O’Connell said that, in her understanding, the artist used an image from the cross-campus gathering to try to “communicate the broader demographic of the 400 students.”
“Our intention there was that art expands the conversation, it doesn’t contract the conversation. Art opens up space for multiple interpretations,” O’Connell, who is an associate professor of Christian ethics at La Salle University in Philadelphia, said. “Hearing that there have been students who feel as though their very selves have been misrepresented is a cause for real concern. So we are definitely trying to address that.”
O’Connell said the first synodal session is focused on listening.
“This isn’t about articulating truths, it’s about articulating what the hopes and the dreams of the people of God are,” she said. She hoped that art in the next stage of the synod is “something that can help us cultivate much-needed skills for communal discernment.”
She said organizers need to address the harm that the concerned students might have experienced, and there is also a need to show concern for those who might see hostile responses on social media from critics of the artwork or of the synod reports.
“We don’t want that to cause harm to any student who showed up and had entered into a space of trust to risk telling us what was really on their hearts in terms of their wounds and their hopes,” she said.
Smith, one of the students who says he was misrepresented, said he and his companions were “trying to represent truth” and wanted to say that the youth would like the clergy to “share that truth found in Scripture.”
“There’s a lot of confusion in the Church regarding clergy and opposing views between progressive bishops and conservative bishops,” he said. “What I’m looking for is a unifying voice.”
In Smith’s view, the discussion at the cross-campus synod gathering reflected cultural pressures, including the discussion on homosexuality. He said the event “started out talking about women deacons and more representation in the Church and in the clergy.”
Other artwork from the synod report included a picture of a “woman priest” that drew particular comment and criticism when it was shared by the global Synod of Bishops on social media, given that the Catholic Church has rejected as impossible the ordination of women as priests.
Synod organizers said they had commissioned the artwork from Becky McIntyre, a northwest Philadelphia artist and alumna of St. Joseph’s University, because she has commitments to the Church and has “a deep background in an understanding of the arts and human dignity and the common good.”
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“We believe in the power of artistic expression to help people speak and hear truths, to build empathy and compassion, to build participation especially for voices that are often marginalized in our Church,” organizers told CNA in a Sept. 29 email.
The primary goal of this “listening phase” of the synod was “to listen well to the students,” organizers said.
“Our report is consonant with Catholics across the country shared about women’s leadership and ordination,” they added, citing the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ own instruction that during the synodal process “one may agree or disagree with some of the perceptions heard and expressed, but we cannot assume they have no importance in lived reality.”
Guidelines for the synodal process emphasize the need for people with different experiences and perceptions to “continue to meet and listen to one another” to help perceptions “become more realistic and less based on broader cultural or political narratives,” local organizers told CNA.
“We believe in building trust among students who named experiences of broken trust,” the local organizers said.