Wilmington Diocese Church is doing many things well, but there are areas that need improvement to make it a more welcoming institution, according to a report compiled after months of gathering information ahead of the 2023 Synod of Bishops which will take place in the Vatican.
Almost a year after the synod process was launched, the committee that organized the process in the diocese – led by Fr Glenn Evers, associate moderator of the curia, and Arlene Dosman of Holy Cross parish in Dover – submitted his report to Bishop Koenig. The final report, released Aug. 15, will be incorporated into a summary of those from around the country that the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops will present next year to the Synod of Bishops convened by Pope Francis.
The theme for the 2023 gathering was “For a Synodal Church: Communion, Participation and Mission,” and that was the guiding principle for local efforts, Fr. Evers said.
Pope Francis has called on all Catholics to take a deeper look at how we walk as a church. He wanted dioceses around the world to hear from as many faithful as possible. In the diocese of Wilmington, an opening mass was celebrated last October before a series of listenings. These sessions included representatives from each parish. There was also a virtual listening session, which allowed anyone to complete an online survey to add their ideas.
The synod committee also created focus groups that included Catholic organizations, as well as those “on the periphery,” according to the report. “Chat groups represented the ideal set of unique existing groups that the Synod team should interact with.”
The report lists results in the following areas: faith, worship, testimony and minority reporting. Each section includes information on key strengths, challenges, and action items for that category.
“Faith” represents all the discoveries which, in some way, relate to the intellectual life, to learning and to education.
According to the report, the value of the faith and teachings of the Catholic Church is a strength in the Diocese of Wilmington. The dedication and quality of lay leaders and priests were recognized. Participants also appreciated “the gift of continuous catechesis” through Catholic schools, religious education and the strong Catholic foundation. According to the report, a theme emerged around the need to pay attention to moral issues, especially racial justice, and to the needs of all members of the worshiping community, such as the hearing impaired.
Challenges in this category include insufficient opportunities for faith formation, uncatechized Catholics, and attention to the role and presence of minority Catholics. There is a need to assess parish, regional and diocesan opportunities for faith formation, according to the report.
The next section, “adoration,” includes all discoveries that have to do with the spiritual life, including prayer, worship, sacraments, and liturgy. Catholics who are engaged and participate feel a sense of connection and belonging to their parish communities through Sunday Mass, the report says. Some participants noted that the good liturgical music, as well as the celebrant and the preacher, were also a strength. Others said it was also important to have masses in Spanish and other languages.
Challenges in this category, which the synod team said were opportunities, include the decline in the number of people attending Sunday Mass. The decline began before the covid pandemic, it was noted.
Some people “on the fringes” of the religious community feel that even though they are sometimes verbally welcomed and included at Mass, the superficial display of hospitality does not translate into specific behaviors that demonstrate that welcome.
“The words spoken must be supported by our behaviors and attitudes, so that diverse people feel truly welcome,” the report says. “This includes a willingness to engage with all peoples, which requires understanding and responding to the needs of the diverse Catholic community that is the Church.”
Youth voices are often absent, participants said, as are those of marginalized people in the church. This can cause members of these populations to leave the church altogether.
Action steps for worship include offering programs for growth in its spiritual life, but “there is first a need to recognize the diverse liturgical pastoral needs and aspirations of our faith communities.” Liturgies and other church activities need to be more family-centered, culturally diverse, and include greater parishioner participation.
The report calls for the creation of a “plan of action to welcome all who seek to participate in the pastoral, liturgical and sacramental life of parishes and Catholic institutions in the diocese, adapting specifically to focus on the needs of each”.
The “witness” category includes topics dealing with the pastoral activity or the human dimension of the Church, such as social openness, diversity and secular content. The report notes the presence of “dedicated and loving communities” as a strength in the Diocese of Wilmington, with parishes of all sizes tirelessly sharing their gifts and talents.
Synod participants, however, noted the lack of youth and young adults in many of these efforts, especially the Mass. To help young people stay connected beyond the age of confirmation, the church could include their talents and voices in parish life and empower them as valued members.
The report also notes the “growing pains” of diversity. Integrating cultural identities, languages, liturgical styles and generational differences “into a single homogeneous whole” is a challenge, but also an opportunity.
The action steps for the witness category include the need to be welcoming and hospitable to everyone. Parishes should create communities that include young people, the marginalized, old members, diverse cultures and traditions, and those with special needs. Advocacy as well as direct service is needed to change systemic issues of justice for all, the report continues.
The synod team calls for intentional outreach and creative forms of communication with youth, young adults and families. He advocates the innovative and expanded use of technology. Participants also asked the bishops “to reflect and review that their guidelines cannot overburden the faithful,” in addition to overcoming divisions within the USCCB.
Finally, “the ‘minority report’ represents ideas that did not garner majority consensus in all areas, but were nonetheless important to share as a single voice to be recognised,” the report states.
“Listening to the voices of all people, it became clear that the Church must strive to be what it is called: One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic,” he continues.
For example, some Native Americans and African Americans maintain their faith but struggle to be recognized as viable Catholics. Other participants said the church is recognized as a moral authority with strong teachings of social justice, but is more focused on a single issue rather than life from birth to death.
The church is challenged to meet the needs of those on the margins because “in many ways the church is not the center of life for all parishioners,” the report says. Specific challenges include meeting the needs of those affected by the clergy sex abuse scandal; to combat racism, sexual orientation and gender identity inside and outside the Church; and the role of women in the church.
The church must also find a way to eliminate the perception of being judgmental and overly concerned with rules and regulations, according to the report. It is seen as being out of touch with the challenges faced by many communities.
For this category, the action steps are to become a diocese “patient for the truth of the Gospel and tradition to grow and produce fruit; without compromising or watering down the ideals,” it read. Some participants also said the Church needs to address the problem of Catholic politicians who contradict the teachings of the Catholic Church in their offices.
A number of suggestions were made for addressing reconciliation with those affected by the clergy sex abuse scandal; establish a diocesan-wide forum dealing with racial and social issues; breaking down barriers for the Hispanic community to be accepted as decision makers; create plans to help older parishes; and consider ways to address the shortage of clergy.
The synod team has also published a list of 10 best practices that cover the areas discussed in the report. The full report is available at www.cdow.org/synod.