evangelization. But I think the shift I had is, 'I'm not directing anything with evangelization. This has got to be the whole church working together on this,'" Sanem said, emphasizing this mission cannot be relegated to an "evangelization team" or "evangelization program."

"Because our presence is evangelizing; our good works out in the community is evangelizing; our ministry to those at the margins is evangelizing," Sanem said. "The first step has got to be dialogue. What else would it be? Even more old-school models -- missionary models -- always started with dialogue."

Tom Corcoran, who with Father Michael White co-wrote "Rebuilt: Awakening the Faithful, Reaching the Lost, and Making Church Matter," told OSV News the first concrete step a church can take in forming disciples is the creation of a welcoming worship experience.

The initial environment for that welcome is the weekend Mass and "that's where there really is a partnership between clergy, church staff and people in the pews," Corcoran said. "Kind of the analogy of being fishing partners together. And the whole community seeing itself in that work -- that we're working together to reach the lost."

Once more, the theme of collaboration emerged.

"I think evangelization is too often seen as a solitary exercise," Corcoran said. "That you go out there, and you make somebody a Christian; and then when you've made them a Christian, bring them in."

Instead, Corcoran said, "evangelization in the spirit of synodality really is a partnership between clergy and lay, working together."

"I do hope that can come out of this conversation," he said. "And the clergy can see their role as kind of mobilizing the people in the pews -- and working with the people in the pews to create environments where people will be drawn back into the life of the church."

That can often start, Corcoran said, with Catholics' own families.

"Everyone knows friends, family members, co-workers who are not going to church," noted Corcoran. "Eventually though, we need to bring them into a community."

As to why they walk away, Corcoran focuses on the collaborative triad of vigorous hospitality; excellent preaching; and quality music.

"If our parishes were doing those things, people would come back," Corcoran believes. "I think more people leave just out of boredom, or out of not seeing the relevance, or not being welcomed, than leave because of the hot-button issues," he said. "We don't need to change our doctrine or teaching at all; I don't really think that's the problem."

This back-to-basics approach, Corcoran emphasized, can segue to active discipleship.

"Evangelization is about hungry people sharing where they found some food with other hungry people, and that relationship with Jesus," Corcoran said. "Our mission field is now all around us. Our mission field is at work; our families; our neighborhood."


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