Synod document suggests dialogue should continue

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Dr. Brad Peper, left, and Erin Stracener, co-contacts for the Synod on Synodality in the Diocese of Nashville, have written a synthesis report, summarizing the topics discussed during listening sessions held across the diocese. The synthesis suggests the dialogue among the People of God that began with the synod should continue. Tennessee Register file photo by Katie Peterson

With the completion of the synthesis report on the Synod on Synodality in the Diocese of Nashville, the process moves to the next step. But the dialogue among the People of God on the themes of communion, participation and mission in the Church should continue.

That is one of the conclusions of the synthesis report, which was prepared by the diocesan co-contacts for the synod, Dr. Brad Peper, director of the diocesan Office of Faith Formation, and Erin Stracener, director of the diocesan Tribunal. The synthesis summarizes the topics discussed during the synod process.

“Another suggested next step is to continue the act of active listening following the Synod on Synodality,” Dr. Peper and Stracener wrote in the synthesis. “Such listening could take place on the parish or diocesan levels and proceed in a different manner from the current journey. What is most important is that the Church continues this journey together in lived synodality, listening to the Holy Spirit and reflecting the will of God.”

Pope Francis has called on every diocese in the world to participate in the synod, “in which the entire People of God engage in mutual dialogue and authentic listening to foster the Church’s communion, participation and mission,” according to Vatican documents on the synod. 

Synodality is defined as “a way of being by which the Church lives out her mission in dialogue with the living voice of the People of God and in openness to the guidance of the Holy Spirit.” 

“Pope Francis wants us to enter into dialogue within the Church and with the world as a whole,” Bishop J. Mark Spalding said. “A Church that is truly synodal is one that is confident enough in itself to listen to all, even those who may have disagreements with us.”

As part of the synod, the diocese invited people to attend listening sessions, led by facilitators, at churches, schools, and other settings to discuss how the Church is living out its mission. The dialogue also included Christians from other denominations and people of other faith traditions, Bishop Spalding noted. 

“This was a very positive experience for participants and facilitators,” Dr. Peper said.

“I think to a person they appreciated being asked” to participate, Bishop Spalding said.

“All of us involved were pleasantly surprised by the response and the feedback from the people who participated,” Stracener said. “We had good constructive criticism.”

The people who participated in the synod showed a spirit of “co-responsibility within the Church and for the Church,” Bishop Spalding said after reading the synthesis. “I love the spirit of co-responsibility of all who participated,” he said. “I want the Church to prosper in the Lord. When I read that document, I see that my fellow Christians want the same.”

Even when discussing challenges in the Church, “everybody brought those up in a respectful manner,” said Bishop Spalding.

“Many of the responses in the listening sessions were incredibly constructive,” Dr. Peper said.

Key takeaways

Among the key takeaways from the listening sessions, according to the synthesis, were: 

  • “Reflective of the rise of various immigrant populations in Middle Tennessee, participants expressed a clear concern and need for better integrating the English speaking and non-English speaking communities within the parish. … Parishes with more rapid cultural and linguistic changes express more difficulty with the transition. However, most participants desire to find ways to celebrate together but also acknowledge a need for how to accomplish this while still respecting a given community’s cultural heritage.”
  • “Finding new and more effective ways to involve families in events, ministries, and services was consistently voiced. Many parents, especially those with younger children, found it difficult to participate in the life of the Church due to the hecticness of life and lack of childcare.”
  • “Many participants reported a significant decrease in participation from the youth following the pandemic. Creating ways to re-engage the youth both in programs and Mass was cited as a priority. Involving the youth more directly in decision-making processes, mentored leadership positions within ministries, and liturgical celebrations were suggested in addition to youth-oriented events and catechesis. 
  • “The youth reported that they feel empowered when asked for their input, especially from priests, which increases their desire to want to participate in the life of the Church.”
  • “Participants expressed a need for greater lay involvement in administrative decision-making and responsibility at the parish, seeing this as a potential means for clergy to be more available for sacramental opportunities in the parish.”
  • “Many would like more (education) programs to be offered at the parish level for all ages, especially for high schoolers and adults. Others expressed the need for speakers and teachers who have expertise in doctrine and discipline. A consistent sentiment from listening sessions was the desire for more family-based or parent-based catechesis, which would enable parents to be better equipped as the first teachers of the faith.
  • “More robust education on both the contents of Scripture and Tradition was raised throughout most of the listening sessions. A common corollary concern among participants, especially young adults, was the need to teach the Catholic faith more boldly and avoid conforming Christ’s message to a modern or secular sensibility.”
  • “The Pro-Life movement was cited consistently as one of the central issues the Church needs to continue promoting. Some participants suggested more attention is needed toward preventing the conditions that make abortion seem like an option. Others noted that all matters of life, from conception to natural death, need more emphasis.” 
  • “In both the listening sessions and surveys, people voiced the need for greater attention and discussion at the local level regarding the environment.” 

Participants in the listening sessions expressed “a strong desire for certain forms of outreach,” Dr. Peper said, including prison ministry and ministries for people with disabilities and those who are separated or widowed.

“There was a strong response and desire to become more engaged with those who are not Catholic,” through service projects or opportunities for dialogue, Dr. Peper added.

“There is a great desire to continue building parish life through the sacraments, fellowship, family, and education to help extend the mission of the Church in reaching out to others in the surrounding community,” Dr. Peper and Stracener wrote in the synthesis.

The hope is that pastors, parish leaders and diocesan leaders will use the synthesis as a starting point to develop ways “to better effect the communion, participation and mission in our diocese,” Dr. Peper said.

“I think the easiest and first approach will have to be at the parish level” Stracener added. “There are things that can be implemented in each parish to meet the needs of the people more efficiently or more effectively.”

In the listening session for the parish facilitators, several identified things they heard from participants that they would like to implement, Stracener noted.

The synthesis report can be viewed online at

Next steps

The Diocese of Nashville’s synthesis document will be forwarded to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, which has asked the archdioceses and dioceses in each of the country’s 15 regions, to combine their reports into a single synthesis. Those reports will then be used by the USCCB staff to develop a report for all the United States that will be forwarded to Vatican officials preparing for the Synod of Bishops in October 2023. 

Nashville’s synthesis will be used to help develop the document for Region V, which includes the archdioceses and dioceses of Alabama, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi and Tennessee.

The syntheses from other dioceses “look a lot like ours,” Bishop Spalding said.

He hopes his fellow bishops will see the synod process “as an affirmation that our people are willing to be involved in the Church at all levels and on every topic.”

Bishop Spalding was “deeply grateful” to Stracener and Dr. Peper for their work organizing the synod listening sessions and preparing the synthesis of the comments collected.

“Their good work around the process allowed a fruitful participation of the people of the Diocese of Nashville,” Bishop Spalding said.

He was concerned that, because the synod was beginning as the COVID-19 pandemic was easing,  COVID fatigue might make people hesitant to participate, Bishop Spalding said. “They’re handling of those issues was quite conducive” to people’s participation, the bishop added.

In reading the synthesis prepared by Stracener and Peper, “What I saw really was an affirmation of our consultative bodies,” including priest councils, parish councils, finance councils, development councils, and school committees and councils, Bishop Spalding said. “Any of our consultative bodies should take heart that our people are appreciative of being part of those bodies and of giving advice to diocesan and parish leadership.”

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