A Roman Catholic presence in the Shenandoah Valley since 1932

synod extended report

EXTENDED PARISH REPORT

Overview: In February and March, our parish conducted 27 listening sessions for a total of almost 100 participants. Each session was led by a facilitator and a note-taker who had been trained by our pastor. We notified parishioners of these sessions via the bulletin, the website, Facebook, Flocknote, and announcements at mass for several weeks, and we offered both in-person and virtual sessions.

The timing of these listening sessions – after two years of disruptions caused by the pandemic – heavily influenced the responses. The committee agreed that the results would likely have been quite different if we had asked these same questions immediately before the pandemic. However, we appreciated this opportunity for reflection and dialogue, and we plan to continue offering similar opportunities in the future for the benefit of our parish.

THEME: COMMUNION

Q1: How would you characterize your Church community-the people who are journeying together?

Most participants described our parish as caring and welcoming, and most also observed that we have fewer young parishioners and families than other churches seem to. Many noted a strong sense of community, although the move to the new church and the pandemic have both made it difficult to gather and meet. Others felt that we could be more inclusive, diverse, approachable, and connected, and some cited examples of other parishes or denominations whose practices seem to facilitate these qualities.

Those who desired a greater sense of connection mentioned several perceived causes. The pandemic was obviously a major cause of isolation and disruption to the vast majority of parish activities, as it required all of our ministries and groups to pause or restructure meetings and activities. The new church, while beautiful, has fewer meeting spaces, and that has been an additional factor in limiting social gatherings. Some observed that being in a larger building, combined with masking and distancing, made it harder to meet people and talk with them.

However, the majority of respondents spoke positively about the church community, noting that most of the congregation stays until the end of mass, that the congregation is like a family, and that Father Rolo has cultivated a strong sense of caring and concern for each other. Many felt that our

parish welcomes diversity, while at the same time they observed that our parish is not as diverse as it could be, with a seemingly larger proportion of older, white people than the overall population.

Q2: What persons or groups are left on the margins?

Participants noted that minorities, unmarried/ divorced adults, non-English speakers, LGBTQ persons, homebound parishioners, people with disabilities, and youth are all more likely to feel marginalized. Some contributing factors include transportation barriers, scheduling, programming, and messaging.

Frequently, participants mentioned the Spanish-speaking community, and some asked whether or not the Spanish mass was still happening twice per month as it used to. Several mentioned past efforts to facilitate greater connections between the English-speaking and Spanish-speaking members of the parish and noted that these efforts were met with varying degrees of success. Given that there continues to be an influx of Spanish speakers in our area, our parish should devote more attention to reaching out to them and meeting their needs. Father Rolo sometimes says the Our Father in Spanish during the English masses, which signals to Spanish speakers that they are welcome.

Participants also noted that our previous church location in the downtown area made it a little easier for us to do outreach, and it was more accessible to those without their own transportation. Some wondered whether we might be able to offer a shuttle from downtown for one mass each week, or whether we could think of a way to have a regular presence downtown.

There seem to be relatively few children and teenagers attending our services, and while this may be partially due to the pandemic, many participants wondered whether it could also be due to the lack of a full faith formation program. They recalled a time when we had many classes happening each weekend, as well as a children’s Liturgy of the Word. Some mentioned that other parishes offer more contemporary music and an active youth group to help retain young people. Our parish recently resumed programming for middle and high school youth after a pandemic-induced hiatus; it would be a good idea to ask those students for ideas.

While our parish does not actively or overtly discriminate against LGBTQ persons, we do not currently offer any groups or educational programs specifically addressing LGBTQ issues. Some felt that we could and should make more visible efforts to ensure that LGBTQ persons know they are welcome and that the parish as a whole treats them with compassion and love.

Q3: How is your parish inviting those on the margins into relationship?

While some efforts have been made to be more welcoming and inclusive to those on the margins, many participants felt that there is room for improvement. Expanded communication, intentional outreach, and more frequent events were the most common suggestions.

Our best outreach happens through ministries such as Disciples Kitchen, the WARM Shelter, the clothes closet, St. John’s Friends, the sewing ministry, and the food pantry. We also reach out regularly to the homebound and to those in nursing homes. These ministries allow parish members to interact with a broad spectrum of people, creating opportunities for ongoing relationships and allowing parish members to extend invitations for deeper involvement. Our new Social Outreach Ministry is working hard to coordinate the efforts of different ministries and to evaluate areas in which our parish could be doing a better job of reaching those in need.

Several participants noted that the parish staff is relatively small at the moment, making it hard for the needs of the parish to be met fully. There were quite a few suggestions offered in terms of how to improve upon our already significant outreach efforts, including:

  • -  Outreach to undocumented residents to let them know that we are a safe space, and directing them to amnesty and education programs

  • -  Offering more communications and services in Spanish

  • -  Incorporating different styles of music into our masses

  • -  Displaying banners with messages of welcome and acceptance

  • -  Considering the schedules of those who work full-time or who have small children

  • -  More activities for youth (i.e., social events, sports, summer camp)

  • A designated leader of the Spanish-speaking community (approximately 30% of our parish?)

Q4: Who does our Church currently listen to? Who is not being listened to? Which groups are less likely to be listened to? Who is being left out of the conversation?

While the Parish Council previously helped to ensure that parish members and groups had a voice, that structure is not active right now. Some respondents felt that new ideas are readily received, while others felt that the parish is not responsive or supportive of suggestions. More deliberate efforts should be made to invite new voices and under-represented groups to participate and lead.

Some expressed concern that there may be a perception that change is unlikely or impossible; they worried that skepticism about the Church’s responsiveness might be discouraging some from even trying to engage. These concerns often focused on the marginalized but especially on the youth. Parish Council was frequently mentioned as a way of improving accessibility and helping to make parish members feel like they have a voice, although there were some concerns about the Parish Council’s lack of authority.

Many appreciated the variety of events that our parish used to host prior to the pandemic, including the donut receptions and other social gatherings. Parish staff seemed to be more accessible then, and all hope to resume more in-person gatherings this year. Some mentioned that introverted people often aren’t comfortable expressing themselves in the same ways that extraverted people do, and so we should be sure to offer a variety of methods for parishioners to give input, respecting these varied communication styles and preferences.

Q5: Do our liturgies promote the active participation of all the faithful in the liturgy and encourage them to live lives of faith?

The majority of respondents felt that our parish liturgies are inspiring, meaningful, and inclusive, although some noted that it's not easy to join liturgical ministries because the process is not transparent. A few had concerns about continuing to live-stream mass, but most acknowledged the benefits for those with medical conditions, anxiety, or other concerns about attending in-person. Many participants expressed a desire for more youth involvement and/or children's liturgy.

Some expressed sadness about the fact that certain people cannot receive communion, noting that we are all sinners. Others expressed concern that there are people who receive communion despite disagreeing with elements of church doctrine. Parish members feel passionately on this subject and have very different views, suggesting that this is an area in which more dialogue is needed.

Overall, those who responded felt that participation levels are very good at mass, and several noted that the choir excels at encouraging the congregation to sing. The new church building does seem to have some acoustical challenges, particularly for older people.

Q6: Does the homily draw from the Word of God and inspire the faithful?

A strong majority of responses expressed that the homilies draw upon scripture and are relatable, thought-provoking, and inspiring, and some offered appreciation that Father Rolo posts his homilies on his blog. Below are some quotes from participants:

  • -  “Father Rolo connects scripture with real life; he makes it relatable.”

  • -  “Father Rolo often issues a challenge at the end of his homily, which is food for thought.”

  • -  “Father Rolo's homilies are incredible: he always pulls from the Gospel but integrates the scripture with everyday life.”

  • -  “Father writes and delivers excellent homilies. They direct listeners to examine their temporal lives and find ways to live like Christ.”

  • “Fr. Rolo makes sense and speaks to real life. He tells it like it is without alienating and points the congregation in the right direction.”

There were a few who offered critiques, including that the homilies could be more direct, or that the homilies should include more specific teaching about doctrine or about the saints.

THEME: DISCUSSION AND DIALOGUE

Q7: Under what circumstances and in what ways are Catholics communicating in the world today?

Many forms of communication were noted (print, broadcast, digital) as well as the challenges created by shifting communication trends. Pope Francis' messages (including his Tweets) are received widely and positively; the Catholic Virginian is a valued source of information; Bishop Barron's Word on Fire Institute resources are also popular; other sources mentioned were EWTN,

America Magazine, National Catholic Reporter, National Catholic Register, Father Mike Schmitz, Father Richard Rohr, Matthew Kelly, Busted Halo, and Padre Pio. Participants noted that some Catholic media sources can be slanted (for example, towards a more progressive or conservative perspective).

Some participants observed that the Church is missing opportunities to communicate about charity and love because the topics that come up most frequently are polarizing and end up alienating many people. They noted the public perception that many in the Church only want to talk about abortion and homosexuality, even though there are so many other big issues that need our attention, including social justice and care for the environment.

Q8: How does the prevalence of digital and social media affect communication?

Many noted that digital and social media can aggravate pre-existing divisions, and older people are sometimes excluded from digital/ social media. It is a double-edged sword in that a tremendous amount of content is easily accessible, but there is also much room for misunderstanding.

Positive aspects of digital and social media include:

  • -  Live-streamed masses from churches around the world

  • -  Websites with content covering all aspects of Catholicism (daily readings, theology, hymns,

    reflections, traditions, saints, etc.)

  • -  Video resources that are shared frequently and easily (i.e., Word on Fire)

  • -  Greater sense of interconnectedness of the universal Church

    Negative aspects of digital and social media include:

  • -  Some sources may be inaccurate, extreme, divisive, or scandalous

  • -  Misunderstanding and miscommunication is more likely

  • -  Creates disincentives for more direct communication

  • -  Perpetuates division and polarization

Q9: How is the Church dialoguing, collaborating, and resolving conflicts among its own members in the Church?

Most people felt that this is an area of great need. No one really had good examples of this happening, and most acknowledged that the Church is increasingly polarized. There should be more opportunities for dialogue, healing, and conflict resolution.

Some observed that certain sources (i.e., the Vatican website or the USCCB website) contain theologically dense content that is not very accessible to most Catholics. There is a need to interpret these materials in order to facilitate dialogue. Many appreciated that this synod is encouraging Catholics to provide input, but they also remarked that there are opposing forces that want the Church to change in different ways. It will be a major challenge to bridge the gap between these very disparate perspectives rather than allowing “echo chambers” to persist within the Church.

Q10: How is the Church dialoguing, collaborating, and resolving conflicts with members of other Christian denominations, people of other non-Christian religious traditions, and people with no religious affiliation?

Regarding our parish, respondents expressed strong appreciation for the local ecumenical group formerly known as LARCUM. All were pleased and proud that our parish collaborates with these other church groups. However, there was little awareness of the wider Church's attempts at external dialogue beyond Pope Francis' public comments that seem more accepting and open.

The consensus among participants was that Pope Francis models an ecumenical approach very clearly and guides Catholics toward openness and dialogue, both in his actions and with his words. Many felt that Pope Francis sets an example of building relationships and seeking common ground. Some observed that dialogue and collaboration are more attainable than conflict resolution, pointing to fundamental differences in beliefs and practices that will persist.

Q11: What have been the fruits of doing so, and what have been the difficulties?

Within our parish, many participants were enthusiastic about the service projects that have arisen from LARCUM, and they noted that ecumenical engagement fosters understanding and appreciation of each other's faith traditions due to the focus on common values. The primary difficulties are that sustained dialogue can be challenging and it requires effort to maintain these connections.

Many expressed that Pope Francis’ efforts to bridge gaps have made it easier for Catholics to talk about our faith openly. Because the Pope is recognizable and popular, the worldwide perception of Catholicism has shifted. However, some difficulties remain, including fundamental theological divide about doctrine between Catholics and other Christians.

Q12: What areas and issues in the wider society is the Church focused on? Are there areas or issues we need to pay more attention to?

The messaging from the global Church often seems focused on Respect for Life most of all, but other issues include social justice and care of the earth. Many respondents called for more inclusivity and representation of women and minorities, and more emphasis on social teaching. Some noted that clericalism is a problem and that the Church needs to broaden its approach to decision-making and seek more frequent input from lay people.

Some expressed concern that pro-life Catholics can appear unsympathetic to the challenges that some mothers face and suggested that we do more to support them and to advocate for them. The Church should also be working to promote greater equity for everyone and advocating for the most vulnerable with world leaders. Other issues that require the Church’s attention include immigration and refugees, human trafficking, economic inequality/ injustice, and clericalism, which creates distance between the Church hierarchy and lay Catholics and fosters a sense of disenfranchisement.

Multiple people noted that, at all levels of the Church, we are not directly addressing data showing that the majority of lay Catholics do not agree with the church on birth control, female ministers, married priests, cohabitation or same sex marriage. The persistent tension over these issues presents an ongoing challenge to unity and communion within the Church.

THEME: PARTICIPATION AND MISSION

Q13: How is the parish equipping and empowering people to go out and be on mission for Jesus Christ in their regular lives?

A majority of participants expressed a desire to revive our parish's Adult Faith Formation programs, but most also expressed that Youth Faith Formation is extremely important. Parish ministries provide many opportunities to live out our faith, although some found it difficult to obtain information about getting involved. The parish directory and website should be updated to ensure that those interested know who to contact.

Many respondents specifically mentioned Be My Witness as having made a big impact on our parish because it was inspiring, motivational, and created a path toward ministry. Another program that was mentioned is Living Our Mission. There was frequent acknowledgement of the challenges involved in getting parish members engaged in ministries. Many seemed to be unaware of certain tools and resources on the parish website that are used to share information about meetings and activities.

Q14: What obstacles do the faithful face in living and professing their faith publicly?

The obstacles most frequently mentioned in our parish were (a) lack of understanding of our faith, (b) scandals within the Church, and (c) assumptions about Catholics being rigid and judgmental. Pope Francis models openness and acceptance, which makes it easier for us to interact with people of other faiths. Many felt that some training or preparation would empower them to engage more confidently in conversations about their faith with non-Catholics. There is a need for more education and outreach about the modern Catholic church because many people are still clinging to stereotypes that predate Vatican II. The presentation of Catholicism and Catholics in the larger media tends to be pre-Vatican. Several noted that they had to self-educate in apologetics because they'd been taught what to do or believe, but not why.

Q15: What opportunities is the parish providing to help the faithful face those obstacles? What is still needed?

Many expressed a desire for increased offerings of Adult Faith Formation as well as a strengthening of Youth Faith Formation. Positive feedback focused on the homilies, the liturgy, and past Adult Faith Formation programs. Several recommendations included greater outreach in the community, more diversity within our ministries, and better communication about the opportunities offered by the parish.

Some specific recommendations included:

  • -  More education on liturgical living (not limited to church activities but celebrating festivities

    at home/community also)

  • -  More festivals/ministry fairs to draw people in and show others (our neighbors) who we are

  • -  Training on how to communicate publicly about faith

  • -  More study groups/ small groups for all ages

  • -  Offering programs at a variety of times to accommodate different schedules

     

Q16: How are lay leaders given responsibility and to what extent do they have the authority to make decisions?

Many participants expressed a desire for decision-making authority to be shared more with lay leaders, and there was a general impression that we as a parish could accomplish more if this were to happen. Again, it was mentioned that reactivating the Parish Council could facilitate better communication between ministries and parish staff. Some former Parish Council members reported feeling that they had too little authority. Participants generally had the impression that Father Rolo seeks input more than most pastors do. The need for an updated list of ministry contacts was mentioned repeatedly, and the new Social Outreach Ministry is pulling this together currently. A question to consider for the future is whether some degree of authority over certain matters could be delegated to ministry leaders. Many participants mentioned a desire to see the Church as a whole continuing to give more leadership roles to women.

Q17: What opportunities does your parish or community offer to raise people up into leadership positions?

Responses to this question were mixed: some felt that their initiatives were readily accepted and that they were encouraged to start or lead a ministry, but others felt that parish staff blocked their suggestions or requests. Our parish does have a wide variety of ministries with lay leadership, and recent efforts to improve coordination among ministries will help to identify and reduce duplication of effort. There was some interest in having more classes and training to prepare parishioners for different roles, and participants seemed keen on getting more young people involved.

Some specific recommendations were:

  • -  Recruit more young people to serve in leadership positions

  • -  Offer classes and training specifically for leadership development

  • -  Designate a stewardship coordinator who could guide parish members toward ministries

    and leadership positions appropriate for their gifts and callings

  • -  An annual survey about parish members’ skills and interests

  • -  More frequent training opportunities for ministries

  • -  Cultivate an atmosphere that welcomes new ideas and new voices

  • -  Extend invitations to parish members from under-represented groups

  • -  Create more leadership roles within the parish and make them visible

Q18: How are those in leadership roles formed to make them more capable of journeying together?

Most responses suggested that there is room for improvement here. Some mentioned the LEMI program for staff, catechist training, and Virtus as existing programs, but generally there wasn't much awareness of anything beyond those. Participants observed that some leadership training would empower ministry leaders and those interested in becoming leaders. More clarity is needed about what leadership opportunities exist and how they are defined.

Q19: How does your parish offer opportunities for those in leadership to listen and engage in dialogue with those they are journeying with?

Respondents expressed a desire for more opportunities to engage in dialogue and to be heard by leadership. The previous "town hall" events were given as a positive example that should perhaps be replicated more frequently. Parish Council was again mentioned as an important vehicle for parishioners to provide feedback and a way to increase communication and transparency.

Some ministries within the parish hold their own mini-retreats for planning purposes, which helps them to remain focused on their goals and to identify and train new leaders. These are valuable opportunities for those serving in each ministry to dialogue with each other and to foster a sense of collaboration and unity. Others mentioned Cursillo as a program that helps to identify and develop leaders within the parish.

Q20: How are decisions made for the parish or community?

The consensus was that Father Rolo makes the decisions, and some suggested that certain decisions could potentially be delegated to Parish Council or ministry leaders. However, many said they appreciate that Father Rolo is such a good listener. Overall, there was a desire for more transparency about decision-making, and again, the Parish Council could help with that.