I thought I wasn’t going to be able to attend the “Listening Session with the Bishop” because I had already missed a day of work that week, and was going to miss another one for a funeral. I was sure I was going to have to work that night and wouldn’t be able to go. I admit to being a little relieved, actually. I am such an introvert. Furthermore, I have social anxiety. I never want to go anywhere. Even things I want to do I start dreading when the day arrives. I knew the Synod was my responsibility though. I knew if the opportunity presented itself I should go and would go.
As it turns out I got off work early so I was not off the hook after all. I had just enough time beforehand to start dreading it.
I admit that another fear of mine was that I would leave feeling disappointed or angry and alienated or all of those things.
I confess that I have felt that way a lot already as a Catholic for a while now. Sometimes it is worse than others. There are a few reasons for this but they are exactly the ones that are a big deal to me.
The abuse crisis and the adversarial treatment of survivors of clergy sexual abuse and tone deaf pronouncements on the crisis by Church leaders were hard to get over. I had started to acclimate myself to this new reality we are living with and find ways to express myself about it which helped a lot.
After the murder of George Floyd, I was largely horrified by the reactions of white Catholics. I know y’all saw the same thing and heard the same running commentary so I won’t elaborate here. I live in a very conservative town but I suppose I was naive about what that would mean when it came to this issue in the age of Trumpian politics. I care deeply about racial justice for a variety of reasons. I am not perfect but am working on being more aware of these things. I have also not learned how best to talk to fellow white people who freak me out on that topic. Presently I have to be aware of my limitations and some people I have learned not to engage.
I was extremely disappointed in the response of local and national Church leaders in the wake of the racial reckoning that followed George Floyd’s death. In fact I was aghast about their absence on the scene. In my town, even at prayer rallies on racial justice sponsored by several local churches, none of the five Catholic Churches in our deanery participated and none of them held their own events either.
Our town is CONSERVATIVE yet people really turned out for George Floyd outside the courthouse and the busiest street in town to show support and demand action There were local church pastors there and even in the lead. There was an area set up for prayer with someone always there to pray with anyone who wanted to. A local Orthodox priest was even there. Not one Catholic priest.
Local churches signed a letter about their commitment to racial justice that was published in our home town paper. There was nothing against Catholic teaching in the letter. Not one of our Catholic parishes was on that list. Some Bishops went out of their way to condemn Black Lives Matter but did nothing of their own to stand with Black People, to stand with Black Catholics. A couple of them did. The Bishop of El Paso even marched with BLM. All in all however, the response was paltry in some cases. and abhorrent in others.
The division in the Church politically has become as ugly if not more ugly than it is everywhere else. Some people hate the Pope. Some Bishops hate the Pope. We can’t stand each other and go on the attack on social media. It’s a mess.
So I was worried I would just feel even more the way I already did.
Plus the introvert thing.
And the social anxiety.
However I prayed and I went.
Not that many people were there. This may be due to the lack of advertising about it and unclear information about who was invited to what session. I didn’t hear about it once at my own parish though the one I attended was supposed to be regional. My attempts to call around and ask were pretty much fruitless, the information scanty and/or incorrect. I don’t know what’s going on with that. If nobody else did either that is probably why the attendance was not impressive.
There were several tables set up, and some coffee, tea and snacks on the counter. Wandering around and recognizing nobody I picked a table where there was a couple with kindly faces who smiled at me. It took a while before I noticed it was the bilingual table. I’m not bilingual though I took Spanish at school I don’t know that much nowadays. I apologized and offered to move. They said, “Stay!” So I stayed.
Bishop Joe Vasquez arrived and made the rounds visiting various tables. I have never met him before. He has a peaceful and gentle face. I thought he was adorable!
A bilingual woman from the Diocese named Leslie came to sit with us. People started talking. Some of them knew the Bishop and took pictures with him.
People began arriving late, probably just getting off work.
Another woman from the Diocese who oversees Catholic Schools got up to talk to us about what to expect. She also let us know this was not about airing grievances or debating with others especially about Church teaching. This was about praying for the Holy Spirit’s guidance to know how we can do our part in discerning his guidance in the direction of the Church in Communion Participation and Mission. It was about listening as well as speaking.
The questions for consideration were different and much more thought provoking than the ones my daughter told me about when she was completing the online survey.
They showed us a series of power points with sets of questions. Of each set we could personally pick one to answer, one that stood out to us. Then we had a couple minutes to pray and consider. This part of the process reminded me of Lectio Divina; the way we read, take a word or phrase that stands out, ponder and pray what God could be saying to us and then respond to it.
After we had done this, we then took turns at the table discussing what we came up with. I was not only welcome at the bilingual table but Leslie and others translated everything everyone said for me. This was most kind. I was a little worried we wouldn’t have enough time that way for everyone to speak but it worked out fine.
People at my table were friendly and warm. I felt so comfortable I forgot to be anxious.
Highlights for me were were hearing the answers around my table about how the Church can reach out more. Most of the people at the table were from Santa Teresa, a primarily Hispanic parish in the downtown area. One of their ministries involves knocking on doors and talking to people. One man told a story about a house where they were verbally attacked by an angry anti-Catholic family. Their group’s response was to listen instead of reacting. The mother of this family in particular was extremely upset. She felt “attacked” by the Church, she said. The ministry group encouraged her to talk about what happened. I don’t remember what happened but the woman had been very hurt by the Church to the point she felt she had to leave. They listened to everything she had to say and then they apologized to her, “on behalf of the Catholic Church.” She started crying and was very moved by that. She kept thanking them when they left. “What!?” I exclaimed, “I need to learn Spanish so I can come with y’all!” “You are very welcome! Come with us anyway!” Other people around the table said in response to the story, “That’s beautiful!”
One of the questions on the screen was about where we find joy in our life in the Church. I really liked that. Another one in that set was about whether there were any barriers to us participating in Church life and liturgy. When it was my turn I said that my parish is very alive and active and the presence of the Spirit is easily felt there. I love it. However, I don’t participate in many ministries largely because of the requirement to take classes about sexual abuse and how it happens etc. I had not planned on talking about it but I said that as an abuse survivor those classes are very triggering for me. I don’t sleep well and feel all messed up for a week. Even the one- on- one milder version threw me. So I just stopped being a Eucharistic Minister for instance when the classes began to be required for that. Everyone just listened to me kindly.
Some people at my table were much involved in catechesis and I was struck by their devotion to children and the young, by the gentleness in their faces and voices when they spoke of it and of the things they hoped to do for the young in their parish.
I began to have fun. I felt very at home with them and I started to feel like I almost understood when they spoke Spanish. They were good natured about my mistakes when I tried to use any Spanish I knew. They didn’t seem to mind that I am a little awkward in general.
When one of the questions asked who the marginalized in the Church were and how the Church can better reach them and include them, I answered slightly differently than I had thought I might on my drive over. When it was my turn I said I thought there were very few black Catholics in our area. I know in some places there are more, such as in Louisiana and Houston. There are a couple of primarily black parishes in our outlying counties. However at any given mass here in town there are anywhere from no black people at all or just two or three if that. This bothers me. My granddaughter is black. She starts CCD classes next Fall. She will be the only black child in her class without a doubt. I wish things weren’t that way. I thought that we as Church would seem like a welcoming place for African Americans if we stood up for racial justice more publicly, if we lifted up black Saints, and had more black Catholic leaders speak in our parishes more, or asked our black brothers and sisters what they would like to see us do. The others nodded solemnly and supportively.
Some of them mentioned the elderly being marginalized and that we needed more ministries devoted to them and to host more activities for them, visit them more. Others mentioned the poor. I mentioned single moms, having been widowed when my children were very young. I felt loved and supported by the community but single moms and single parent families being mentioned sometimes and our particular problems addressed would be good and make us feel we belonged more.
During another part someone from each table was invited to stand up and either give a summary or say something they wanted to say.
Some of what people said at this stage annoyed me but I felt like a good sport. We need their voices too.
One table thought that the devotees of the Latin Mass were the marginalized.
Another table said the Church needed to focus on the family more. (“What?” I thought. The Church focuses on the family the family the family all the time!)
Someone said we should all stop complaining to the priest about what tree gets cut down and other minor issues and let them care for souls.
One table said that in “olden times” the Church was somewhere people could go when they were in trouble and get help and consolation. The poor could come for assistance. However these days we send these people to other places (I assume they meant St. Vincent de Paul) and don’t deal directly with them. I have discussed that before with others and know it to be a contentious issue for some. However everyone just listened.
Hey I see that the Holy Father is on to something. We all just listened to one another. And the world didn’t blow up.
I had started to see people I knew and even a whole table full of people from my parish, St. Mary’s by the end of it. However I stayed at my table because I loved it over there.
One person stood up and talked about the importance of being people of prayer. He was basically talking about The Practice of the Presence of God and praying without ceasing. I found out later I had known him in High School and that he likes my column in the paper.
By the end the mood was festive. In fact I think it was festive the whole time. (Joy and a sense of Community: true signs of the Holy Spirit at work!)
We ended in thanks and prayer. The adorable Bishop Vasquez began to pose in pictures with various groups of people. My fellow table mates all thanked one another and I said I had to go to Santa Teresa more often. Everyone said they would keep an eye out for my book.
It was good. I reflected on the way home that the Holy Spirit was certainly at work in that process, on the move among us.
It may sound dramatic but I felt that the load of anger and alienation had been lifted for me. I still have the same values as before. But I felt part of the Universal Church much more than I have in a good while.
At my table we had all agreed that this Synod was a very significant step toward healing and renewal for the Church.
Turns out it was for me too.