WASHINGTON (CNS) — The “main protagonist” in the Catholic Church’s two-year synodal process now underway “is the Holy Spirit, who is ready to guide us on this journey,” Xavière Missionary Sister Nathalie Becquart told a U.S. audience April 3.
“The aim of a synod is to foster communion and build a consensus,” Sister Becquart said to an audience made up primarily of LGBTQ Catholics via Zoom from Rome. “If we really listen to one another … if we listen deeply, we will discern how the Holy Spirit is calling the church to move forward.”
About 1,000 people from 37 countries participated in the online event sponsored by New Ways Ministry. The organization’s executive director, Francis DeBernardo, called it historic that a Vatican official was addressing an LGBTQ audience. He welcomed the undersecretary and participants and was moderator of the session that lasted just over an hour.
Based outside Washington in Mount Rainier, Maryland, News Ways Ministry is a pastoral outreach to LGBTQ people and their families. The organization follows theological development in the areas of sexuality and gender and aims to build bridges between the LGBTQ community and institutions within the Catholic Church, DeBernardo said.
In introducing Sister Becquart, Robert Shine, associate director of New Ways Ministry, said she is “leading what some have described as the largest consultation in human history.”
“Part of the synodal process is rediscovering church as community in which we all have to be the protagonist. LGBTQ families seek to do just that,” Shine said, telling the speaker: “Your presence here is a sign our church leaders are increasingly ready to walk with us.”
Sister Becquart opened her talk by listening. “A listening church is a church that begins by listening,” she said.
She asked participants to take a minute of silence to “think” and “reflect” on one word or one image that best described “what synodality is for you in the church.”
Then she invited participants to share this in the Zoom chat area. Their words flooded in: “discernment,” “hopeful dialogue,” “openness,” “empowering,” “oneness,” “authentic listening, “grassroots takeover,” “excitement,” “humility,” “engaged,” “connection,” community,” “diversity,” “welcome,” “understanding,” “acceptance,” “affirmation,” “listening with our hearts” and “respect for laity.”
She called participants’ attention to the first sentence of the synod preparatory document: “The Church of God is convoked in synod.” These words emphasize the need importance of listening to everybody, “especially those who feel they have no voice, those from the margins,” she said.
A synodal church is about “communion, participation and mission,” as the document and the synod theme state, Sister Becquart said. These are “three inseparable keys at the heart of a synodal church,” but participation in the church’s “missionary synodality to serve the world” must be “shared by all,” she added.
In the Zoom chat, some participants expressed “trepidation” over the synod process; others said they were “wary.” A few said they weren’t convinced even if the church listens to LGTBQ Catholics, it will make much difference for those who have felt marginalized by the church and the pain this has caused them.
“This gay Catholic has been fighting for his dignity in community and ministry his whole life. Most have not been listening. How am I to believe that suddenly hierarchy is ready to do so?” Another participant said, “Even with no change in church teachings (on homosexuality), it would be helpful to see the church stop creating additional hardship” for the LGBTQ community.
In her remarks, Sister Becquart said she understands well the need to recognize the difficulties and the pain of those who feel separated from the church but that she believes “with the Holy Spirit, we can find ways of reconciliation … if we truly believe it is the church of Christ, we are the body of Christ. … I can’t tell you more. It’s a matter of faith.”
She urged all the participants to look for opportunities in their dioceses and at the parish level to participate in synodal listening sessions.
Pope Francis formally opened the synodal process at the Vatican Oct. 9-10, 2021. It launched Oct. 16-17 in dioceses worldwide. The pontiff has called the church to practice synodality, that is listening to — and hearing — one another in all facets of church life.
This two-year journey will culminate in the Synod of Bishops in October 2023. The synod is expected to adopt a final document that will guide the continuing development of a synodal church going into the future.
During a question-and-answer period after Sister Becquart’s remarks, DeBernardo as moderator presented a few questions from participants, distilled from what he said were hundreds of questions. He brought together those covering similar topics.
Several participants asked what U.S. Catholic bishops are doing to prepare for the synod as they hadn’t seen much evidence they are doing anything.
However, Sister Becquart emphasized that at least 80% of U.S. dioceses have embarked on the synodal process. She also pointed out the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has created a synodal team.
The team is responsible for three areas: communications — social media, website updates, Spanish translations and sharing stories on synodal preparations through Catholic News Service; outreach — activating networks and supporting bishops; and support — formation, formational materials and educational opportunities.
Sister Becquart urged Zoom participants to visit www.synod.va and www.usccb.org/synod for various resources and materials about the synod. At the request of Vatican synod officials, New Ways Ministry has contributed resources for gay and lesbian Catholics to synod postings.
Zoom participants also asked for concrete examples of how the church is reaching out to Catholics for their input for synod, especially those on the margins.
“There are so many different initiatives. The Holy Spirit is working everywhere” and a lot “is happening at the grassroots,” Sister Becquart replied.
In Spain and Italy, for example, the local church is “doing a synodal process listening in prisons, listening to prisoners,” she said. The Vatican is listening to a lot to migrants and refugees, she added. In Kenya, for example, religious sisters are holding listening sessions with refugees in one of the biggest refugee camps in Kenya.
The French nun also pointed to an initiative launched by the Diocese of Davenport, Iowa, called “58,000 Cups of Coffee” to fuel synod conversations. Something she had said in a past interview sparked the idea: “Synodality starts with coffee.”
Sister Becquart’s address was the Father Robert Nugent Memorial Lecture. The late Father Nugent co-founded New Ways Ministry in 1977 with Loretto Sister Jeannine Gramick, who opened the online event with a prayer.