Synod report: Dialogue, engagement in the Mass crucial


PROVIDENCE — A Diocesan report chronicling input from the faithful in the Diocese of Providence following Pope Francis’s call for global participation in “Synod 2021-2023: For a Synodal Church: Communion, Participation and Mission,” has been approved by Bishop Thomas J. Tobin and advanced to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, where it will be included in the report being sent to the Vatican through a multi-faceted process.
The Diocesan Committee on the Synod of Synodality collected more than 1,500 responses through an online survey, created by a sub-committee, to gauge public opinion on 10 themes identified in the Vatican’s 40-page preparatory document for the synod. Those responses, along with reports from several gathering sessions held around the diocese, formed the basis of the report.
Bishop Tobin thanked the committee, which he appointed on Oct. 17 during Holy Mass at the Cathedral of SS. Peter and Paul to open the synodal process in the diocese, for their time, talent and personal commitment to its work over the past nine months. He noted that the report is “quite detailed and comprehensive.”
“I think it is fair to say that the Diocese of Providence responded in a very substantial way to what the Holy See asked us to do,” the bishop said.
A summary of the diocese’s synod surveys and discussions was compiled into a 12-page document that has been submitted for use in the regional phase, the next level of the synod preparations. National and continental phases will follow before final summaries are delivered to the Vatican in the universal phase in time for presentation and discernment during the October 2023 Assembly of Bishops in Rome.
Edward Trendowski, Ph.D., director of the Office of Faith Formation, and Michelle Donovan, assistant director, served as the diocese’s two contact people who led the committee, coordinating communication with the faithful across the diocese in order to gather their perspectives on a variety of issues regarding the Catholic faith.
Other members of the committee were: Father Michael Woolley, pastor of SS. John and Paul Parish, Coventry; Father Joshua Barrow, pastor of St. Teresa of the Child Jesus Parish in Pawtucket; Sister Anne Frances Klein, O.P., Providence College; Marlyn Batista; Nicholas Belt; Diane Castro; Holly Taylor Coolman, Ph.D.; Carlene Fontaine; Deacon John Fulton, Ph.D., St. Kevin Parish, Warwick; Seminarian Nathan Ledoux; Devonn Pafume; Miguel Romero, Ph.D., Salve Regina University; and Richard Stewart, Bishop Hendricken High School.
Individual parishes were also encouraged to hold their own sessions to engage as many people in the process as possible.
“I think there was a lot of interest in the synod depending on peoples’ perspectives and what the synod was supposed to accomplish,” said Trendowski.
“It was wonderful to have people of various ages discuss topics related to the Catholic Church, many of whom had never met previously.”
The report concluded that from the experiences of the in-person gathering sessions, the survey and other points of contact showed that when people feel comfortable to dialogue with one another, even when conflicting ideas are shared, the partners can learn from the experience.
It also showed that for the majority of people active participation in Holy Mass has a positive bearing on their daily lives.
A parish report submitted to the committee about its meeting on the synod topics speaks positively about the ways diocesan outreach ministries participate in offering corporal works of mercy.
One participant in the synodal process, who had fallen away from the church, reported how her faith became reignited during interactions with Catholic staff at a local hospital who encouraged her to return to the Church.
Also, a layman submitted comments to the committee in which he recognized that pastors are “shorthanded, overworked and burning out.” He proposed that priests should invite the laity to more actively participate in the mission of the Church as they are willing to help wherever needed.
The report also noted that a parish leader spoke at a session of his positive experiences serving in a parish that has both English- and Spanish-speaking parishioners. He said that English-speaking parishes could benefit from programming that leads people to encounter Jesus Christ.
Another man, 78 years old, asked the Church to consider holding days of General Absolution as a way of welcoming back those who have fallen away.
Overall, the process itself was illustrative of the cohesion regarding communion, participation and mission, as well as other areas in which the faithful could grow, both Donovan and Trendowski said.
“By asking the first question about their positive experiences with the Church, participants were able to consider ways we can grow as a Church in communion, participation and mission,” Trendowski said.
Most of the attendees and survey participants were born into a Catholic family and raised in the Catholic faith, according to the report. A few people had stopped participating in church worship, but had since returned to attending Holy Mass regularly. Some had drifted away from the Church but were drawn back by being invited to return. Others commented on being inspired by good Catholic role models as they grew up, including relatives who served as priests.
When one woman mentioned in a session how she had very much enjoyed attending Catholic school growing up, but because her family could no longer afford it, she was sent to a public school.
This prompted a discussion in the gathering session about the need to provide increased financial support to Catholic schools.
Some participants sent in letters offering their views on specific issues.
One gentleman expressed his desire that the Traditional Latin Mass continue without restriction, while some lay people said they would like their pastors to more actively invite them to undertake specific tasks within the Church’s mission of evangelization.
Trendowski noted that the survey was especially valuable in gathering perspectives from the faithful.
Slightly more women than men took part in them, with the majority of respondents identifying as white. A little more than 10% of respondents were under the age of 35, while about 20% were under the age of 45. About one-third, 33%, were 65 or older, representing the largest demographic according to age.
“This certainly did not mean that everyone in attendance saw the Catholic faith through the same lens,” he said, adding that many participants had diverging views on some topics.
A key surprise from the survey were the responses received to the survey question, “Who is the Catholic Church not effectively reaching?”
A significant number of respondents indicated they believed the Church is not effectively reaching youth and young adults.
Donovan said that when she received responses such as these during the in-person sessions, she found it helpful to ask what specifically they were referring to, in this case the perception of some that the Church is not reaching young people.
“When someone says ‘the Church’ is not effectively reaching youth and young adults, it is unclear how many people recognize that we are all members of the Church,” with a responsibility to evangelize to young people and others, Donovan said.
Also, a few participants at the sessions suggested that women should be ordained to the priesthood and that Catholic priests be allowed to marry after they are ordained. Others expressed concern that women were not being heard or not being invited to participate in the life of the Church. Still others called for pastors to enlist help by reaching out and forming lay leaders to assist them in their ministries.
“When these sentiments were shared, they tended to be more directly stated in survey responses than in face-to-face conversations,” Trendowski said, adding that a number of Catholics did also share these sentiments at the gathering sessions or through direct phone conversations with the committee leaders.
He said that initially, some ideas presented for improving life in the church centered on changing Church teachings in certain areas.
“In some cases, when people advocating for a certain idea would present their opinion, their reasoning seemed to be the result of their formation from the broader American culture and not based on formation in the Catholic faith,” Trendowski said.
The diocese hosted four regional in-person gathering sessions in English, and one in Spanish, along with an additional session online. Through the process, the committee leaders heard from some participants who voiced concerns that the Church is not doing enough to change with the times if it is to continue to exist, while others countered that sentiment, insisting, “If the Church capitulates to the world, particularly on moral issues, it will continue to lose members,” according to the report.
When Pope Francis in 2021 opened the two-year process, known colloquially as the “Synod on Synodality,” many people around the world were delighted at the prospect of having their voices heard through this opportunity for discussion on ways to broaden and strengthen participation and life in the Catholic Church.
Donovan said it was interesting to note that even though some people expressed different opinions at the in-person sessions, the participants all sat together at the same tables and their discourse was always respectful and civil.
“I was pleased that there really was an atmosphere of dialogue and conversation,” she said.
The full report is available for viewing on the diocesan website at