By MARIA WIERING, OSV News | Published October 4, 2023
(OSV News)—Bishop Kevin C. Rhoades, a delegate to the Synod on Synodality from the United States, said that going into a pre-synod retreat, he thought it was a “good idea,” but added that he has been pleasantly surprised by the number of meaningful personal interactions he has had with other participants in the world Synod of Bishops.
“This is really a spiritual exercise that I’ve found very enriching,” he told OSV News Oct. 2. “This is really beginning with a strong spiritual focus.”
Speaking from Fraterna Domus retreat house 17 miles north of Rome in Sacrofano, Italy, Bishop Rhoades said the Oct. 1-3 retreat has not included “the content” of the synod at the Vatican, but instead has provided opportunities for “really, really good conversations” with people from around the world.
“I understand what the Holy Father is hoping for—that there will be spiritual conversations,” said Bishop Rhoades, leader of the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend, Indiana, “that we get to know each other, but that prayer is such an integral part of it.”
Bishop Rhoades is one of 14 U.S. bishops participating in the synod’s Oct. 4-29 general assembly meeting. Ten other voting nonbishop delegates appointed by Pope Francis also are attending from the United States and Canada, including four American laypeople: Richard Coll, the director of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Department of Justice, Peace and Human Development; Cynthia Bailey Manns, adult learning director at St. Joan of Arc Parish in Minneapolis; Wyatt Olivas, an undergraduate at the University of Wyoming; and Julia Oseka, an international student from Poland at St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia.
Additional nonbishop delegates from the United States are Father Ivan Montelongo of the Diocese of El Paso, Texas, and Sister Leticia Salazar, a member of the Order of the Company of Mary Our Lady, and chancellor of the Diocese of San Bernardino, California. All nonbishop members participated in North America’s continental-level pre-synod meetings.
The synod, which is formally themed “For a Synodal Church: Communion, Participation and Mission,” includes more than 450 participants—363 of whom are voting delegates—with leaders from the Vatican curia and episcopal conferences. More than a quarter of synod members are nonbishops, including laypeople, who for the first time will have a vote during synod deliberations. The synod general assembly has been divided into two sessions, with a second meeting planned for October 2024. According to a synod preparatory document, the synod is guided by questions of how the church can “journey together” to evangelize and how to grow to be more “synodal,” sometimes described as a “listening church.”
Prayer has been an important part of delegates’ synod preparation. Prior to leaving Minnesota for Rome, Bailey Manns asked her community for prayers—for good health, as well as “prayers for patience, prayers for clarity, compassionate empathy, to make sure I’m open,” she told The Catholic Spirit, newspaper of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis.
Asked if the appointment weighs heavily on her, Bailey Manns said yes and no.
“It’s not heavy in terms of it’s too much responsibility,” said Bailey Manns, who holds a doctorate in ministry from the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, California. “It is intense, and the importance of it. I’ve always been a person who is very comfortable in being one of the few at the very beginning of anything. And so that space is not the piece that challenges me. It’s wanting to make sure that I’m doing this well and that I’m paying attention to God in all of this.”
She said prayer runs through the preparatory documents for the synod and will be important all the way through.
“They have a wonderful phrase in there, that the protagonist of this is the Holy Spirit,” she said. “And so, how do we all try to embody that in a way that’s compassionate and deliberative and with empathy, and also with a great deal of self-awareness in terms of where our issues are, things that are important to us? And so that is the grounding of it.”
In a video posted Sept. 29, Oseka told Archbishop Nelson J. Pérez of Philadelphia that being chosen was “a humbling experience” with both universal and personal aspects.
“I felt that there is a huge mission ahead of us as a church, but also this desire to grow in my prayer as well, to truly be a delegate, not only Julia, going to the synod,” she said.
“I hope to bring the experience of the young church, not only here in the United States or greater North America, but also my experience of the young church in Poland,” said Oseka, who is studying physics and theology. “Those two are very interwoven, and there’s no generalization happening. It’s a mosaic of experiences of my friends and people I’ve met.”
Bishop Pérez asked her to summarize the experience of a young adult Catholic for the pope.
“Young people of North America and other continents as well, I’m sure, want to be the ‘now’ of the church, want to be active protagonists in the church, want to learn and listen to the Spirit and work hand-in-hand with those in higher positions, leadership positions in the church,” Oseka said.
Taking in new ideas
Speaking on social media from Chicago O’Hare International Airport ahead of his flight to Rome Sept. 28, delegate Bishop Robert Barron of Winona-Rochester, Minnesota, said he had just finished praying a decade of rosary and asked that others join him in prayer for the synod.
“The last several weeks, I’ve been praying very much with this synod in mind,” said Bishop Barron, who founded Word on Fire, a Catholic media apostolate. “This high-level gathering, really outside of an ecumenical council, is probably the highest level gathering for church people to discern what the Holy Spirit wants us to do.”
On Oct. 1, Jesuit Father James Martin, author and editor-at-large for America magazine and a synod “at large” delegate specifically chosen by Pope Francis, tweeted from Sacrofano that retreat director Dominican Father Timothy Radcliffe, former master of the Order of Preachers, gave a “beautiful opening meditation” that “uses the story of the Transfiguration to help us reflect on the church today.”
Ahead of the synod, the USCCB organized several opportunities for the U.S. delegates to build community and reflect on their role, including a virtual and in-person meeting at University of St. Mary of the Lake/Mundelein Seminary near Chicago Aug. 28-29. Part of that meeting was “creating a spiritual plan for our delegates to sustain themselves in October,” Julia McStravog, senior adviser on synodal matters for the USCCB, told OSV News.
“They’re long days, they’re long weeks. It’s a lot of talking and listening and taking in big ideas or new ideas and different ideas,” said McStravog, who planned to accompany the U.S. delegation to Rome to assist them throughout the synod.
The nonbishop delegates “have been committed to this work for the past two years (throughout the synod preparation phase) and to participating and listening deeply, and they’re incredibly prayerful people,” McStravog said. “They love the people of God, and they want really to honor and care about what it means to be chosen to do this.”
Maria Wiering is senior writer for OSV News. Contributing to this story is Gretchen R. Crowe, editor-in-chief of OSV News, and Joe Ruff, editor-in-chief of The Catholic Spirit.