A synthesis of feedback received from 35,000 U.S. Catholics as part of the ongoing Synod on Synodality reveals that amid political and theological polarization, many lay Catholics desire unity, both among themselves and among the clergy.

In addition, participants in synodal listening sessions acknowledged that the synodal process has unearthed tensions in the Church, in which some said they “were challenged by the Church’s “indecisiveness,” by “lack of reverence,” and by the perception that the Church is “changing the traditional methods.”

But other participants also expressed concern that some people, including those who identify as LGBT, “feel hurt by the Church and are not willing to come back.”  

“This document reflects the sense that there exists among Catholics in the United States a deep desire to rebuild and strengthen our communion as the body of Christ,” Bishop Daniel Flores of Brownsville, Texas, chairman of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ (USCCB) doctrine committee, wrote in the report’s introduction. 

“Rebuilding trust where it is frayed involves practicing the humanly graceful art of listening to each other and speaking together. The more we do this, the more we realize that it is the Lord who never fails us. He responds to us and knows well how to accomplish his will through the communion of his imperfect and often wounded servants.”

Pope Francis initiated the Synod on Synodality in October 2021, kicking off a multiyear worldwide Church effort to engage in listening sessions with Catholics. The faithful were asked to submit feedback to their local dioceses on the question “What steps does the Spirit invite us to take in order to grow in our ‘journeying together’?” 

The first monthlong session of the Synod on Synodality concluded at the Vatican on Oct. 29, 2023, with the finalization of a 42-page synthesis report. The October 2024 session is expected to produce a final report, which will be presented to Pope Francis for his consideration in issuing any related teaching.

During the interim period between the 2023 and 2024 synod sessions at the Vatican, U.S. dioceses were encouraged to hold two to three listening sessions during Lent and submit a three- to five-page document to the U.S. synod team. Seventy-six percent of U.S. dioceses and eparchies submitted syntheses based on more than 1,000 listening sessions and the contributions of over 35,000 participants.

The USCCB had asked that the dioceses focus on two “guiding questions”:

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  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?

The National Synthesis document for the “interim stage” follows the previous September 2022 release of a national synthesis for the synod’s diocesan phase, which saw about 700,000 people participate, out of 66.8 million Catholics in the country. 

‘Our Church might be a little messy’

As synthesized in the May 28 report, many of the reports from the listening sessions expressed a wish for an “increased focus on formation for evangelization … a need for stronger catechesis and formation, focusing specifically on programs for evangelization, Catholic social teaching, and the role of the family.”

Also emphasized was the importance of clerical and lay Catholics working together. “It is important for laypeople to rely on their pastors and help their pastors, and it is important for pastors to rely on their laypeople.”

Participants noted that parishes with “numerous small faith communities, Bible studies, and prayer groups prove most successful in welcoming and integrating people from diverse backgrounds” in a manner “beyond superficial welcoming.” The role of Catholic schools in evangelizing the community was also widely recognized. 

Many participants said they were thankful for the witness of those who serve as priests, religious, and consecrated men and women as well as those who are discerning their vocations, but they are also concerned about “the lack of vocations and the need for vocation awareness, encouragement to discern vocations, and formation of discernment communities.”

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Participants also expressed hope for priests to be united, something the bishops expressed hope for as well. “Division in the priesthood will bring division in the Church,” one participant commented. 

At the same time, “some are very worried about how the Church responds to LGBTQ and other marginalized people … others want to stand firm in the Church’s teaching and not shy away from the truth.” It was expressed by many participants, the report says, that “leadership in the Church needs to be clear about our truth; confusion is leading to frustration and division among the faithful.”

“If we don’t talk about difficult topics, we can become like a dysfunctional family,” another participant said. 

Many parts of the Church, including some of her long-established institutions, have “become complacent, even ossified … some are afraid of change and tired of doing new things, they are content with doing things the way it has always been done before,” participants said. 

Several participants expressed appreciation for Church institutions that operate with more “nimbleness,” which they said allow these institutions and structures to remain mission-oriented, operating “more from a ministerial perspective rather than … as a business.” 

Numerous reports from the listening sessions, the report says, cited instances of communication, “both from the hierarchy and from secular and Catholic media, which reflect and perpetuate division within the universal Church and send conflicting messages of what it means to be Catholic.”

“When the communication of the Church is not clear and consistent, it becomes an obstacle to the mission,” the participants said. 

The report noted that the celebration of the Traditional Latin Mass seems to be “a focal point of broader debates about tradition, modernity, and the best ways to nurture faith across the diverse spectrum of Catholic belief and practice,” with a participant adding that “young people want to find new expressions [of faith] and to be accepted when we do.”

The report says that they heard from many people, including those who identify as LGBT or who are divorced and remarried, who “feel hurt by the Church and are not willing to come back.” 

In addition, “there needs to be more opportunities for women to hold leadership roles within parishes, dioceses, schools, and organizations.”

“It was noted by many that the faithful “should not be embarrassed about recognizing that our Church might be a little messy — it’s better not to pretend that we are the perfect institution but that we belong to the perfect and one, true faith,” Flores wrote in the report’s conclusion. 

The Vatican will hold the final meeting of the synod in October of this year. After the October assembly, the synod will produce a final report, which will be submitted to Pope Francis.