Preparation underway for fall pre-synod parish small groups

| March 24, 2020 | 0 Comments

At a time when COVID-19 is forcing Minnesotans to live apart, preparation is underway in the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis to bring Catholics together this fall for hundreds of small groups to form in parishes, as the next step in the archdiocese’s pre-synod process.

After holding 19 general Prayer and Listening Events and 11 more for particular groups such as seminarians, college students and parish staff, Archbishop Bernard Hebda is discerning the focus areas for the Archdiocesan Synod event, scheduled for Pentecost weekend in May 2021. He is expected to announce the topics later this spring.

From Sept. 20 to Nov. 8, Catholics around the archdiocese are invited to participate in the parish consultation part of the pre-synod process by joining small groups of 5 to 12 people at their parish. Over the course of six weeks, these groups will meet six times to learn what the Church teaches in today’s cultural context, listen and reflect upon how the Holy Spirit is guiding each person and small group, and share insights into the focus areas from prayer and experience.

Many parishes across the archdiocese already have some existing small groups, such as Bible studies, faith-sharing groups and marriage enrichment groups. Archbishop Hebda is asking these small groups to take a break from their regular meeting content Sept. 20 to Nov. 8 to discuss the synod focus areas, too. He has also asked parishes not to schedule any other adult faith formation activities, with the exception of classes for the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA) and parish feast day activities, so that as many adults as possible will participate in the pre-synod small groups. Synod leaders encourage all parishioners to participate in this process to help shape the future of our Archdiocese.

Patti Watkins, a member of the Synod Executive Committee and the director of faith formation at St. Ambrose in Woodbury, said she hopes her parish will have 30 small groups. Already, her parish has about a dozen groups that meet for Bible studies or faith sharing, and she hopes to form 18 more with the help of her parish’s newly formed synod small group team.

“The biggest reason that we want people to participate is that this is helping Archbishop Hebda form the future of our communities,” Watkins said. “For the larger Church to have that input and to be a part of that is pretty phenomenal.”

Although the small groups’ focus is the archdiocese’s future, discussions could shape their parishes, too, informing the allocation of parish finances and resources, she noted. “This is really going to benefit all of our parishes.”

In February and March, members of the archdiocese’s Synod Executive Committee held five in-person trainings for pastor appointed “small group process managers,” ambassadors or other parish staff involved in the process. After state officials recommended social distancing to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus, a sixth training was livestreamed. To continue to provide training, a webinar training is being recorded that can be viewed when convenient, and additional live Q&A webinars are being offered.

The trainings aim to give parish representatives tools they need to begin organizing small groups, starting with forming a team at their parish to manage planning, communications and logistics.

“We’re trying to help the parishes (determine) how they’re going to come together to do this,” Watkins said. “At the training, we’re talking a lot about next steps. … what do they need to do now in their parish so that next fall, they’re ready to kick them off right away.”

The archdiocese will provide small group materials developed around the yet-to-be-determined focus areas. In August and September, the synod executive team plans to hold additional trainings for small group process managers, facilitators and scribes on how to use the materials and record the groups’ ideas to share with Archbishop Hebda.

Father Joseph Bambenek, the Synod’s assistant director, said he hopes that the pre-synod small groups are successful not only for generating ideas around the synod focus areas, but also for fostering friendship among participants. Some small groups may wish to evolve into a Bible study or faith-sharing group and continue meeting beyond the allotted six weeks, he said.

It’s also a good opportunity for Catholics to meet new people, engage in meaningful conversation and, if they attended a Prayer and Listening Event, dive deeper into topics that may have surfaced during their 40-minute small group discussion, Father Bambenek said. Many Prayer and Listening Event attendees said they wished they had more time to discuss issues at their table, he noted.

The parish consultation is the natural place for those conversations to continue, he said. “The small groups are intended both to provide feedback to (to help us) grow deeper in our spirituality.”

Ken Fitzgerald, who with his wife, Emily, is a parish ambassador at Sacred Heart in Robbinsdale, has a lot of experience creating and leading small groups, from youth groups to his own men’s group. Last year, he helped Father Joseph Johnson form multiple small groups for Lent at Holy Family in St. Louis Park.

A 40-year-old textbook buyer, Fitzgerald said he’s hopeful that clergy and laity will understand the importance of the pre-synod process small groups and work to support them from the top down and bottom up. He says small groups are important for creating meaningful connections among Catholics.

“I think small groups are such a great opportunity for communication, intimacy, creating a culture of encounter with one another, friendship,” he said. And they’re appropriate for the pre-synod process, he said, “because I’d hope more people would be vocal in a small group session.”

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