We contacted every diocese in the U.S. about their synod plans. Here’s what we found.

The diocesan phase of the global synodal process, officially entitled “Toward a Synodal Church: Communion, Participation, Mission” began on Sunday, Oct. 17, but only about half of U.S. dioceses had taken the first step of appointing a local synod coordinator, as called for by the Vatican’s instructions.

In the last month, a team of America Media reporters contacted all 196 “particular churches” in the United States—dioceses, eparchies and the Personal Ordinariate of the Chair of St. Peter—and was able to confirm the appointment of 62 local synod coordinators. Richard Coll, the executive director of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Department of Justice, Peace and Human Development, who is the conference’s liaison with these coordinators, said that with many appointments being made just days before the synod, that number was around 80 by the opening of the diocesan phase, representing about half of the United States’ 176 dioceses.

A team of America Media reporters contacted all 196 “particular churches” in the United States and was able to confirm the appointment of 62 local synod coordinators.

The synod, nicknamed the “synod on synodality,” aims to shift the church toward a more decentralized model of decision-making by inviting laypeople and those who have not traditionally had a voice in church leadership into discussions on how the church can be more inclusive and collaborative. The three-step process includes a diocesan phase, running from October 2021 through April 2022; a continental phase, spanning late 2022 and early 2023, and a final, universal phase, which will be a gathering of bishops and others in Rome in October 2023. Although the synod is unlikely to bring about a large-scale transformation of church structures, Pope Francis sees it as a necessary first step.

Of the 196 churches contacted by America Media over the last month, 105 did not respond for comment. (Among these were three churches that were contacted late in the process. This article will be updated to reflect their responses.) Of the 91 that did, the vast majority had planned an opening Mass, about two-thirds had appointed a local coordinator, and 35 had a plan in place for reaching out to parishes and gathering feedback. Despite Vatican instructions that “special care should be taken to involve those persons who may risk being excluded: women, the handicapped, refugees, migrants, the elderly, people who live in poverty, Catholics who rarely or never practice their faith, etc.,” only a handful described plans to specifically reach out to those groups.

Challenges

While the U.S. bishops have, on the whole, been slower to embrace the synodal model than bishops in, for example, Ireland, Germany, Australia, Latin America and the Caribbean, the delays in this particular process cannot be attributed entirely to a lack of openness to synodality, Mr. Coll of the U.S.C.C.B. cautioned.

Dioceses in the United States face a variety of challenges in implementing the process, including inadequate time to prepare, a lack of informational and financial resources, and the ongoing coronavirus pandemic—issues that are not unique to them.

Dioceses in the United States face a variety of challenges in implementing the process, including inadequate time to prepare.

The Vatican’s synod office released its two key documents—the preparatory document and the vademecum, or handbook, for dioceses—only on Sept. 7, which, some dioceses said, did not give them enough time to prepare for an Oct. 17 launch date. Other dioceses that had more concrete plans by the 17th had begun planning even before the Vatican documents were distributed, as in the Bridgeport, Conn., and Gary, Ind., dioceses.

Other dioceses, like the Diocese of Rockford, Ill., are concerned that the risk of contracting the coronavirus may prevent some constituents from participating in listening sessions. To reach those who stay home, the Rockford diocese plans to gather responses online as well as in person.

The pandemic has also slowed down the planning process for dioceses, Mr. Coll said. “I think given the pandemic and various degrees of return to the diocesan offices, it’s probably a little less efficient than might have otherwise been the case.” He hopes that the U.S.C.C.B.’s webpage of synod resources, which was published Monday, Oct. 18, will help dioceses that are struggling to make plans.

Finally, around 40 percent of U.S. dioceses are considered “mission” dioceses, meaning they cover a large area, have few Catholics or face financial difficulties. Eastern Catholic eparchies face many of these same challenges. Because of the large distances and scant resources, planning listening sessions that will reach as many people as possible has been particularly difficult. A spokesperson for one such diocese, the Archdiocese of Anchorage-Juneau, Alaska, told America that it could not provide any information on its synod plans.

Around 40 percent of U.S. dioceses are considered “mission” dioceses, meaning they cover a large area, have few Catholics or face financial difficulties.

Mr. Coll, who previously worked in the U.S.C.C.B.’s Catholic Home Missions branch, which funds mission dioceses, said he wanted to prioritize supporting such dioceses’ synod efforts. In particular, he hopes to support the eparchies, which, like other Eastern churches, have used the synodal model for centuries, whereas it became a focus of churches of the Roman Rite only after the Second Vatican Council.

“They have, of course, a special gift because, as they would say, they have always had a more synodal tradition in terms of how they approach their decision-making as members of Eastern rite communities,” Mr. Coll said. “But they’re also financially challenged because, again, as huge territories, not that many congregants are part of the eparchies…. So, getting the benefits of their gifts while at the same time supporting them in a practical way, I think will be very much of value and of importance.”

Preparations

Despite the logistical challenges that have confronted many dioceses in the United States, several dioceses that America reached out to indicated that they were well prepared.

In the Diocese of Gary, Ind., Bishop Robert J. McClory said in a phone interview that his diocese decided to start preparing for the synod as soon as the Vatican announced its plans in May 2021. Months before the synod was scheduled to begin, the diocese conducted meetings with both the priests of the diocese and the diocesan pastoral council. The logistical wrinkles of this process have been smoothed out by the fact that the Diocese of Gary carried out its own local synod in 2017. Around the same time as that synod, Bishop McClory was involved in coordinating another synod in the Archdiocese of Detroit, where he had served as vicar general before he was ordained bishop of Gary.

Months before the synod was scheduled to begin, the diocese conducted meetings with both the priests of the Gary Diocese and the diocesan pastoral council.

Likewise, the Diocese of Bridgeport, Conn., began the process over the summer. In late August, Bishop Frank Caggianno sent a letter to pastors in the diocese explaining the goals of the synod, and he instructed parishes to choose synodal delegates by Sept. 15—a month before the synod’s opening Mass.

In Gary and in several other dioceses, including Corpus Christi, Tex.; Marquette, Mich.; Phoenix, Ariz., and Reno, Nev., the leaders of the synodal process have plans to reach out to a wide range of groups that have traditionally been left out of church discussions, in keeping with the Vatican’s recommendations. In Gary, the diocese will conduct discussions with people from young, elderly and intercultural populations, doing so in groups as small as seven people at a time to encourage candid discussion.

Meanwhile, the Rev. Timothy Ekaitis, who serves as the synodal coordinator in the Diocese of Marquette, Mich., said in an email that his diocese is making efforts to involve members of Native American tribes, Christians of other denominations and Eastern Rite Catholics. In Phoenix, the synodal organizers will endeavor to include perspectives from homeless people and people who no longer practice the Catholic faith.

Of course, it is one thing to aspire to include people from diverse backgrounds and another to do it—especially when a given diocese includes people who speak a variety of languages and come from different cultures. The dioceses that are best prepared for the synod have made efforts to address this challenge, undertaking the task of reaching a representative cross-section of people by employing strategies that resemble get-out-the-vote campaigns before national elections.

In Phoenix, the synodal organizers will endeavor to include perspectives from homeless people and people who no longer practice the Catholic faith.

In the Diocese of St. Augustine, Fla., coordinators are mailing postcards to Catholic homes, conducting a social media campaign and distributing promotional sheets in seven different languages. Additionally, delegates from each parish have been instructed to encourage other parishioners to get involved in the synod. The diocese plans to designate people from different cultures to lead some of its listening groups so that all participants feel comfortable.

A few states farther west, in Texas, the Archdiocese of San Antonio sent out a glossy, multi-color advertisement explaining the purpose of the synod and describing in detail how people within the archdiocese could get involved. These were printed in English and Spanish in order to reach as many people as possible in an area with a large Latino population.

Takeaways

The stakes are high. While popes have been convening the Synod of Bishops since the conclusion of the Second Vatican Council (30 times since 1967), perhaps no other synod meeting has had so much potential to change the structures of the church, or at least the image that the church has of itself—shifting from a model that identifies the church primarily with the hierarchy to a vision of the church as the “people of God,” a strong emphasis of Vatican II. Pope Francis has made the implementation of the council one of the principal goals of his pontificate, and the “synod on synodality” could significantly shape his legacy.

Perhaps no other synod meeting has had so much potential to change the structures of the church, or at least the image that the church has of itself.

What remains in question is the effect the synod will have on the U.S. church and whether a Catholic community and episcopate divided along political lines will be able to come together for open discussions that will certainly touch on hot-button issues that have divided the American church for decades. The pope believes strongly in the transformative power of encounter and listening among people who disagree, but he has rightly cautioned against synods becoming “parliaments.” Without a commitment to listening, humility and charity, these synod discussions run the risk of drawing ever-deeper battle lines in an already-divided U.S. Catholic Church.

A further risk is inclusivity. Many of the dioceses contacted by America reported no plan to reach beyond parishes, and parish discussion groups will likely draw in only those who are already most involved in the parish. While these voices are certainly important, the Vatican has stressed reaching out to those on the margins of the church or outside it.

“I think if it were to be limited to sort of traditional voices, as important as they are, that would not be a good outcome because we would be excluding exactly the kind of voices that are most crucial to the synodal process,” Mr. Coll said. He said he would measure the process’ success by “the length and breadth of the dialogue and the inclusion of communities and groups of individuals that have multiple and divergent and distinct insights on how the Catholic Church can be a more synodal church, both in terms of its inner workings as well as its relationship with with the broader world.”

“I think if it were to be limited to sort of traditional voices, as important as they are, that would not be a good outcome.”

To that end, he is reaching out to Catholic organizations that reach people on the margins, like Catholic Charities and Catholic Relief Services. When asked his advice for individuals who wanted to participate in the process but did not receive information from their dioceses, Mr. Coll suggested contacting the diocese and passing along feedback to his office by way of the U.S.C.C.B. website.

Perhaps the greatest challenge facing the U.S. bishops in this process is the end goal of the process itself: increasing collaboration and decentralizing power. The synod seeks to move the church away from a purely preaching model toward one that listens, engages in dialogue and discerns together with a variety of people. This would be a significant shift for a number of American bishops.

There are some signs of hope. While the U.S. bishops did not devote any time to the synod in their June meeting—their last meeting before the process began—they do plan to discuss it for 45 minutes in their November meeting, Mr. Coll said. He said he is confident that as more dioceses begin their processes, others will follow suit.

Those who have previously participated in synods, like Bishop McClory of Gary, Ind., also emphasize that the synod process itself can be transformative.

Bishop McClory said he believes that this synod “holds a great deal of promise,” even if the task is somewhat daunting. “I have experienced, directly and indirectly, the vitality that they [synods] can add to a local church,” he said.

Bishop McClory said that when he asked members of his diocese when they thought the diocese was at its best, they responded that it was during its 2017 diocesan synod. “That synod experience was really a time of great joy for them. So I want to build upon that.”

Ricardo da Silva, S.J., and Kevin Clarke contributed to this report.