Vanderbilt Divinity School students, staff join synod discussion 

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Students, faculty and staff at Vanderbilt Divinity School in Nashville participated in a listening session for the Synod on Synodality on Wednesday, April 6. Theology professor Paul DeHart, a parishioner at Christ the King Church, makes a point while discussing one of the questions posed during the session. Photo by Andy Telli

 For the Synod on Synodality, the Diocese of Nashville has cast its net wide seeking input from the entire People of God – Catholics, former Catholics, non-Catholics, those who have been blessed in life and those who live on the margins. 

Among the many listening sessions that have been conducted as part of the synod process was one with 10 students, faculty and staff of the Vanderbilt University Divinity School on Wednesday, April 6, to discuss the synod themes of communion, mission and participation. 

“We knew it would be a diverse group who would have some insights into the Church from a different perspective, especially as people studying and working in ministry,” said Erin Stracener, director of the diocesan Tribunal and a co-contact for the synod in the diocese along with Dr. Brad Peper, director of the diocesan Office of Faith Formation.  

“Pope Francis wants all of the people of God, not just Catholics, to participate,” Stracener said. “This was one way to reach a mixed group of Catholics and non-Catholic Christians.” 

“I really appreciated it, starting with Pope Francis saying we want to listen and watching it percolate down to the diocesan level,” said Paul DeHart, a professor of theology at the Divinity School who participated in the listening session. 

He noted that Peper and Stracener encouraged the participants to be honest in discussing the questions posed during the session. “I think that’s extremely healthy, and I hope we see a lot more of it,” DeHart said. 

“I don’t see why this shouldn’t be happening every other year,” said Justine Chen, director of communication for the Divinity School. “It can’t be a top-down discussion anymore.” 

Chen’s comments are in line with the goals of Pope Francis. He 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.” 

“I came into it not knowing what to expect,” Chen said of the listening session. “I thought it was going to be a very structured thing.” 

Instead, the group was encouraged to discuss several questions posed addressing communion, mission and participation in the Church. 

The diocese doesn’t have to wait until the synod process is complete to respond to some of the issues, concerns and suggestions raised during the listening session, Chen noted.  

During the discussion, the participants talked about the need for the Catholic Church and churches of other faith traditions to be open and welcoming to all people. 

DeHart, a parishioner at Christ the King Church in Nashville, said during the discussion that the issue of communion comes down to whether a person feels at home in the Church.  

He said he wants a “sense of a collective project that we’re all living together, even if I don’t know you personally. …To me, it’s extremely worship centric. To me, that’s the focal point.” 

Brad Peper, director of the Diocese of Nashville Office of Faith Formation, explains the synod process at the start of the listening session.

The listening session “went the way I expected, actually,” said Father Bruce Morrill, S.J., a Divinity School professor who holds the Edward A. Malloy Chair in Roman Catholic Studies. He knew the people invited to participate in the listening session would be generous and respectful in discussing the Catholic Church, even in raising problems they see in the Church, he said. 

“They could bring up those issues because they trusted Brad and Erin,” said Father Morrill, who helped organize the listening session at the Divinity School. “And Brad and Erin invited that.” 

“The listening session at Vanderbilt Divinity School allowed us to hear from the People of God in an ecumenical setting,” Peper said. “The community offered open and honest dialogue to help further the church’s path toward greater synodality.” 

Listening sessions have been held at churches, schools and other locations throughout the diocese as part of a two-year process leading up to the Synod of Bishops on Synodality to be held at the Vatican in October 2023. They have produced wide-ranging discussions. 

After the listening sessions are completed, Stracener and Peper will review the information gathered through listening sessions and write a 10-page synthesis. That document will be forwarded to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, where staff will compile the syntheses from all the dioceses in the country into a single document that will be sent to Vatican officials as they prepare for the synod in October 2023. 

The synthesis that will be prepared at the diocesan level will also be posted on the synod’s webpage on the diocese’s website:

People who can’t attend a listening session can still participate by filling out a questionnaire available on the synod’s webpage. Among the issues people can discuss and comment on are: 

  • How can the Church live out its Christian faith? 
  • How can the local Catholic community foster a Spirit-filled sense of belonging among the laity, new members and visitors? 
  • How can the local Church encourage participation in the life of the Church by the laity, by young adults, and by youth? 
  • How can local Catholic communities equip parents with the knowledge and tools to pass on the faith? 
  • How is the local Church reaching people on the margins of society? 
  • How does the local Catholic community foster the faith with active Catholics and engage with fallen away Catholics, people of other denominations or religions, and those with no religious affiliation? 

For more information about the synod, visit

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