Philly synod artwork misrepresented our views, Catholic students say

A screenshot of the image produced from the Philadelphia Catholic Higher Education Synod which participants say misrepresented them. A screenshot of the image produced from the Philadelphia Catholic Higher Education Synod, which participants say misrepresented them.

Artwork based on a listening session for Philadelphia-area Catholic university students drew global comment and criticism after it was shared on Vatican social media. Organizers are now taking seriously some students’ objections that the art mislabels their images and misrepresents their professed Catholic faith.

“We thought it was misrepresenting what we were standing for,” Sean Smith, a student who is an active member of the Catholic Newman Center at West Chester University in West Chester, Pennsylvania, told CNA Sept. 30. “The artist put us in the spot where it looks like we are saying the beliefs found in the artwork. None of that is any of the beliefs that we share.”

Smith and several companions had attended a session of the Philadelphia Catholic Higher Education Synod, which drew about 400 participants from 11 Catholic colleges or universities and three non-Catholic universities’ Catholic centers. The synod’s final report included artwork that drew global attention after the Synod of Bishops on Sept. 24 shared cropped images on its social media accounts.

One image summarizes the synod against the backdrop of the Philadelphia skyline. An element of local color is included: a small image of Gritty, the mascot of the National Hockey League’s Philadelphia Flyers. The image includes a statistical summary of this gathering: 48 listening sessions at 14 universities, 28 interracial sessions, and 27 interreligious meetings.

Further, the artwork realistically draws six young people sitting in folding chairs. They are labeled as “Muslim,” “first-year education student,” “physics major,” “CLC leader,” “grad student,” and “Queer.” Various opinions are written in cursive across the whole image.

Smith objected that the artistic image misleadingly used his likeness and the likeness of fellow students he knew. Smith identified himself as the student portrayed as wearing a cross and holding a microphone. He said he was wrongly labeled as a Christian Life Community leader, when he has no association with the student group.

“The art portrayed in the picture of the synod does not correctly represent us as practicing Catholics. The artist depicted four out of five of us with false identities seemingly to fit a more inclusive and skewed agenda,” he told CNA.

Furthermore, the woman next to Smith was drawn with her real-life features, except she was drawn as a person of color and labeled as a graduate student, when she is a white undergraduate student.

“The woman next to her was labeled as queer, but she is a heterosexual woman in agreement with Church teaching on sexuality,” Smith told CNA. “This image warps the truth.”

Maureen O’Connell, a spokesperson for the local synod team, said synod organizers were “alarmed and upset” upon learning of the students’ concerns and quickly reached out to the relevant campus minister “to try to figure out the appropriate way to address those very legitimate concerns.”

“We worked very hard as a team who designed this experience to make sure we really actively listened and listened well to students,” she told CNA Oct. 4. “To know that some of them feel as though that did not happen, or that that happened in a way that actually was harmful, is obviously a real concern to us.” 

Father Tom Gardner, chaplain at the West Chester University Newman Center, echoed the concerns of the students. He said it was important to clarify that those represented in the art were not expressing the views “that were at least implicitly expressed in the painting.”

“They were hurt because they were presented in a painting that was presenting an agenda that was not in line with anything they had said,” he told CNA. “It was a misrepresentation.”

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.”

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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.

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