The church in the Diocese of Wilmington does a lot of things well, but there are areas that need to be improved to make it a more welcoming institution, according to a report compiled after months of information-gathering ahead of the 2023 Synod of Bishops that will take place at the Vatican.
Nearly a year after kicking off the synod process, the committee that organized the process in the diocese — headed by Father Glenn Evers, associate moderator of the curia, and Arlene Dosman of Holy Cross Parish in Dover — submitted its report to Bishop Koenig. The final report, released on Aug. 15, will be incorporated into a summary of those from around the country that the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops will be presented next year at the Synod of Bishops called by Pope Francis.
The theme of the 2023 gathering was “For a Synodal Church: Communion, Participation, and Mission,” and that was the guiding principle behind local efforts, Father Evers said.
Pope Francis called for all Catholics to look more deeply into how it is that we are journeying as a church. He wanted dioceses around the world to hear from as many of the faithful as possible. In the Diocese of Wilmington, an opening Mass was celebrated last October before a series of listening sessions were held. Those sessions included representatives from each parish. There was also a virtual listening session, which allowed anyone to complete an online survey to add their insights.
The synod committee also created focus groups that included Catholic organizations, as well as those “on the peripheries,” according to the report. “The focus groups represented the ideal set of unique existing groups with whom the Synod Team should interface.”
The report lists results in the following areas: faith, worship, witness and minority report. Each section includes information on the major strengths, challenges and action steps for that category.
“Faith” represents all findings that in some manner pertain to intellectual life, learning and education.
According to the report, a value for the faith and the teachings of the Catholic Church is a strength in the Diocese of Wilmington. The dedication and quality of lay leaders and priests was recognized. Participants also valued “the gift of ongoing catechesis” through Catholic schools, religious education and the strong Catholic foundation. According to the report, a theme emerged around the need for attention to moral issues, particularly racial justice, and the needs of all members of the worshipping community, such as the hearing-impaired.
The challenges in this category include insufficient opportunities for faith formation, uncatechized Catholics, and attention to the role and presence of minority Catholics. There is a need to assess parish, regional and diocesan opportunities for faith formation, according to the report.
The next section, “worship,” comprises all findings that have to do with spiritual life, including prayer, worship, the sacraments and liturgy. Catholics who are engaged and participating feel a sense of relationship and belonging with their parish communities through Sunday Mass, the report reads. Some participants noted that good liturgical music, as well as the celebrant and homilist, were also a strength. Others said having Masses in Spanish and other languages also was important.
Challenges in this category, which the synod team said were opportunities, include the drop in the number of people who attend Sunday Mass. The decline began before the covid pandemic, it was noted.
Some people “on the margins” of the faith community feel that while they are, at times, verbally welcomed and included at Mass, the superficial show of hospitality does not translate to specific behaviors that demonstrate that welcome.
“The words said need to be supported by our behaviors and attitudes, so that diverse people truly feel welcomed,” the report reads. “This includes a willingness to be engaged with all peoples, which demands understanding and responding to the needs of the diverse Catholic community that the Church is.”
The voices of younger people are often missing, participants said, as are those of people marginalized from the church. This can lead to members of these populations leaving the church altogether.
Action steps for worship include offering programs for growth in one’s spiritual life, but “there is first a need to acknowledge the diverse liturgical pastoral needs and aspirations of our faith communities.” Liturgies and other church activity needs to be more family-oriented, culturally diverse, and include greater participation from parishioners.
The report calls for the creation of “an action plan for welcoming all who seek to participate in the pastoral, liturgical and sacramental life of parishes and Catholic institutions in the Diocese adapting specifically to focus on everyone’s needs.”
The “witness” category includes topics dealing with the pastoral activity or human dimension of the church, such as social outreach, diversity and secular content. The report notes the presence of “dedicated and loving communities” as a strength in the Diocese of Wilmington, with parishes of all sizes tirelessly sharing their gifts and talents.
Synod participants, however, noted the lack of youth and young adults in many of those efforts, especially Mass. To help young people stay connected beyond confirmation age, the church could include their talents and voices in parish life and empower them as valuable members.
The report also notes the “growing pains” of diversity. Integrating cultural identities, languages, liturgical styles and generational differences “into one homogeneous assembly” is a challenge, but also an opportunity.
Action steps for the witness category include the need to be welcoming and hospitable to everyone. Parishes should create communities that include youth, the marginalized, former members, diverse cultures and traditions, and those of special needs. Advocacy as well as direct service is needed to change systemic issues of justice for all people, the report continues.
The synod team calls for intentional outreach and creative forms of communication to youth, young adults and families. It advocates the innovative and expanded use of technology. Participants also asked bishops “to reflect and review that their directives may not overburden the faithful,” in addition to overcoming divisiveness in the USCCB.
Finally, “’minority report’ represents those insights which did not garner majority consensus across the board but were nonetheless important to sharing as a unique voice to be recognized,” the report reads.
“When listening to the voices of all persons, it became evident that the Church must strive to be what it is called: One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic,” it continues.
For example, some Native Americans and African Americans maintain their faith yet struggle for recognition as viable Catholics. Other participants said the church is recognized as a moral authority with sound social justice teachings, but it focuses more on a single issue instead of life from birth to death.
The church is challenged to meet the needs of those on the margins because “in many ways the church is not the center of all parishioners’ lives,” the report said. Specific challenges include meeting the needs of those impacted by the clergy sexual-abuse scandal; addressing racism, sexual orientation and identity in and out of the church; and the role of women in the church.
The church also must find a way to remove the perception of being judgmental and overly concerned with rules and regulations, the report said. It is perceived as being disconnected from the challenges facing many communities.
For this category, action steps include becoming a diocese that is “patient for the truth of the Gospel and tradition to grow and produce fruit; not compromising or watering down ideals,” it reads. Some participants also said the church needs to resolve the issue of Catholic politicians who contradict the Catholic Church’s teachings in their offices.
A number of suggestions were made to address reconciling with those affected by the clergy sexual-abuse scandal; implement a diocesan-wide forum addressing racial and social issues; eliminate barriers allowing the Hispanic community to be accepted as decision makers; create plans to help older parishes; and consider ways to address the clergy shortage.
The synod team also released a list of 10 best practices that cover areas brought up in the report. The full report is available at www.cdow.org/synod.