Driving on Lake Drive from Milwaukee into St. Francis early Saturday morning, June 7, one could tell that the day was going to be different for the Catholic Church in southeastern Wisconsin. Red flags lined the west side of Lake Drive as one approached the Cousins Center, and lined both sides of the drive leading onto the grounds. Red banners heralded, “This will be for us a New Pentecost.”

Saturday and Pentecost Sunday would be different for the Archdiocese of Milwaukee because of the Archdiocesan Synod – the first one in nearly 27 years – that would take place on those days.

There had been hints of why it would be different. The first had come almost two years earlier when Archbishop Jerome E. Listecki established the Archdiocesan Synod Preparatory Commission; another came when he issued his first pastoral letter, “Who Do You Say I Am?” on Jan. 8, 2013. But it became clear on May 19, 2013 when he called for the Archdiocesan Synod to be held on this weekend.

The graphic shows the top two initiatives, as selected by delegates, for each of the Archdiocesan Synod’s mission areas. These will be incorporated into Archbishop Jerome E. Listecki’s synodal decree and help to determine the direction the archdiocese will take over the next 10-15 years. Thus began a process through which members of the Catholic community, first on the parish level, and then on the district level, surfaced, discussed and prayed about their concerns for the church and about the direction in which they wanted the archdiocese to go during the next 10-15 years.

From that process 460 delegates representing parishes, organizations, institutions, particular ministries and other entities in the archdiocese were selected to be part of the synod event. In addition, 10 observers from other religious denominations, as well as 28 youth representatives were invited to participate.

Firing up the delegates

The 80-minute overview session in the auditorium, part prayer service, part pep rally, featured choirs from St. Michael, Milwaukee, and St. Martin de Porres, Milwaukee, videos and words from Archbishop Listecki and Bishop Donald J. Hying.

“You have been singled out by those that respect and admire your leadership, see the type of quality in you and your wisdom that needs to be shared,” the archbishop told the delegates. “We, as the archdiocese, gather to form and fashion our priorities to make sure that our hearts are open to the movement of the Spirit, in the lives of our parishes, to make sure our voice of a loving God is heard by all.”

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Reminding them they are called by the church to express their beliefs, Archbishop Listecki said they might be asking, “What can we do? We’re just a small entity in a vast world.”

“I’m sure that first question was asked by the first apostles and disciples,” he said. “But we know the Spirit, and we know if we open ourselves up to the Spirit, transformation occurs – transformation that reflects the truth of God’s presence to a world that needs that voice.”  

Bishop Hying spoke about Catholics’ call to missionary discipleship, asking, “Where was the seed of this synod planted?”

After offering several possibilities, e.g., Pope Paul VI stating, “It is not so much the church has a mission as it is the mission has a church,” St. John XXIII calling upon the church to renew itself to proclaim the Gospel to the whole world, and the founding of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, the bishop said, “The seed of this synod goes back to Pentecost when the Holy Spirit descended and lit fire on the heads of the apostles and the church gathered in that room.” 

Noting that the energy and fire felt 2,000 years ago is still felt, Bishop Hying said, “We do know the difference the Holy Spirit makes. Because if they were afraid when they went into that room, when they came out they were brave. If they were silent about their experience of the risen Christ, they’re now eloquent and confident in that proclamation. If they were divided, now they’re united. They spread the powerful message of Pentecost, and that’s what brings us here today.”  

Discerning, discussing, deciding

Work begun at the parish and district levels continued as the delegates broke into 48 small groups scattered throughout the Cousins Center to discuss liturgy and then cultural diversity – the mission areas under the heading of Catholic identity.

Following recitation of St. Augustine’s prayer to the Holy Spirit, members in each group prayed silently as they discerned their top two initiatives from a list of seven. Earlier in the year, delegates were provided with background papers on each of the mission areas, as well as the list of initiatives for each.

They also participated in a retreat in April in order to assist in their spiritual preparation for the synod.

In the 10-member group facilitated by Jean Marie Weber of Cardinal Stritch University, each delegate shared his or her top two initiatives on liturgy, and talked about why he or she chose them. 

Mable Johnson from St. Francis of Assisi, Milwaukee, liked all of the initiatives but made her top one: “Develop creative ideas within liturgical norms for using emerging technologies in church to enhance the preaching and prayer, without losing a reverence for the sacred.”

“One of the things is the first five minutes are so important to your congregation because you can lose them so fast …” she said. “People are hungry for the Word of God and a lot of times they’re just not listening because it’s not being told well; they’re not being fed like they should be.” 

Mike Borchardt from Holy Assumption, West Allis, said the last three words of the second initiative – “Create excellent online training modules for all liturgical ministers, with an emphasis on exercising liturgical roles with attitudes of joy, welcoming, and hospitality” – prompted his choice.

“That sense of joy, welcoming and hospitality – I don’t think we do that enough in our churches. We come to the church and we’re there to worship God as a community, but we don’t know the person sitting next to us, or the pew behind us or the pew in front of us,” he said. “If we can somehow foster that and bring that oneness to the people in the pews….”

He added that with technology, such training could be available to all ministers throughout the archdiocese.

For Franciscan Fr. John Puodziunas, provincial of the Franciscan Friars of the Assumption BVM Province, the initiative that instructed “directing primary attention and strategic efforts to the weekend so that the music, message, and ministries form a high-impact, integrated evangelizing message of Good News, especially to the lost and seekers” captures many of the pieces of the other initiatives.

“If we’re not putting our energy into what we do on the weekend, on Sunday, we’re missing the boat. Our energy has to be put into that,” he said. “I tell our friars, ‘If you don’t spend an hour a day working on your Sunday homily, then sit down. Don’t talk. It’s not worth it.’ You have to focus yourself on that weekend. That’s where you encounter the people.”

After key initiatives were stated, Weber summarized what had been discussed. Following silent reflection, participants were invited to offer other ideas, to be shared later in the synod and passed along to the archbishop.

The group, as did the other 47, then discussed cultural diversity, again praying, each member offering their top two initiatives, followed by discussion. 

All of the delegates returned to the auditorium where they voted for their top two initiatives in both liturgy and cultural diversity. (See graphic on Page 1 for results).

Following another video, the assembly broke for lunch, and then resumed the small group process in the afternoon, discerning, discussing and deciding upon top initiatives in the mission priorities evangelization and formation. The day concluded with prayer, led by Bishop Richard J. Sklba, and another video.

Sunday afternoon, the process continued as the mission areas of Catholic Social Teaching, marriage and family, stewardship and leadership were the synod topics. The day concluded with the celebration of Mass in Mater Christi Chapel.

Only the beginning

According to Randy Nohl, chairman of the Archdiocesan Synod Preparation Commission, and Rich Harter, director of the archdiocese’s office of evangelization and a member of the synodal secretariat, their work, and the work of the delegates, is just beginning.

Harter referred to the work leading up to the synod event, i.e., the archbishop’s pastoral letter, parish sessions and district gatherings, as the “prequel.” He termed the implementation of the synod initiatives, and putting them into practice, as the “sequel.”

“The synod is not an event of two or three days, but is movement of the Holy Spirit over time – starting in the past and drawing us into future,” he said.

Nohl added, “The synod is an ongoing process. It was the high point, the mountain top, bringing all those people together, but there’s a lot more that needs to be done.” 

That the delegates were less than 1 percent of the Catholic population in southeastern Wisconsin was not lost on the delegates themselves, according to Nohl. 

“One of the groups said that the 500 people there need to see themselves as evangelizers. This just can’t fall on the backs of parish priests, can’t fall on the backs of parish staff people,” he said. “Each person who was there has to go out to their parish, their school, their institution, and really bring the fire of the synod to life in their situation.”

Harter said Archbishop Listecki gave the delegates “their marching orders” during his homily at the closing Mass.

“He talked about ignite, renew and energize. We gathered for the synod, the Holy Spirit was present and moving, and igniting us and setting our faith on fire, renewing our own commitment, and to be energized through that to go out and spread the message,” Harter said. “He was very emphatic about telling the people that this was to be taken out now. They were to be evangelists of the synod and its message.”

The archbishop is scheduled to issue his synodal declaration on Sunday, Sept. 14, the Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross.