Dozens of ideas debated, but at day’s end, impact should be ‘personal, not programmatic,’ archbishop says
Mike Stechshulte and Dan Meloy | The Michigan Catholic
DETROIT — It isn’t every day that hundreds of Catholics, led by their archbishop, can be seen marching down the sidewalk of a major American city.
More often, Catholics can be found in their churches, busy with the day-to-day matters of running parishes, keeping the lights on and tending to the important — but routine — work of daily ministry.
And that’s why the gathering on this mild November afternoon was so important.
The Nov. 18 procession along Washington Boulevard in downtown Detroit from the Westin Book Cadillac hotel to St. Aloysius Church was the start of a new day for the Catholic Church in southeast Michigan, a day in which the local Church would strive, as Archbishop Allen H. Vigneron had repeatedly said, “to shift from maintenance to mission.”
“The world is waiting for the good news of Jesus Christ,” Archbishop Vigneron proclaimed as he officially opened Synod 16, the 11th general synod of the Archdiocese of Detroit and the first in southeast Michigan in 47 years.
“We made a big deal about this in our planning: we need to be patiently urgent. We need to have the patience that comes from waiting and trusting in God, but we need to be urgent about it,” Archbishop Vigneron said.
The “it” to which the archbishop referred was the work of evangelization, or, as he told the more than 400 synod members, experts, facilitators and observers gathered at the Westin, “what will make the Church in southeast Michigan a joyful band of missionary disciples.”
Earlier in the afternoon, the weight of the historic moment visibly moved the archbishop as he addressed synod members for the first time before leading the procession to St. Aloysius.
“Peace be with you,” the archbishop told the synod members, to their enthusiastic response, “And with your spirit.”
“As I greet you with the words of our Lord in the upper room on the night he rose from the dead, I am deeply moved,” Archbishop Vigneron said. “When I was in Baltimore recently for the bishops’ meeting, the nuncio reminded us that we bishops principally are witnesses that Jesus is risen from the dead. It is a great blessing to me to know that you all believe that, too.”
The risen Jesus became a theme for the synod’s first day, which would be followed by two more days of intense prayer, discernment and discussion about the future of the Archdiocese of Detroit.
Donald Czaplicki, a synod member from Guardian Angels Parish in Clawson, said Archbishop Vigneron’s conviction in the power of the Holy Spirit in the synod was inspiring.
“That he has that kind of depth of feeling for what’s taking place here is very impressive,” Czaplicki said. “This means something to him, which really means something to me as well.”
In their first official act, the 358 synod members — including laypeople, priests, religious and bishops from all corners and ministries of the archdiocese — solemnly professed the Nicene Creed and an oath of fidelity during the opening Mass, processing up individually to place their right hand on the book of the Gospels.
The purpose of the synod — to provide advice and counsel to the archbishop about the future direction of the archdiocese — wasn’t lost on Beth Allison, who served as a table facilitator during the synod weekend.
“It’s overwhelming, but in a good way,” said Allison, of St. Paul on the Lake Parish in Grosse Pointe Farms. “We’ve been praying a lot, doing holy hours. I’ve been praying for the members at my table and for the Holy Spirit to work through them.”
Individuals: Different experiences, same Lord
After the Mass and the archbishop’s address at the Westin, the synod members gathered to begin their task of discussing, debating and deliberating on the synod’s 46 themes over the weekend, broken into four sessions on individuals, families, parishes and Archdiocesan Central Services.
During the Friday afternoon session on individuals, Mike Fullam, a consultant with the Philadelphia-based Catholic Leadership Institute serving as master of ceremonies for the synod, told members their task was to discuss how “through personal encounter with Jesus Christ, every person can embrace his or her identity as a son or daughter of God” and be sent to proclaim the good news.
Following an introduction to the theme from Archbishop Vigneron, synod members broke up into small groups of eight to 10 people — including a table facilitator and expert-adviser — to discuss the propositions before returning to the large group to report their ideas.
Though members did not vote on most of the propositions under the individuals and family themes — which were designed to get synod members thinking about their personal role in evangelization — Jim Tingay at the Northwest Region 8 table felt the discussions were stimulating.
“Our group talked about being our own personal witness and what drew us close to Christ,” said Tingay, of Immaculate Conception Parish in Lapeer. “Often, we found how others said or did something in which they saw the Lord working through the Holy Spirit. You start with the individual, and then you have a good understanding of who you are yourself in a relationship with Christ.”
Fr. John Fletcher, CC, an expert-adviser at the Central Region 1 table and chaplain to Wayne State University’s Newman Center, said the session challenged synod members to see beyond just their own experience of the faith.
“The challenge for the individual is to be a faithful Catholic, a committed Catholic, to be something worth sharing,” Fr. Fletcher said. “If you’re not faithful, not committed, what are you sharing?”
Families: Inviting the ‘ignored groups’
The Saturday morning session on families was similar in feel, with synod members gathering to discuss propositions related to “the domestic Church.”
The family propositions, like those of the individuals theme, were largely centered on personal experience, challenging married couples and parents — as well as all family members — to create an environment in which Christ’s love and mercy are present.
Specific propositions challenged couples to “embrace the sacramental purpose of marriage as a path to mutual holiness and salvation” as well as to “assume the responsibility for passing on the fullness of our faith and a Catholic worldview to their children.” Fathers in particular were the focus of another, which challenged men to “look to Jesus, rather than the popular culture, for the definition of what it means to be a man.”
Mike Merlo, a synod member at the Northwest Region 5 table, said the propositions addressing the challenges of married life struck a particular chord.
“Maybe after marriage prep, we need to have marriage renewal every five years or so, because our lives change in the years after we receive the sacraments,” said Merlo, of Sacred Heart Parish in Auburn Hills.
Under the family propositions, synod members were asked to choose between two specific projects for the archdiocese to pursue. In a vote of 26 to 20, by table, synod members choose, “Envision and develop a plan for ongoing human and spiritual formation for all the stages of life.”
Heywan Weldeab said the reason for her table’s choice was the need to engage the “forgotten” demographics in parish life.
“We talked about 18- to 30-year-olds as unintentionally being an ignored group. After they’re confirmed, no one talks to them until they’re married and have children,” said Weldeab, a young adult from St. Elizabeth Parish in Detroit.
Weldeab said it’s important to actively invite young people to take up a role in parish life, making them feel like more than an “in-between” generation.
“With that invitation, you feel willing to do more, you feel valued,” Weldeab said. “Young people want to join in more participation in the Church; they’re just waiting. You feel like more than just a person who’s not married, not old and not a kid.”
Parishes: Everybody’s responsibility
The process continued for the Saturday afternoon and Sunday themes — parishes and Archdiocesan Central Services — with members taking on a more deliberative role, voting on specific propositions to recommend to Archbishop Vigneron.
Under the parishes theme, synod members were asked to choose — by table — their top proposition in three categories: Parish Culture, Parish Functions and Parish Leadership.
At the large group report-out following the parishes theme, Fullam revealed the top vote-getters:
- “Build a culture of personal encounter with Jesus that permeates every aspect of parish life and leads to a loving encounter of our neighbor;”
- “Equip, empower and support individuals and families in mission;” and
- “Establish pastoral leadership teams as a normative practice, where team members develop shared responsibility and accountability both to the vision of the archbishop and the mission of the parish. Extend the same team dynamics to all parish and/or school staff.”
With respect to the latter, Barbara Adragna of St. Thecla Parish in Clinton Township told The Michigan Catholic her table discussed the need for a parish-wide vision for evangelization, similar to what was discussed at April’s Amazing Parish Conference.
“The parish isn’t just staff, it’s every level from the cleaning person to the pastor, everyone in the office to everyone in the pews,” Adragna said. “Everybody who comes to a parish needs something, and we need to listen to the prompting from the Holy Spirit and figure out how best to bring Jesus to them.”
Fr. Joseph Gembala, pastor of St. Malachy Parish in Sterling Heights, agreed, adding priests can’t expect — or be expected — to do the monumental task of evangelizing alone.
“The people at my table were excellent, they came prepared and I learned a lot,” said Fr. Gembala of the Northeast Region 4 group. “I think the key for priests is to listen to your parish. The Holy Spirit works in all of us, and we need to work together.”
Central Services: Healing wounded relationships
On Sunday, synod members gathered for a final time to discuss propositions related to Archdiocesan Central Services, or the “downtown headquarters” of the local Church.
Archbishop Vigneron, in his introduction to the theme, told synod members he used to get a laugh at parishes when he would introduce himself by saying, “Hello, I’m Archbishop Vigneron. I’m from the archdiocese and I’m here to help.”
“In the upper level organization, people don’t always think of it that way, but I want to begin by assuring you that that is how my coworkers do think,” Archbishop Vigneron said.
“That said, please look at these propositions and ask yourself ‘How can the archbishop and his coworkers help the parishes and other communities of the archdiocese be missionary disciples?” the archbishop said. “The question is, how can we better serve? We really do want to hear that.”
In their small groups, members were asked to choose three propositions from among a group of 11 initiatives. After their deliberations, Fullam reconvened the assembly and revealed the top propositions.
Far and away, the top proposal was to, “build a framework for mutual accountability between pastors, parishes, schools and the Central Services. To build a foundation for this, heal wounded relationships, build trust and practice transparency.”
Vickie Figueroa, of Corpus Christi Parish in Detroit, felt healing — especially given the tensions of parish mergers and closings, strained finances and racial stresses — was paramount.
“We chose proposition No. 7 because of the many wounds and prejudice in the archdiocese, especially in the Central Region, which need to be healed,” Figueroa said. “For many, the Church needs to be a place where we make sure the people are heard, that they are loved. But Jesus is awesome, and once we get in the spirit of that, we’ll be joyful missionary disciples.”
The second highest vote-getter was to, “invest in people, processes and tools that ensure effective, anticipatory and responsive communication to all those engaged or seeking engagement with the Church.”
Ernesto Bridgnanan of Divine Child Parish in Dearborn, felt it was important for the archdiocese to “recognize that each parish is different, with different cultures and challenges.”
“We can’t have a ‘one-size fits all’ strategy, but we’d like to see Central Services develop a leadership structure that adapts to the growing needs of each parish,” Bridgnanan said.
Three other propositions tied for the third highest: developing formation around key areas of missionary activity; break down racial, ethnic and socioeconomic divisions; and supporting the re-envisioning of the mission, funding and governance of Catholic schools.
At the end of the day, ‘this is about Jesus’
Each synod session was steeped in prayer, with members gathering for Mass or a prayer service to begin and end each day.
After the final session, Archbishop Vigneron celebrated the closing Mass at St. Aloysius, thanking members for their service and promising to reflect deeply on the synod’s results.
“For three days together, the Holy Spirit has been at work to show us how to share these saving graces with our neighbors and those we love,” Archbishop Vigneron said. “We give thanks that together, in the ballroom and in the hallway, we have shown publicly our allegiance to our crucified king.”
Following the synod, Archbishop Vigneron is expected to meet with the expert-advisers — whose task was to record notes about the synod discussions and serve as non-voting participants — before issuing his own account, likely in the form of a pastoral letter, by Pentecost 2017.
Archbishop Michael J. Byrnes, outgoing Detroit auxiliary bishop and a leading voice in organizing Synod 16, said whatever comes of the archbishop’s discernment, it’s likely to involve a call to a radical recommitment to Christ for every person in the Archdiocese of Detroit.
“The archbishop captured it well when he said this is personal, rather than programmatic. Evangelization is personal because Christianity is personal,” said Archbishop Byrnes, who in the week after the synod was scheduled to fly to Agana, Guam, to begin his new pastoral assignment as coadjutor archbishop there.
“And that’s something that for decades of living an institutional life, honoring the institution of the Catholic Church — which is an awesome institution — this is making us step back and say, ‘Wait a minute; this is about Jesus.’”
More Synod 16 online
For more coverage from Synod 16, visit www.themichigancatholic.org/synod16:
- Archbishop Vigneron opens Synod 16: ‘The world is waiting for the good news’
- Synod results: Formation crucial for ‘all stages of life’
- Synod leaders see good fruits already starting to emerge
- Synod members find different experiences, but same Lord