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Synod at halftime: Bishop Rhoades on synodality and evangelization

Pope Francis greets Bishop Kevin C. Rhoades of Fort Wayne-South Bend, Ind., Oct. 10, 2023, in Paul VI Audience Hall at the Vatican during the assembly of the world Synod of Bishops. (OSV News photo/Vatican Media/CPP)
Pope Francis greets Bishop Kevin C. Rhoades of Fort Wayne-South Bend, Ind., Oct. 10, 2023, in Paul VI Audience Hall at the Vatican during the assembly of the world Synod of Bishops. (OSV News photo/Vatican Media/CPP)

(OSV News) — Returning from the first session of the Synod on Synodality’s global, monthlong gathering in Rome, Bishop Kevin C. Rhoades of Fort Wayne-South Bend, Indiana, has already seen much the Catholic Church can profit from, especially at the local level for the sake of the church’s evangelization mission.

The U.S. synod delegate returns to Rome for the October 2024 session, but spoke with OSV News Oct. 31 to share his takeaways from the first session ahead of the U.S. bishops’ meeting in Baltimore Nov. 13-17, where the synod’s synthesis report and inviting the consultation of the faithful on its work so far, will be part of the discussion.

This interview is edited for length and content.

OSV News: So you’ve returned from the Synod on Synodality’s first session in Rome. What’s your biggest takeaway from the experience?

Bishop Rhoades: Overall, it was a very positive experience for me. The highlight was getting to meet and know from around the world the bishops and other delegates. Some very wonderful conversations, both formal and informal: formal in the working groups and then informal during breaks and opportunities just to talk and share with each other.

I learned a lot more also from the East, Far East, and I found it so enriching and so broadening. We have our own challenges, similar to those of Western Europe perhaps, but I think when I entered into conversations with the delegates from war-torn countries and places of great, harsh persecution, it’s just amazing to see how the church of Christ, united as one, is in very diverse circumstances around the world. I just felt a certain fraternity that was very good and a common love, really, for Christ and the church.

OSV News: Hearing from the other bishops and delegates, what struck you about their issues and priorities?

Bishop Rhoades: One of the things I was interested in was how they are living the missionary mandate. I was just struck by the various challenges. For example, those who aren’t allowed to proclaim Christ — where people are not allowed, for example, to convert to Christianity, with the danger of imprisonment or certain death if they did — so how do you evangelize in a situation like that? That was very eye-opening for me, and it really is a witness.

OSV News: So how do we make synodality work for the church’s mission: carrying the works of the Gospel and proclaiming the good news of Jesus Christ?

The synodal constitution of the church — I mean Pope Francis has been very clear that this is an essential part of the life of the church — does and can foster evangelization and mission. The very title of the synod, the three principal themes of “communion, participation, and mission” all go together. Communion, obviously, that to me, is so foundational. So the disunity (in the church) really is harmful to the mission. So I think it’s important that we begin, as the synod themes began, with that theme of communion: our communion with Christ, and communion with one another. We can’t take that for granted.

We have to overcome that polarization (in the church), because it’s harmful to mission. There needs to be more unity — I mean, unity is one of the four marks of the church.

In our local churches, the more synodal we are — where people actually listen to each other and just don’t argue, but respectfully and prayerfully listen to one another — I think leads to greater harmony and greater unity.

OSV News: Can you tell me more about the synod’s “conversations in the Spirit.” What was your experience of them and is this something you’d like to see in your own local church?

Bishop Rhoades: Yes. I think I would begin with the consultative bodies that we already have. On the diocesan level, of course, there is the Diocesan Pastoral Council, there’s the Presbyteral Council, and there’s — in my diocese, I call it the Bishop’s Cabinet — the diocesan curia.

To truly have a conversation in the Spirit is a way of discernment and prayer is such an important part of it. We each contribute; every person in the group participates. The way we did it at the synod, we took turns speaking from our own experience in prayer. And then, people are not allowed to respond. You’re just to listen to what others are saying. And then, after three or four people would speak, then we would have four or five minutes of silence in prayer to reflect on what we heard.

After everyone has spoken — this is all in light of whatever the question was that we discussed — then each person shares what resonated with him or her, or what was uncomfortable. Like what did I experience from listening to the others? Then, after everyone shares that, there’s silence in prayer again. And then, a dialogue takes place in which we identify what are the areas of convergence, the areas of discord, you know, obstacles, and then what new questions. At that point, you know, you kind of come to some agreement on what were the convergences, what were the divergences, and then what is the Lord calling us, what’s the Holy Spirit calling us together as next steps.

So, it was a very respectful thing and there are disagreements. But, rather than attack or enter into an uncharitable dialogue, I think just the way it developed was very respectful.

OSV News: What are some aspects of synodality that you think could be beneficial to the church’s mission at the parish level?

Bishop Rhoades: Besides that (conversations in the Spirit), I think getting more people involved. I noticed in my diocese, for example, that some people who participated in the consultation at the beginning, shared that they really found it a very positive experience, because they never had that opportunity before to really share what’s in their hearts with others in the parish or others in the group that they were in. And that was surprising to me. I didn’t realize that. … I think we have to do more of that, including when it comes to the mission of the parish.

I would like to see much more mission-focused kinds of meetings, and then to really be looking at, “OK, what is the Lord calling us to do in our parish, in our neighborhood? What are the ways that we can bring the Gospel? What are we doing to help the poor and the needy here?”

I mean, there’s a hundred questions I could cover, you know? “Are we really welcoming to the disabled?” “Are we taking care of elderly people who are lonely?” “What can we do?” It involves setting up some new ministries, getting more people involved, but to meet together and just talk about mission: who are we as the church in this area?

That really is on the parish level very much. The diocese needs to do that too, but where people are actually, their everyday experience is in their parish.

OSV News: So the whole church has the synod’s 41-page synthesis from the first session — basically a “halftime report” for the synod until you all reconvene in October. One of the things the document mentioned was the importance of the life of discipleship connected to our baptism as critical not only for involvement in church bodies but especially for discerning where the “sensus fidei” (sense of faith) is. Can you talk more about that?

Bishop Rhoades: Since ancient times, you know, the “sensus fidei” is expressed in the testimony of the saints and the martyrs. It’s active through holiness. And when we read “Lumen Gentium” (“The Light of Christ,” Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, one of the Second Vatican Council documents) about this — you can see this notion in the Fathers of the church but all that became really explicit in “Lumen Gentium.” I think that’s where we need to educate more about that.

The marks of authenticity (of the “sensus fidei”) … would be people who have the virtue of faith, who are actively participating in the life of the church. It involves really listening deeply to the Word of God — all this is in that document, by the way — the acceptance of the proper role of a reason in relation to faith, attention to the magisterium of the church. You can’t talk about the “sensus fidei” without talking about the magisterium. The bishops are part of the faithful, and so are the priests, and so is the pope. We’re servants of the Word of God, servants of the faith of the church, and have the special charism to discern what is the authentic manifestation of the “sensus fidei,” because otherwise it could be another spirit, the spirit of the world, the spirit of the age. We’re trying to discern the Holy Spirit here — but we’re all influenced by the spirit of the age.

Divisive things are also not signs of the Holy Spirit. The authentic “sensus fidei” is manifested through that building up of the church as one body.

We also see manifestation of the truths of the faith among the people through their popular religiosity. It can be an expression of the “sensus fidei.” I know how my own faith and spiritual life was nourished by entering more deeply into some of the popular religiosity of the people, especially with Latino Catholics, the Passion and Crucified Christ, certainly Our Lady, especially of Guadalupe. There are truths of our faith that are pretty deep that are expressed in those popular devotions.

OSV News: As the synod wrapped up its work, what was your sense of how you and other Synod participants were thinking about the issue of abuse and how synodality can help the church be equipped to address this effectively?

Bishop Rhoades: I’d say two things. Number one, our care of victims, victim-survivors. I think that was a universal thing: the importance of seeing our brothers and sisters who’ve been so deeply hurt and wounded by this terrible crime of sexual abuse, as minors or even as adults, and that the task is not completed. I think that was a pretty common feeling that we still need to do more. And we have to reach out and do all we can to promote healing.

The other thing would be, and I think this gets under the category of participation, that aspect of the three (synodal) themes of communion, participation, and mission. We have to, and this is where the culture needed to change within the church — we needed to have more mechanisms for accountability and transparency, and this shouldn’t be something that’s solely in the hands of the bishop. I mean our diocesan review boards have been key. I don’t know what I’d do without them. Their insights, their expertise in this area includes psychologists, law enforcement people and others. We learned the hard way, and this is kind of — I don’t know, what would I call it, maybe a little bit of clericalism, self-protection, whatever, for the church — it just was wrong. We need to have these participatory bodies that work on this, help this as part of the church, laypeople who have expertise in these areas, all of that, when we have such cases that arise. Now, we’ve come a long way in this, obviously, especially in the United States, more so than many other countries, but this has to spread throughout the church.

I mean, this cannot ever be swept under the carpet, and it has to be taken seriously.

OSV News: What’s the next step to take the synod’s synthesis and get it into the hands of local churches, so it can be discussed with the faithful and get their feedback sent back up the line in time for the synod’s second session in October?

Bishop Rhoades: We only have 11 months. It’s good that the principal conference of the USCCB is meeting … so that we can look at how we’re going to do this and how we’re going to go back for further consultation in light of the synthesis report.

That will happen, but exactly how, I don’t think it’s been spelled out yet. I would think that consults to bodies would be looking at this, you know, like before, and even it might vary a bit, but I think we try to get as much input as we can.

One of the challenges is it’s a 40-page document, so that gets back to the issue of focusing on what are the key questions that we want to consult about? Because there’s going to be things that are going to be relevant to people in the pews and other things that are relevant to deacons and other things relevant to priests and seminary directors — things like that.

I expect that on the national level the USCCB will be really working hard with this upcoming plenary session to give guidance and suggestions for bishops and for dioceses to move forward.


Peter Jesserer Smith is the national news and features editor for OSV News. Follow him on X (formerly Twitter) at @jesserersmith.

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