Keep the Faith, Change the Church.

2021 Conference Breakout Sessions

Prior to the Saturday October 23, 2021, conference with our keynote speakers and project updates, Voice of the Faithful hosted a Friday night listening sessions for attendees. Focus was on the 2021-2023 Synod, specifically on the Diocesan phase of the process and how VOTF and its members can participate.

Donna B. Doucette, Executive Director, provided the overview and background for the Synod plus the actions people can take if their parish or diocese does not participate appropriately in the Synod. She also announced that VOTF will be submitting a report to the General Secretariat as a lay organization and will help any groups or parishes that need assistance with their own process.

Attendees then broke into small groups to discuss their own thoughts and concerns, both Synod-related and otherwise. Scribes colleted the thoughts to report back to the entire group what each small group said. Below is a compilation of the thoughts reported by each of the scribes--they are in no particular order and edited slightly only for clarity.


- Diaconal service opened to women (Amazon synod) 

- Need for a synodal Church (ALL need to understand)

- Flatten the administrative structure in local parishes (so that Pastor is not "king")

- People of God (Laity) need to be more "formed" to take on new responsibilities

- Concern that Pastors do not always implement recommendations of focus groups

- More disaffected persons that need to be reached (those who show up but are not involved, youth/young adults, LGBTQ)

- Making a parish more vibrant

- Intentional communities (Paulist Center, Religious communities that exist and support members within the "Church")

- Hierarchy must recognize the role of all the "People of God"

- Concern over the formation of young priests

- Is it time for the Church to "implode" and start over again (current state of affairs, declining membership in the US)?

- We all just have to take responsibility and DO things ourselves


I. Opening Dialogue

Brief discussion of some of the challenges we have faced in implementing the synodal process in our own local communities, e.g., lack of pastoral leadership, difficulties in organizing parishioners, inadequate survey questions, the feeling that some bishops are “waiting things out,” a lack of transparency in the process of selecting contact persons or representatives, etc. There is a sense that bishops are reluctant to dialogue with the laity because they do not want to be forced to share their power, which is an impediment to true synodality. To this end, we expressed gratitude that lay movements such as Voice of the Faithful are convening separate listening sessions and contributing separate reports to the synod. A participant commented that dialogue needs to “bubble up” from the grassroots.

II. A Church on the Margins

Discussion of who is on the margins of the church and how we might best reach them. Key groups on the margins include: young people, divorcees, LGBTQ+ individuals, seniors, “nones” and others who identify as “spiritual but not religious,” people with intellectual or physical disabilities, and monastics. One participant reminded us that “the way the church responds to the least of our brothers” is the most important criterion for judging its success.

One participant mentioned colleges and universities as places to engage with younger people: connecting with Newman Centers, partnering with campus organizations, etc. Younger people are looking for authenticity above all: they want to see that religious leaders are living their faith through acts of mercy and service, not “siloed off” within rectories. There was discussion of fostering an intergenerational dialogue within the church, allowing older members a chance to share their stories and wisdom with younger members, and to learn the dreams and hopes of younger members in return.

Discussion of what the church can learn from the monastic witness—how their life of community and service appeals to younger people in search of an authentic spirituality; how their experiments in self-sufficiency (gardening, sustainable land use, etc.) provide models for addressing the climate crisis—and ways we can incorporate these lessons into our parishes.

Participants reminded each other that our goal is not to evangelize or convert others, necessarily, but to listen to them, to see where the church has erred, and that the best way to draw others (back) to the faith is by example—if others see the fruits of faith in action, they may be inspired to seek out the church. Participants reminded each other that prophets are often on the margins of the church, and that we must be attuned to the prophetic voice when we hear it, especially in our local communities.

III. Key Takeaways

A key takeaway from the dialogue was that we cannot “wait for permission” to begin to enact change—the most inspiring figures in our church are those just “go and do” what is necessary. One participant cited the work of Casey Stanton of Discerning Deacons, a group of religious sisters who feel called to specific ministries and are not willing to wait for episcopal approval to carry out their mission. A point was made that if there had been women deacons and/or priests, there would likely not have been a sex abuse scandal. One participant summarized her dream for an “inclusive, consultative, creative church” that is welcoming to all.

  • US Church needs to remember we are part of the universal Church.
  • "We are an everything parish. We are making a difference". People of God need to get up on their hind legs and make things happen.
  • Young people, particularly between the ages of 16-30, need to be listened to. They do not feel connected to the Church as it is, and are not attending.
  • Need pastors who will listen. This training needs to begin in the seminary.
  • Remove clericalism that impedes progress.
  • Must practice the servant-leadership model if we are truly living the Gospel.
  • Bishops must be mindful of change and be willing to let go of their power.
  • Women must stop being dismissed. 

Marginalized groups:

  • Women
  • LBGT
  • Young people
  • Anybody who is not a cleric

There are channels through which the voices of the laity can be heard: Diocesan Finance Manager groups are lay-led and have influence with the bishop. Who is the Chancelor In your diocese?

The dream of strong lay leadership is supported by Bishop McElroy (recommended NCR podcast with a Sister from Syracuse as worth listening to). In his San Diego archdiocese, listening sessions have already taken place  (McElroy is the poster boy/bishop for synodality and reaching out to the faithful) Stress on the purpose of the process to listen, and not to reach decisions. 

There is a separate issue of reorganization.  

How to get the sentiment of the people? How to invite laity to speak of our dreams? It demands a welcoming invitation that guarantees being listened to and heard. People need to know that their voices matter. How can that be guaranteed?

It is “iffy" whether people will buy into this. Laity are not used to being asked. And there are those who resist any possibility of change—laity and bishops.

The bishop has the power to ignore the Pope’s call to synodality. And many are doing so. It is important to speak up—regardless.

The dream is of a welcoming church. 

We are the church. How can we be a listening and open people in our own places?


Role of Women in the Church:  what does that conversation look like in the Synodal process?

  • Struggling to stay within the church
  • Womenpriest group: RC by faith, not by institution
  • Women catholic priests in San Diego area
  • Women’s participate in the local church – presence and voice, and how to serve the people of God
  • Revision of male-only pronouns in lectionary
  • How to make the necessity of women to a parish understood?

Community – Polarization

  • At local level: may have many active women in some parishes; 
    • but tensions with more conservative groups 
  • Within larger areas:
    • border issues
    • Accepting the current Pope

Diocesan Leadership problematic

  • Clerical diocesan Leadership is uniquely experienced in each parish, depending on pastor; some parishes experience more problems  than others
  • Attempt of faithful to effect leadership change: & they ask of their diocese, Would Jesus recognize this as church today?
  • Increased personal awareness of “silencing” 
  • Progressive diocesan leadership experience threats from conservative elements.
  • Shortage of priests / some lay (women) led parishes

Lay-led initiatives within parishes

  • Small steps to model the kind of church we want in our community
  • Concern about future of church and the youth

A process implies DOING something. But there are challenges to "doing something":

Clericalism is almost impossible to overcome Misunderstanding of what synodality is: It is not about changing doctrine.

A CRISIS in the archdiocese of Cincinnati highlights the barriers to Synodality: Closing 60 parishes in an archdiocese with 200 plus, at the same time as lay input for synodality is planned: The bishop's ”repackaging synodality” as an opportunity for laity to be “Beacons of light” in the process of closing parishes—dealing with decisions that had no lay input and will throw everyone into a whirlwind of confusion and anger. This is synodality?  Not. 

Prayers were offered for the Cincinnati situation. Prayers are needed!

There is “cautious optimism” at the parish level where synodality is evident in small groups: faith sharing, book groups, bible study, etc. But it stops there and goes no higher up in the hierarchy.