(OSV News) — Joy, gratitude and a longing to be formed in the faith are among the takeaways from the latest stage in the North American phase of the world Synod of Bishops on synodality, according to two U.S.-based synod process leaders tasked with distilling the faithful’s feedback for presentation to the Vatican.
“The love for people’s Catholic faith and their Catholic identity abounds in the meetings. It’s so present, and it underlies everything,” Julia McStravog, a theologian and co-coordinator of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ team for the continental phase of the synod, told OSV News.
McStravog and her fellow co-coordinator Richard Coll, who also serves as executive director of the USCCB’s Department of Justice, Peace and Human Development, spoke with OSV News Jan. 26 after finishing a series of U.S. and Canadian synod consultations.
Launched by Pope Francis in October 2021, the multiyear synod — the theme of which is “communion, participation and mission” — seeks to cultivate an ongoing dynamic of discernment, listening, humility and engagement within the Catholic Church.
The word “synod” itself derives from the Greek for “with” and “path,” signifying a way in which “the people of God walk together,” according to a 2018 document by the International Theological Commission.
Initially scheduled to culminate at the 15th Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops at the Vatican in October 2023, the synod was extended by Pope Francis to include a second session in October 2024, allowing for what he called “a more relaxed period of discernment.”
Throughout its three stages — diocesan, continental and universal — the synod has solicited the insights of all the baptized, as well as those who have left the faith and those of other faith traditions. Marginalized communities have been especially encouraged to participate in the listening sessions, which have taken place in Catholic churches, schools and pastoral spaces throughout the world.
The current continental phase has gathered the USCCB and the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops (CCCB) and more than 900 bishop-selected delegates in 12 virtual sessions — variously conducted in English, Spanish and French — at which listening session reports from 236 U.S. and Canadian dioceses were presented and discussed. According to the USCCB, the Catholic Church in Mexico will participate with the Latin American bishops’ council (CELAM), given its long partnership with that conference.
Now, McStravog, Coll and some 18 fellow team members will undertake a “writing retreat,” during which they will prayerfully distill the responses from the church in the U.S. and Canada into one of the seven continental reports due March 31 at the Vatican.
Both said they will be working with impressive raw material.
“What’s really powerful is how many common themes seem to be expressed across these different groups, languages, backgrounds and the like,” said Coll. “You really do feel the inspiration of the Spirit here.”
McStravog said she was struck by synod participants’ “really deep desire for faith formation at every stage of life” in order to “live more into discipleship and missionary identity.”
Coll noted that respondents stressed “the importance of being an inclusive, welcoming church and community” that heeds Pope Francis’ emphasis on “the importance of reaching out to the peripheries and the marginalized.”
At the same time, said Coll, synod participants pointed to “the tension between truth and mercy … between wanting to be inclusive … (while) being authentic and respectful of the teachings of the church.”
“I don’t think that tension has by any means been resolved,” Coll added.
Throughout the synod, the “universal wound” of numerous clerical sex abuse scandals has been discussed “with honesty,” said McStravog. “What the synod has been able to do is (allow) people to name it, and to name it to one another.”
That opportunity has been key for the church in Canada, where Pope Francis delivered a formal apology during his July 2022 pilgrimage of penance to the First Nations, Métis, and Inuit peoples, asking forgiveness for the Catholic Church’s involvement in the sin of colonialism and the harm inflicted by residential schools.
Another challenge the U.S. and Canadian synod team members are working to understand is the reluctance of some clergy to participate in the synod, said McStravog, noting that a “special listening session” for clergy has been scheduled before the continental document is finalized.
Even when discussing difficult topics, “so many of the participants … started out with words of thanks,” said Coll. “They appreciated being together, and having the opportunity to reflect on these issues.”
“We’ve created a sacred space,” McStravog said, “where people feel that … they weren’t going to be dismissed or shamed for their questions or thoughts or reflections.”
Gina Christian is a national reporter for OSV News.