The synodal process promoted by Pope Francis is coming to dioceses across the United States, each of which is being asked to hold “listening sessions” throughout Lent about the structure and organization of the Church. 

Pope Francis initiated the worldwide Synod on Synodality in October 2021 and held the first global assembly at the Vatican in October 2023. The gathering included cardinals, bishops, members of the clergy, and lay Catholics and centered on discussions about the structure and organization of the Church, along with other topics. The Vatican will hold the final meeting of the synod in October of this year.

Per Vatican instructions, each diocese is expected to host local gatherings to discuss similar questions with members of the clergy and lay Catholics. The guidelines for American dioceses, set by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, urge clergy and lay Catholics to pray and spiritually prepare for local meetings through the beginning of 2024 and hold between two and three “listening sessions” during Lent. 

The USCCB is requesting that the dioceses focus on two “guiding questions”: 

  1. Where have I seen or experienced successes — and distresses — within the Church’s structure(s)/organization/leadership/life that encourage or hinder the mission?

  2. How can the structures and organization of the Church help all the baptized to respond to the call to proclaim the Gospel and to live as a community of love and mercy in Christ?

Julia McStravog, the USCCB’s senior adviser for the synod, told CNA that the process could vary from diocese to diocese, noting that each diocese “will ultimately decide how to implement what we ask of them.” The local synodal structure in a given diocese will be “dependent upon how the dioceses choose to go about it,” she said. 

“Synodality happens at the local level,” McStravog added.

People who desire to participate should “be in touch with the diocese,” McStravog said. The USCCB will also host a public webinar next week that will discuss the local synodal process. 

When holding the listening sessions on these questions, the bishops’ conference suggested that dioceses hear from “voices that may not have been heard in earlier stages of the synod” or from “other groups that were underrepresented in your diocesan consultations.” Only about 1% of Catholics worldwide took part in the previous synodal stages.

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McStravog said this could also vary from diocese to diocese but that two groups the USCCB is paying particular attention to are “migrants” and “the poor,” both of which the Vatican has asked bishops to focus on. She said other voices include priests in general as well as deacons. 

The bishops further encourage each diocese to collaborate with Catholic organizations such as schools, colleges, nonprofits, and health care facilities. They further request that the dioceses “focus upon the voices of the people of God.”

The global assembly last October covered a variety of topics, such as the organization and the structure of the Church, as well as discussions on more controversial topics, such as blessings for same-sex couples and women’s ordination. The synodal report did not offer definitive conclusions on these questions, but the topics of women’s access to the diaconal ministry and priestly celibacy were listed as “matters of consideration.”

McStravog said, however, that as the synod has gone on, the Church is trying to “narrow in” on certain topics, such as structure and organization, which is what the Vatican directions “wanted local churches to focus on.”

When asked whether the diocesan synodal process will address concerns from traditional Catholics about recent promulgations over the past few years, such as restrictions on the Traditional Latin Mass, McStravog said previous documents have noted that “liturgy is becoming a pressure point” in the United States but that she is “not sure how much that will come up” given that the focus is on organization and structure. 

Following the listening sessions, the bishops’ conference is requesting that each diocese create a 3- to 5-page synthesis document based on the listening sessions and submit those documents to the USCCB by April 8, which is about a week after Easter. 

The bishops will then work on a “regional synthesis process” from April 9 to April 22 and then draft a “national synthesis” by May 14. The USCCB will submit its national synthesis document to the Vatican’s synod secretariat by May 15, which will precede the Vatican’s next global synodal assembly in October of this year.

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After the October assembly, the synod will produce a final report, which will be submitted to Pope Francis.