ST. FRANCIS — While Archbishop Jerome E. Listecki convoked the 2014 archdiocesan synod on Pentecost Sunday, May 19, planning for the synod began in spring 2012 with Standing at the cathedra in the Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist on Petecost Sunday, May 19, Archbishop Jerome E. Listecki reads the decree convoking an Archdiocesan Synod to be held Pentecost weekend, June 7-8, 2014. The archbishop read the decree during the 8 a.m. (Catholic Herald photo by Juan C. Medina)the archbishop’s decision to establish a Synod Preparatory Commission – a group Deacon Sandy Sites labeled “the dream team” – that has been meeting monthly since September.

“The very first reaction I had when I walked into the room and met my teammates – I just continue to be blown away by how, with just 18 people, there could be such an amazing cross section of people,” said Deacon Sites, parish director at Good Shepherd, Menomonee Falls, of the group that represents all districts in the archdiocese. “We have the presbyterate, episcopacy; we have canon lawyers, religious, deacon, parish director; we have Christian formation, prayer and worship, training; we have marketing background, communication background, the theological expert, spirituality expert, age and gender diversity.”

Work has been ‘great process’

Fr. John Burns, associate pastor at Christ King, Wauwatosa, and one of three priests on the commission, termed the work of the group “a great process,” and said members have asked a lot of “theological and practical questions.”

“What is the archdiocese? How is this going to look in the archdiocese? How can we prepare the way? How can we put together a system of parish gatherings and then cluster gatherings that lead up to this archdiocesan synod in a way that is connected so that it’s cohesive and synthetic, so that it’s moving, the conversation itself is advancing, the focus is advancing, moving toward this idea of a synod?” he said.

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What is a synod?

“The whole purpose of the Synod Preparatory Commission is to lay out the plan, lay out the process for the archdiocese as a whole and to reflect and pray about the pastoral letter (“Who Do You Say That I Am?”) in hopes those prayers, reflections and feedback will inform what the Synod will be in 2014,” according to Margie Mandli, a member of St. Anne, Pleasant Prairie, and owner of a business communications consulting company.

Calling it “a wonderful time for grace for our church in southeastern Wisconsin,” Mandli said several things were converging – the Year of Faith, new evangelization, the archbishop’s pastoral priorities, i.e., Catholic identity, evangelization and stewardship and Catholics being encouraged “to take on more of that intentional discipleship in our parishes.”

“It just all seems to be focused on the same mission – that is to bring more people to come to know our Lord, and to be excited about our church and to renew our church in a way that creates more enthusiasm for who we are and to not be ashamed, embarrassed or apologetic about it, but rather be excited about who we are and what we stand for and what our Lord can do for us in our lives,” she said.

Deacon Sites also noted the links in the process.

“Given the Year of Faith, given the new evangelization, given the parallel and related experiences, we wanted to make sure there was integration and that it wasn’t just another program or one more thing to do,” he said, noting that the archbishop’s pastoral priorities were part of that integration. “It seems quite naturally, without forcing this, the integration of year of faith and evangelization is automatic.”

Work rooted in pastoral letter

The basis for the commission’s work has been the archbishop’s pastoral letter, which Shanedra Johnson, youth minister at St. Michael and St. Rose parishes, Milwaukee, termed a source of “good dialogue” among commission members.

“I was excited about it because (the pastoral letter) is going to be really great to share with the young adults in our parish and some of the more mature teenagers and to just break that all open to come and reflect around the pastoral letter and the questions,” she said. “And I love hearing their stories and I can share my story, and it allows that to happen.”

What struck Deacon Sites about “Who Do You Say That I Am?” was its “’from the ground up’ rather than ‘from the top down’ preparation.”

“If you look at the pastoral letter, it begins with the celebration and affirmation of the laity and the religious communities – the folks, from there a spirit growing and bringing about this assembly of church in southeastern Wisconsin and, given that that’s in the letter, the seed and start of the letter, in terms of the flow of it, proving out in process, there’s such a great commitment to getting to anybody and everybody we can with no hierarchy. All are asked and valued in participating,” he said. “I know that’s not theological or spiritual, but in terms of process, it’s a beautiful and powerful starting point.”

Fr. Burns said the pastoral letter “provokes conversation that starts with ecclesiology” – conversation that doesn’t end with the preparatory commission.

“… and then to situate that in the parishes and cluster gatherings, by saying this is who the church is, how are we embracing, understanding and living that reality as members of the church and how do we layer that with an understanding of the challenges and blessings of the current age of our culture and society and ultimately how we can look forward to anticipate where the church needs to go and where her members need to be looking, praying and opening themselves to the grace the Lord is trying to give to move the church into the next couple of decades,” he said.

Mandli noted that to help parishes begin to understand the letter, and to dialogue and pray about it, the commission devoted time to developing the discussion guide that accompanies it.

“We want this to be lived and breathed by the whole church, not something that is just pushed down but rather people feel a desire to learn this and read it,” she said. “We want to create ways to share the beautiful concepts in this letter. When it comes down to it, the pastoral letter is a beautiful reflection of the church so we want people to get as excited as we are about this.

We want people to have this dialogue at the local level so our work has been, ‘How do we do that?’”

Hopes for the synod

Johnson is excited about what could result from the process – at the parish, district and synod levels.

“My hope is that people realize we are one church and that we’re working together for the common good of all of us as Catholics and as the greater community, too. My hope is that we just don’t keep ourselves in our own places …” she said. “I can reach across and say, ‘St. Monica was part of this process, too. Gesu was part of this process, too.’” We’re all connected with each other.”

Johnson added that she wants participants to look at the “bigger picture” of the church.

“Whatever that plan looks like for our future, that we’re all invested in it,” she said.

Deacon Sites considers his parish a microcosm of what the archdiocese might experience in the decades to come.

“We’re already in significant change, and the parish is learning that change can be good. Therein lies my hope for the parish and for the archdiocese as well – that we move away from an attitude of ‘Oh no, what’s going to happen now?’ to ‘Oh boy, I can’t wait!’ That we are again excited about what church is, ecclesiology that we’re redefining, that we’re rallied around what we, as church in southeastern Wisconsin, will look like from 2014 to 2025. And that becomes uplifting and opportunity versus what I think in many cases has been overwhelming and a kind of heavy burden.”

Fr. Burns said the pastoral letter “set a common foundation for an archdiocesan-wide conversation that is going to culminate at the synod.”

“The highest act of the local church is to come together and reflect on a topic that’s exactly what the archbishop wants to do: call the local church together to ask questions about where we’re headed and how do we get there.”

Next week: Pastoral letter introduced to parish councils, staffs