Synod data analysis was highly organized, deeply spiritual, committee says

| May 8, 2020 | 0 Comments

If the comments were miles, they’d circle the globe — and then some. From January to early April, volunteers spent days each week reading and organizing comments collected from the Prayer and Listening Events held from September to March in preparation for the Archdiocesan Synod.

In all, there were 35,026 comments, described as constructive, heartfelt and insightful by Therese Coons, the Synod’s director.

The comments were the fruit of 19 general Prayer and Listening Events held around the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, as well as 11 focus events with particular groups, such as professed religious, new Catholics and college students. At each event, participants were invited to share three things that are going well in their parishes or the archdiocese right now, and three challenges or opportunities as their parishes and the archdiocese look to the future. They assigned each comment on their feedback forms to one of 15 categories or “other,” and submitted them on paper or electronically.

Those comments addressed the gamut of Catholic life — from marriage and Catholic education to evangelization and the sacraments. It wasn’t uncommon for people to have divergent opinions about the same topic, said Dave Bendel, a member of a committee of volunteers that organized and analyzed the data.

In some cases, he said, there were people who felt passionately that something should be one way, and a similar number of people who felt passionately that something should be done another way.

“You wind up having such an extraordinarily broad perspective of opinions, which is exactly what I think the archdiocese was looking for: how to tap into that and get an update in terms of what’s on people’s minds,” said Bendel, recently retired from a career in banking and a member of St. Pius X in White Bear Lake. “It was fascinating to me how strong some of the views are.”

What the comments held in common was respect, said Deacon Bob Schnell, a committee member and retired lawyer who now ministers at St. Patrick in Edina.

“There are lots of people who have very strong feelings, and most of the people have a very deep affection for the archdiocese. People don’t agree. That’s not a surprise. But almost all of the comments, even when people didn’t agree, were civil, polite and respectful,” he said.

Those comments are informing Archbishop Bernard Hebda’s discernment of focus areas for an Archdiocesan Synod in 2022. Last year, when he announced his plans for a synod — the first in the archdiocese since the 1930s — he didn’t outline the topics he expected the synod to address. Instead, he first wanted to hear from Catholics in the archdiocese and let their voices inform those topics.

The Prayer and Listening Events were the primary way he sought that input. The Synod team counted a total of 8,173 participants at the three-hour events, which included prayer and reflection, group discussion, and individual feedback shared with Archbishop Hebda.

In November, volunteers began the data entry process, with one volunteer in particular typing the handwritten comments three days a week until late March. Comments written in Spanish, Vietnamese and Polish were translated into English, and all comments were entered into Excel documents.

In early January, Bishop Andrew Cozzens, the Synod’s chairman, organized a committee to begin coding them, matching the comments to subcategories within 20 broader categories. When the right code wasn’t immediately evident — or if a single comment included several “sub-comments” — committee members discussed as a team the best fit.

The process resulted in 144 different subtopics, most coded with whether the writer conveyed the topic as something that “worked well” or “needed improvement.” They then analyzed the data, prepared a final report and presented it to Archbishop Hebda in April, along with a list of proposed focus areas for the Synod based on the data.

The process “was a lot of work and a lot of fun,” Coons said. “It was a privilege to work with such a talented group of people all motivated out of love for our Lord and his Church. Like any big project, the work was broken down into pieces and th e team worked collaboratively. It took fortitude — that’s for sure — but the team was undaunted and took joy in each other and the process.”

Committee members were chosen to reflect a cross section of Catholics: clergy, religious sisters, and lay men and women from different cultures. They rooted their work in prayer, beginning the day with lectio divina, prayerful meditation on Scripture. They often attended the noon Mass at the Catholic Center together, and prayed again in the afternoon, sometimes the rosary with decades in English, Spanish and Vietnamese. And they prayed for the people who wrote the comments, especially in cases where a comment revealed pain or a personal need.

It was a privilege to read the words people shared, said Yen Fasano, a committee member and a parishioner of St. Anne-St. Joseph Hien in Minneapolis. The more she read, the deeper her commitment grew to honoring those comments and upholding the integrity of the process.

When people shared what was going well, their comments were simple, clear and concise, she said. When people shared challenges, the comments were typically longer and more complex.

There were nights in the past few months that Fasano couldn’t sleep, she said, as she found herself thinking long and hard about a particular writer’s pain or experience.

For committee member Viviana Sotro, the comments served as a reminder that each person is important to the local Church. “Every personal life is being touched in a very unique way, and spiritually, it’s like all of us are together in this journey to God,” said Sotro, who oversees marriage and family life ministry at St. Stephen in Minneapolis. “Each of us is bringing our own baggage, and we are blessed to have the Church at this time willing to hear that … a Church that wants to know what’s going on in the life of their people.”

Committee members said they are confident that the process met a high standard of integrity, and that the final report is true in its quantitative and qualitative analysis of the data.

“In other words, we can’t just form summaries based on our intuition or our personal experiences, or the things we thought we read in doing our data input, or forming mental notes,” said Bendel, who worked on the final report. “It was very data driven.”

The Prayer and Listening Events — and the feedback they provided — was the first phase of a now-three-year process leading up to the Archdiocesan Synod, a weekend event in spring 2022. Launched June 2019, the pre-synod process was initially designed to take two years, but last month, Archbishop Hebda extended it a year because of the coronavirus pandemic. With the committee’s report in hand and access to all 35,026 comments, he is discerning the Synod topic areas. He expects to announce them by June 29.

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