Bishop James P. Powers gestures as he speaks to priests and laity gathered at Holy Family Church in Woodruff for the March 19 eastern regional meeting with parish representatives to further discuss the Synod on Synodality. A similar meeting for the western parishes of the diocese was held at St. Joseph’s Church in Shell Lake on March 13. (Submitted photo)

Jenny Snarski
Catholic Herald Staff

In the presence of Bishop James P. Powers and other diocesan leaders, Chris Hurtubise opened the first of two regional Synod on Synodality sessions at St. Joseph Church in Shell Lake on March 13.

Hurtubise, director of the newest diocesan office, the Office of Evangelization and Missionary Discipleship, shared how the context of the department’s creation – fruit of “very deep soul-searching conversations” during the initial stages of the pandemic – was merely part of a bigger picture the Holy Spirit was working on.

This local momentum, Hurtubise explained, providentially fit in and was animated by the worldwide Synod on Synodality that Pope Francis has called for and the Vatican has mobilized dioceses to join. While the bishops of the world won’t meet until October 2023, the local processes started in 2021 to allow for input from all Catholics.

“Evangelization is not an academic thing,” Hurtubise said. “All good ministry is relational ministry.”

He said that if utilized well, this first-of-its-kind synodal process could be a gift to the diocese’s evangelization initiative: “The Holy Father is giving us a moment to stop, to step out of our silos and see each other as real people, to come together as people who deeply care about the church’s mission.”

Regional sessions were attended by delegates who were reporting on the findings from listening sessions held in parishes this winter. Both gatherings followed the same schedule, with Lectio Divina and small group discussions, as the parish sessions.

Mentioning the power of prayer and the Scripture, Hurtubise affirmed the entire synodal process “has to be bookended by serious prayer,” so it is not simply well-intentioned Catholics coming together to share their own thoughts, but really a discernment of what the Holy Spirit is asking of and for the local church.

“As Catholics, we don’t discern anything in a vacuum,” Hurtubise added. “Any authentically Catholic discernment is always suffused by prayer, and led by Scripture and tradition.”

Lectio Divina

The Scripture passage used for the Lectio Divina was Mark 2:1-12, the curing of the paralytic lowered through the roof, which was also used for local listening sessions.

In summary of the regional gathering’s reflections, participants focused on the paralytic; the four men and circumstances surrounding their lowering him through the roof; and Jesus’ actions.

The paralytic was seen as a symbol of the church herself – paralyzed through loss of practicing Catholics, paralyzed in evangelization efforts to reach out to the disaffiliated and adapt to the fast-paced changes in a society ever more hostile to God and organized religion.

Some reflections saw the paralytic as hesitant to seek Jesus out, resistant to the help of the four men or, on the other hand, seeking out anyone who could bring him into the presence of Jesus. Lastly, it was noted that he, too, was sent out after he was healed – his healing wasn’t merely for himself.

The four men were generally considered creative and audacious in orchestrating an encounter between Jesus and the paralytic without counting the cost.

Participants wondered what the blocked door to the house meant. It was acknowledged that sin and spiritual paralysis are messy and dark. The process might have been messy – leaving the roof to be later repaired – but they also noted that in opening access to Jesus, much light would have been let into the house.
Some reflected on how Jesus honored the faith of the paralytic and the four men by performing the miracle, how he challenged the Pharisees firmly but gently, knowing their hearts and also trying to reach each person present in some way.

Others concluded that Jesus showed how undeniably he was the Christ and that he couldn’t not perform the miracle out of love for each person involved, out of his divinity and providence.

Bishop Powers added his own comments about the power of God that literally can be beyond belief at times, and the human element that can block Jesus’ ability to heal through doubt and resistance.

Synod reflection questions

The questions reflected on in small groups at each of the regional gatherings were the same as those provided for parish and cluster meetings:

How would you describe Jesus’ presence in your life? What or who helps you to know God more fully?

Where do you see Jesus at work in your local community? What could the church do, if anything, to help you and be a more meaningful part of your life?

Where do you see a need for the healing power of Jesus in your life or in your community? What steps do you hear the Holy Spirit asking us to take to deepen our commitment to the church’s mission of spreading the Gospel and making disciples?

Discussions were analytical and constructive. Bishop Powers’ efforts to visit local parishes for confirmations and special celebrations were applauded, as were the recent increase in seminarians for the diocese and the opportunities the pandemic paradoxically forced upon diocesan and parish leadership.

Charitable and social justice organizations and efforts were recognized – Knights of Columbus, Councils of Catholic Women, St. Vincent de Paul Societies and Catholic Charities as well the personal involvement of so many Catholics in local community and ecumenical groups and the presence of Catholic schools.

However, it was noted that parishes as a whole need to do more to be a presence of Christ in their communities and in the lives of Catholic individuals and families.

To solve the problem, you must understand the problem, one group summarized. Reaching out to those who have fallen away, or were never really engaged in the faith, is very important, as is listening, learning and trying to understand people’s reasons in their own words, from their own experiences.

It’s also important to design catechesis that reaches people where they’re at and strengthens the faith and understanding of practicing Catholics, the group said.

Both within and without the church, there has been a strong impact from the differences in how Catholicism is viewed and lived. The clergy abuse crisis has also taken a toll on the church’s credibility as a place for teaching and practicing religion.

There was a desire affirmed to be both a strong and courageous moral compass while being also a “welcome to all” faith community with pastoral approaches to divorced and single-parent families, as well those identifying as part of the gay and lesbian communities.

“Relationships, relationships, relationships” were stressed as the only real path for change. Those include the witness of practicing Catholics; the need for priests and lay leadership to share their stories and experiences of faith and acknowledgment of their own sin and brokenness; and acknowledgment of the personal relationship Jesus seeks with each individual.

One group asked, how do we deepen our commitment in a culture that has fallen away from God and from a sense of needing him?

Answers included the need to minister to families who in their basic structure are struggling, where questions of religion take second place to simply making ends meet and keeping up with the demands of daily life. When families – the building blocks of society and primary educators of children – are in difficulty, there are people in great need of accompaniment on the most basic levels.

In some of these families and in much of the younger population, the church is not recognized as a place of truth or moral leadership. Mixed messages are sent by both the church and the general culture. Issues important to them – climate change, varied forms of worship, sexuality and role of the laity – are either not addressed or not discussed in ways to which they can relate.

The role of youths – especially those on fire for Jesus and the church’s teachings – was acknowledged as invaluable and an encouraging witness to adults.
Training and equipping the laity – by inviting them to use their gifts and talents, as well as their creative initiative and outreach – were also seen as concrete ways forward.

Bishop’s comments

At one session, Bishop Powers assured participants that parish submissions “are not going to be put on a shelf.”

In the spirit of “maintenance to mission” that has been a catchphrase around the Diocese of Superior in recent years, he said that preaching, “Jesus loves me” remains an absolutely necessary message, but that it needs to go “deeper than a banner.”

“We need to get back to who we are,” he said, in believing in and living with a sense of the “beauty of being the Body of Christ,” in particular highlighting the uniquely Catholic gift of the Eucharist and “the importance of allowing that gift to transform and change us.”

Bishop Powers commented that the church is competing with a lot of things – in society as a whole and in peoples’ lives in particular.

“There’s more than talking about what is wrong,” he said. “There has to be leadership from those here to put into place those things that are lacking.”

The bishop clarified that changing doctrine is not the purpose of any of the synodal discussions, at either the global or local levels.

“The truths of the church are not going to change because of this synod,” he said. “But how do we take the gifts and lives of faith we have and share it with everyone?”

“How do we welcome all regardless of lifestyle?” he asked, confirming that the church doesn’t condemn anyone, while at the same time holding to her teachings and calling each person to continual conversion.

As he often does, Bishop Powers spoke of the importance of prayer, of active trust in God, in conjunction with shared witness and a willingness to move beyond the comfort zones many Catholics have fallen into over time.

The current situation “didn’t happen overnight,” he recognized, “and things are not going to change overnight.”

That said, the bishop also said that it’s going to take more than an hour a week at Mass and doing what we’ve been doing for that change to happen.

Many shared how much they appreciated the discussions and how a few hours didn’t seem nearly enough time to fully appreciate the needs and the opportunities.

Both Hurtubise and Bishop Powers gave credit to Providence as the diocese began reorganization and renewal conversations in 2018-2019. That movement was halted by the pandemic, but that also gave rise to an invigorating process of thinking outside the box. The worldwide Synod on Synodality was affirmed as a work of the Holy Spirit, and a “jump start” again for the Diocese of Superior to respond to Christ’s call to serve the faithful and all people of northwestern Wisconsin.