Bishop Thomas R. Zinkula of Davenport, Iowa, and Patrick Schmadeke, diocesan director of evangelization, have a conversation Jan. 28, 2022, about the "58,000 Cups of Coffee Initiative." It is "a deep and thorough listening" process involving diocesan Catholics as part of local preparations for the church's 2023 world Synod of Bishops on synodality. CNS photo/Barb Arland-Fye, The Catholic Messenger

Coffee, conversation, Catholic communion

By  Barb Arland-Fye, Catholic News Service
  • February 9, 2022

DAVENPORT, Iowa. -- An idea began brewing in Patrick Schmadeke’s head as he listened to an interview with Xavière Missionary Sr. Nathalie Becquart on the Synod of Bishops in 2023.

“Synodality starts with coffee,” said Becquart, a French nun who serves as undersecretary of the Synod of Bishops.

“That just rang true to me,” said Schmadeke, director of evangelization for the Diocese of Davenport. “Conversations over coffee are (where) listening humbly about people’s experience of church can take place.”

Meanwhile, he and members of the diocesan Evangelization Commission were figuring out how to reach the disaffiliated.

“They just don’t show up at church for an event and are unlikely to show up for a formal listening session,” he said. “Most, if not all of us, have friends and family who are disaffiliated. So, how do we leverage people’s personal relationships?”

Then Schmadeke smelled the coffee. The diocese had just compiled its 2021 diocesan Mass attendance count: 19,399, about 60 per cent of pre-pandemic numbers. If each of those Massgoers had a conversation with three people, that would total around 58,000 cups of coffee.

So, the coffee pot was put on. The 58,000 Cups of Coffee Initiative began.

“This is a clever way for Catholics in the diocese to engage other people (about) Catholic faith,” Davenport Bishop Thomas R. Zinkula said. “A lot of folks don’t know how to broach the subject; they think they don’t know enough about the faith; they won’t have answers to questions.

“The synod and this initiative give them an excuse, an opportunity, to talk to others about the faith, and all they have to do is listen.”

Here is how it works:

Mass goers are invited to have a synodal conversation with three people: someone already in the pews; someone who was in the pews but hasn’t been since the pandemic; and someone who has never been a part of a faith community or stopped practising long ago.

The conversation focuses on the essential question of the synod in the Davenport diocese: What fills your heart and what breaks your heart about the Catholic Church (in your parish and beyond)?

“This is about listening to the experience of your conversation partner. It’s not about debate or listening to respond. It is about deep and thorough listening to understand,” Schmadeke said. “We want to learn from their experience.”

No one is limited to three conversations.

“This is an opportunity to generate enthusiasm for the faith in our communities,” he said.

The diocese provides a form on its website  for the person who initiated the conversation to share thoughts about the experience.

Deacon candidate Ryan Burchett, who serves on the Evangelization Commission, reached out to a Catholic friend who has been away from the Church for some time.

“It led to a really interesting conversation for us,” Burchett said. “He told me where he stood, and I told him where I stood. We both left the conversation in tears. It was heartfelt.

“So seldom, in this day and age, are we afforded the opportunity to be heard without being subjected to advice, judgment, counterpoints. It was a time to stop and listen.”

He admitted to feeling anxious inviting his friend to talk about their faith. 

But, he said, “‘what fills your heart and what breaks your heart,’ moves past the superficial stuff. It cuts to the core. My advice: don’t be afraid to give it a shot.”

Burchett is grateful he did.

The 58,000 Cups of Coffee initiative is one of two prongs of the diocesan synod process. The other focuses on organized listening sessions that leverage the structures of the Church such as parishes, schools and other diocesan entities to connect to the greater community.

“Hopefully, once they get a taste of this, people will be inclined to continue having one-on-one conversations about the Catholic faith,” Zinkula said. “Hopefully, it will become more natural and normal.”

Keep the coffee pot on.

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