Pope Francis gives the homily as he celebrates a Mass to open the process that will lead up to the assembly of the world Synod of Bishops in 2023, in St. Peter's Basilica at the Vatican Oct. 10, 2021. CNS photo/Remo Casilli, Reuters

Peterborough harvests ‘fruits of synodality’

  • November 19, 2021

The homilies are getting shorter at The Visitation of the Virgin Mary Parish in Campbellford, Ont., but the Masses are probably longer. That’s because pastor Fr. William Moloney is not going to do all the talking right after reading the Gospel.

“I might do a two-minute reflection, then I’m going to invite comment. I’m not sure how it’s going to unfold. I don’t want to orchestrate it too much,” said Moloney.

Moloney plans to continue this program of dialogue homilies until the parishioners have had their say on three important themes Peterborough Bishop Dan Miehm has identified for the synod and for pastoral planning in Peterborough — communion, participation and mission.

Moloney’s experiment with open dialogue and conversation during the Mass isn’t an example of a priest gone rogue. He’s doing exactly what his bishop wants him to do — starting a conversation, leading his community onto the path of the Synod on Synodality.

“I’m not sure where this is going to take us. I’m not sure where the synod is going to take us. But it’s exciting, as long as we get talking,” Moloney said. “I’m excited by the whole thing. (Pope) Francis is very courageous, doing this.”

Parishioners throughout the Diocese of Peterborough already have two forms of online survey they can fill out, meant to stir up conversation about the future of their Church and their own place inside of it. Or outside of it, if that’s the way they feel.

One survey collects basic demographic information, then asks a series of open-ended questions such as, “What efforts can we as the Church make to encourage participation, involvement and commitment at the parish level and beyond?” The other uses software that allows respondents to see the responses of others without seeing their names. The idea is to encourage something more like a conversation.

As he waits for results to pour in, Miehm is just as excited about the two-year Synod on Synodality as Moloney.

“I do think it is a very important moment, an opportunity for listening to the Holy Spirit,” Miehm said.

Miehm presides over a shrinking diocese of small cities, farms and cottage country. In 2006 its 43 parishes served just shy of 89,000 Catholics. By 2014 that was down to 40 parishes and 61,700 Catholics. Before COVID hit, Miehm had just launched a pastoral planning process, facing up to the new realities.

An open, transparent dialogue is exactly what the Church and many individual Catholics need right now, said Miehm’s assistant for communications Dierdre Thomas, who is co-ordinating synod activities in Peterborough.

“We’ve had some significant experiences during this time of pandemic that has brought people face-to-face with issues of life and death — issues that have really put their faith and their belief front and centre,” said Thomas. “So, it is an optimal time, in the wisdom of the Holy Spirit, to invite people’s reflections upon this moment, and their hopes.”

Though many dioceses across Canada have barely begun their synod consultations, Miehm is reluctant to wear the mantle of frontrunner.

“I’m not sure I feel that confident that we’re doing a fantastic, great job. We’re trying to do what we should,” he said.

In Toronto the archdiocese is “in the process of finalizing a plan to consult as widely as possible,” said spokesperson Mark Brosens.

But a proper and thorough consultation in Canada’s largest archdiocese, with 225 parishes, two Catholic universities, a huge Catholic presence in health care, six different Catholic school boards and nearly two million Catholics speaking dozens of languages, is no simple task.

“The Archdiocese of Toronto is one of the most diverse dioceses in the world, so the consultation process will require a good plan and a lot of work,” said Brosens.

Chancellor of spiritual affairs Fr. Ed Curtis rides herd over a working group that plans to launch a web page soon and issue instructions for pastors.

Miehm is grateful for the recent five-month extension on consultations until next August. For one thing, it gives him a chance to reach some of those Catholics who only show up at Christmas and Easter.

To extend the conversation to Catholics who don’t attend Mass most Sundays, Peterborough has been able to count on co-operation from the three English and one French Catholic school boards that operate within the diocese. Students will be asked for their opinions and they will be encouraged to take the surveys home to their parents. Young people and disaffected Catholics are exactly who the diocese wants to hear from, Thomas said.

That outreach is particularly heartening for Jim Doyle, a semi-retired lawyer and parishioner at Visitation of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

“My own children are intermittent Catholics at best,” he said. “They are invited to have their say… I think it’s great. The bishops have to hear what people are thinking.”

Doyle and his wife Barb are impressed by their bishop’s enthusiasm.

“He’s following the lead of Pope Francis, whom we greatly admire and respect,” Doyle said.

Miehm knows the surveys and other forms of consultation won’t be universally greeted with compliments and encouragement, particularly on issues like the legacy of Catholic-run Indian residential schools. Other contentious issues, including ordination of women and the welcome extended to gay Catholics will come up. Many Catholics will have hopes for the synodal process that can’t be met in the near or even longer term.

“It’s always a risk, with any kind of process like this, that you raise expectations that may not be realized, that may even be unrealistic on some levels,” Meihm said. “We have to take that risk of maybe raising expectations that won’t be fulfilled.”

By the time Peterborough parish responses are boiled down into a report the diocese prepares for the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops, then the CCCB and the U.S. bishops get together and hash out what they’ve heard and put that into a report for the Synod of Bishops in Rome, there may not be much left of whatever comments come out of Moloney’s dialogue homilies. But that’s not the point, said Miehm.

“Simply by virtue of the fact that you bring people together, whether virtually or whether together in church basements and churches for discussion about important values, you are beginning to experience the fruits of synodality.”

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