Listening Sessions: Diversity tops strengths, trust a big challenge

| December 15, 2015 | 5 Comments

At archbishop’s request, more than 2,000 Catholics shared views on local Church

Words from listening session participants describing attributes desired in the next archbishop. The Catholic Spirit

Words from listening session participants describing attributes desired in the next archbishop. The Catholic Spirit

More than 2,000 Catholics participated in one of 10 listening sessions held throughout the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis in October and November. Attendees included lay leaders, men and women in consecrated life, priests and deacons, as well as students, seminarians and people who have left formal parish affiliation. They represented at least 80 percent of the archdiocese’s parishes.

The observations and opinions expressed ranged broadly, but over the course of the sessions, several common themes emerged. Attendees were asked to identify the archdiocese’s greatest strengths and challenges, and to share the qualities they would like the next archbishop to possess.

Greatest strengths

The archdiocese’s top two strengths presented at the listening sessions were diversity and Catholic education, followed closely by social justice outreach, prevalent lay leadership and evangelization initiatives.

  • Diversity. When speaking of diversity, participants said they valued having different cultures, as well as varied expressions of Catholic faith, parish identities and sizes, liturgical styles and ideologies. Some also mentioned the archdiocese’s geographic diversity, with urban, suburban, small-town and rural parishes.
  • Education. Participants expressed pride in the fact that the formal Catholic education system spans from pre-kindergarten to graduate school. The archdiocese is home to nearly 90 grade schools and high schools, two full universities with satellite campuses of two others, and two seminaries. The Archbishop Harry J. Flynn Catechetical Institute — a non-degree program based on the Catechism of the Catholic Church — was also frequently noted, as were general ongoing faith formation opportunities.
  • Social justice. Participants described the faithful of the archdiocese as particularly oriented toward acts of charity and the cause of justice for the poor and marginalized. Some attendees characterized this impulse as “a missionary spirit.” Noted was the important work of Catholic Charities and other outreaches to people in need.
  • Lay leadership. Often cited in conjunction with strong Catholic education was the presence of a well-educated, involved and influential laity. This was presented as an advantage and opportunity for parishes, and also a reason for priests and Church leadership to view lay Catholics as partners in ministry with valuable training and experience. One participant noted a “high level of theological literacy inside and outside the Church.” Participants also described the laity as “resilient,” “committed” and “loyal” in the face of the archdiocese’s current challenges.
  • Evangelization initiatives. The archdiocese is home to several nationally reaching organizations and apostolates, including those focusing on young adults. Mentioned in the listening sessions were the National Evangelization Teams, St. Paul’s Outreach and the Center for Catholic Studies at the University of
    St. Thomas.
  • Other strengths. Also frequently mentioned were the archdiocese’s priests and men and women religious, the leadership of Bishop Andrew Cozzens, a history of being a progressive archdiocese, and widespread availability of adoration. Many participants in the Spanish-language listening session included Latino ministry and its annual Latino Family Day among the archdiocese’s greatest strengths. They also frequently cited “unity” as a strength, but also included “unity between ‘Anglos’ and Latinos” among the archdiocese’s challenges.

Greatest challenges

By far, the top challenge identified was restoration of trust between Church leaders and the faithful. Other challenges repeated at each session were the bankruptcy and concern for the archdiocese’s financial stability, the need for healing from clergy sex abuse scandals, and the difficulty of bringing Catholics who have left the Church — especially the young and disenfranchised — back to the community.

  • Trust. Many perceived a lack of transparency and cited the local Church’s loss of credibility. Some participants said that lack of trust extended to the listening sessions, and they questioned whether their input would be shared with the aposotolic nuncio ahead of Pope Francis’ appointment of a new archbishop. The presence of a staff member from the nunciature at the last three listening sessions seems to have addressed this doubt for many.
  • Finances. In January, the archdiocese entered Chapter 11 Reorganization to allow it to address all sexual abuse claims equitably. It continues to work in mediation with victims’ counsel and insurance carriers. To date, legal fees have topped $5 million. Few participants, however, mentioned finances in their written comments.
  • Healing. Most participants expressed the need for healing from clergy sexual abuse scandals, both for victims and the Church. Several times, healing was tied to transparency and trust. One listening session participant wrote, “Openness and forgiveness need to take place before healing can take place.”
  • Need for increased evangelization. Many pointed to the need for greater outreach to those who have drifted away from the Church as well as the “nones,” those indicating that they have no church affiliation. Many noted how challenging it is to reach out to Catholics who have divorced or remarried, or to those who are uncomfortable with individual confession — particularly if they had become accustomed to “communal penance” — or to individuals who are in in same-sex relationships or living contrary to the Church’s teaching on sexuality or procreation. Many noted that the local Church needs to do a better job of explaining its teachings. Participants frequently noted the need for better outreach to youth, young adults and young families. Several participants noted that the majority of those attending were over 50 and asked where the young people were. Noted also was the need for more Spanish-speaking priests and for greater outreach to new immigrant groups.
  • Other Concerns. Repeatedly mentioned was concern about women’s leadership roles and influence in the Church. “I feel you have no idea of how painful it is to be a woman in the Church,” one participant wrote.

Other oft-cited concerns focused on the formation of new priests, with several participants troubled that the more recently ordained seemed to have been trained to adopt a clerical attitude. A comment from a listening session of deacons and priests noted “growing polarization among priests — young conservatives and old progressives — [that] can lead to conflicts in parishes.” Meanwhile, as noted in the archdiocese’s strengths, other attendees praised the seminary formation and vibrant, young priests.

Other challenges included “growing secularism in the Church,” priest shortages, overworked pastors and church staff and “an improper understanding of Vatican II.”

Next archbishop’s qualities

At most listening sessions, participants were asked to summarize in single words the qualities they’d like the next archbishop to possess. “Pastoral,” “humility,” “servant,” “compassionate” and “trustworthy” were popular. Many participants said the next archbishop should be a good communicator, collaborative and courageous. Several coined the phrase “Pope Francis-like” and many suggested Archbishop Hebda was welcome to take the role. At Pax Christi, one participant stood up and said that at the heart of it, people hoped the next archbishop would be like Jesus. Several participants quoted Pope Francis, saying a good archbishop would “smell like his sheep.”

“We need an archbishop who embodies both the new liturgical movement and the charismatic renewal and can bridge the gaps between the two with a spirit of love, joy and self-sacrifice,” one participant wrote. “He cannot shrink from promulgating and defending the teachings of the Church [and] requires faithfulness from his priests and disciplines those who contradict our faith to uphold Church teaching,” wrote another. Said a third: “Need a pastor who exercises by walking the neighborhoods, riding the Green Line and sponsoring potluck suppers.”

Other observations

  • Strengths and challenges expressed were fairly consistent between urban, suburban and rural parishes, but Latino leaders generally see different strengths and challenges facing the archdiocese than non-Latino Catholics.
  • Several things listed as “strengths” were also seen as weaknesses. As mentioned, “diversity” was nearly unanimously affirmed as a great strength, but several participants lamented not feeling at home when visiting other parishes and said Catholics across the archdiocese fail to share a unifying identity.
  • The overall education of the laity is in dispute. When championing “well-educated laity,” it is not clear whether participants meant professional education or theological formation. Many did specifically argue that both were true, but other participants said that many lay adults — including themselves — were not well formed in their faith and needed more opportunities to learn.
  • Several listening session participants said they felt like their small-group conversations were co-opted by people with agendas. “Group was not representative of local Catholics,” one wrote. “Heavily weighted toward old, white and ‘progressive.’ It was a vocal minority.”
  • Archbishop Hebda intended for the listening sessions to address areas that affect specifically the local Church. Nonetheless, at almost every listening session participants shared their sense that the universal Church needed to change its teaching on women’s ordination, a subject Pope Francis confirmed in September was not an option for the Church. “My heart continues to ache for the countless women who will no longer have anything to do with a Church that continues to participate in the exclusion of women from all ministry, leadership and even inclusion in the language we continue to use,” wrote one woman, who identified herself as a 63-year-old who has worked in ministry for 40 years.

Others expressed a desire that the universal Church change its teaching on same-sex attraction.

What’s next

Most listening session participants returned their individual worksheets to the archdiocese in addition to notes from their table discussions. Many also added final thoughts on note cards left that night or mailed later. The result is a collection of thousands of documents that the archdiocese plans to make available to the public in some form.

Archbishop Hebda expects the information gathered from the listening sessions to play a role in the selection of the archdiocese’s next archbishop. As The Catholic Spirit previously reported, the archdiocese sent summaries from each session to Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, the Holy See’s apostolic nuncio to the United States. Msgr. Michael Morgan, the secretary to the nunciature, attended three listening sessions and met individually with about 30 Catholic leaders during his time in the archdiocese.

Archbishop Hebda also expects the information to be a helpful for the next archbishop as well as priests, deacons, and archdiocesan and parish staff and leaders. The Catholic Spirit plans to explore some of the topics prominently addressed.


Selected quotes from listening session participants’ comment cards:

“This is the first time I remember being asked by Church leaders for my thoughts.”

“We need to have more gatherings like this.”

“Listen especially to rural parishes and get input on elderly population.”

“There is a lack of unity through diversity — no sense of ‘home’ in archdiocese, but localized to parishes.”

“Do not attempt to change Church teaching; rather be faithful, open, listening [and] compassionate to struggles of Church members.”

“There should be no such thing as liberal or conservative — just Catholic.”

“Church needs to focus on marketing to young people.”

“Please send us leadership which will continue listening to laity and encourage listening between a polarized laity.”

“Somebody who could speak Spanish would be great.”

“Please find someone who will teach the flock why the Church stands where it does on issues of the day.”

“I’m glad I didn’t give up on the Church — there is hope!”

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  • Charles C.

    I kind of like the idea of having someone so dedicated to the faith that he would be willing to martyred for it. Archbishop Nienstedt would be a good choice if it wasn’t for the fact that so many Archdiocesan Catholics don’t want an outspoken voice for Catholic values. St. Paul-Minneapolis is known as a thoroughly progressive Archdiocese; Archbishop Nienstedt is not thoroughly progressive, that’s why he’s not available to us.

    How about Cardinal Burke? Maybe Archbishop Cordileone? But the words tossed out at the listening session indicate that the Archdiocesan Catholics want a progressive leader instead. I’m sure we’ll end up with one.

    Maybe we could get Cardinal Dolan, if he survives his investigation, or maybe one of the German Bishops would be ideal. But if we have to stay closer to home, just pick one of the priests who attacked Archbishop Nienstedt, we have several. “Smelling like his sheep” may not be the best idea, especially if the sheep have been drifting into smelly places.

  • Charles C.

    May I ask for forgiveness? My other comment on this subject was harsher than it should have been and brushed over the work of many people who sacrificed time to express their opinions. I don’t believe I was in error, but I looked too narrowly at the comments made.

    Many people approached this process with the sincere purpose of assisting the Archdiocese to reach a better future. To those who want to see a strong, forceful, Catholic presence in our midst, I apologize.

  • Paula Ruddy

    Thanks, Catholic Spirit, for all the work involved in collating the responses. Great graphic! I applaud your intent to go in-depth into some of the questions raised. I would like to see analyses on several questions:
    How should the Church come to grips with secularism? Charles Taylor, Catholic philosopher, has a good book entitled “A Secular Age” about evolving worldviews.

    What is the mission of the Church? Is it the same as Jesus’s mission? To be a unified and effective Archdiocese do we all need to be on the same page about the mission and are we all on the same page?

    Can we be unified in the mission and diverse in practice, theology, and worship styles?. Can we be diverse in these ways and still have love for each other?

    What are the causes of division among us and how do we overcome them? What values do we hold in common that we could capitalize on?

    Onward.

    • Bernie Troje

      Thanks, Paula, I’m reading Taylor’s book, and I’m only about 50 pages in. I didn’t know he is a Catholic philosopher, and I wasn’t sure where his discussion is going. I did read that his is a balanced view, and I am heartened that he seems able to separate the wheat from the shaft which he seems to be doing with religion. I’m also reading Marilynne Robinson’s new book, The Givenness of Things, Essars. Her’s is the answer to skeptics with the most logical and articulated arguments I’ve ever read. Between the two books there is far more to be optimistic about than I even dreamed possible. Put that together with the direction Pope Francis is going and I’m far more uplifted than I thought I would ever be. I’m so grateful that Christians are uncovering the fundamental message of the gospel. I’m more convinced Richard Rohr isn’t a heretic.

      • Paula Ruddy

        Hi, Bernie. I should read Marilynne Robinson’s essays. Thanks for the nudge.