PHILADELPHIA (CNS) — Jennifer McMahon, a sophomore biology major at Villanova University, said recent campus listening sessions in preparation for the Catholic Church’s 2023 synod made her feel that her concerns “were being acknowledged not simply by the church, but my peers.”
“I was nervous that I would feel alone in my struggles with my faith, and it made me embarrassed to talk about it,” she said. “However, I felt welcomed and comforted by my peers who experienced similar struggles.”
In early April, nearly 50 college students from across the Archdiocese of Philadelphia gathered at La Salle University for a cross-campus listening session as part of the first phase of the global “Synod on Synodality.”
The event was the culmination of a six-week effort across 14 participating institutions — involving all 11 Catholic campus communities and three Catholic Newman Centers — to integrate college students into the synod.
A nearly equal number of administrators from across the campuses, including three presidents, several vice presidents of mission and student life, and a representative of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, attended in a listening capacity.
Among the listeners was Philadelphia’s Archbishop Nelson J. Pérez, who participated in both a small-group listening session as well as the larger plenary session.
“As an administrator in Catholic higher education, I am heartened by the courage and deep commitment the students have to be a part of positive change,” said Deanne D’Emilio, president of Gwynedd Mercy University, who was herself a listener that evening.
“I also appreciate the presence of the archbishop, who I observed truly listening and welcomed each student’s perspective,” she added.
“The synod presents an incredible chance for our students to experience church,” said Kathryn Getek Soltis, director of the Center for Peace and Justice Education at Villanova University and a member of the initiative’s planning team.
“Often it seems that church happens whether or not they are there,” she said. “But in this journey, our young people have made church something that is changed by their presence, something that they do.”
Facilitators designed the cross-campus listening session in light of what more than 30 campus “animators,” trained in the synodal listening process, learned from the nearly 400 students who participated in 43 listening sessions held across the campuses since early February.
Those listening sessions, in keeping with similar sessions being held around the world, were aimed at eliciting students’ joys and obstacles of journeying with the church, as well as their hopes for its future.
To that end, the April 4 event created opportunity for social connection, personal reflection and sharing, prayer, and accountability.
Highlights included an institutional roll call; student reflections on the Gospel account of Pentecost; a large group examen, or reflective prayer, about their gathering that day; and smaller listening sessions oriented around themes that surfaced in campus listening sessions.
Students also had a chance for students to share their insights with each other and Archbishop Pérez in a plenary listening session.
To amplify the students’ engagement with the synodal experience “of bold speech and deep listening,” artist Becky McIntyre, an alum of St. Joseph’s University, created an interactive art installation to visually capture students’ joys and obstacles of journeying with the church.
Students offered their ideas on translucent colored paper in the shape of footprints, which they added to a life-size sketch of the official logo that McIntyre painted on a large panel window in the gathering space, creating a stained-glass window that could be seen by passersby outside.
The installation was titled, “A Window in the Future of the Church: Journeying Together in Celebration and Accountability.”
“Visual art allows us to leave our physical mark on the world and gives us space to further imagine a new world together,” said McIntyre, who also served as a visual notetaker throughout the evening. Her work will be integrated into the final report as well as initiatives of the group moving forward.
“I think the art installation gave each student a tangible way to contribute to the community of voices sharing their hopes for the future of the church — to know that their voices were not only heard, but also seen, and are journeying together toward that future through the installation’s image,” she added.
For Jaclyn Newns, chief officer of mission and ministry at Chestnut Hill College, the art installation’s “empty spaces of glass beckon us to think about the bodies who are not in the room — the individuals who may feel outside of the church, without voice.”
“There is room in our pews for more people and opportunity at our pulpits for more voices,” she said. “As a universal church, reflective of a diverse body of Christ, we must keep asking ourselves, ‘Whose voices are not in the room and around the altar?’ For truly, those individuals also carry God’s image and their inclusion would bring greater beauty to our church.”
Justin Hartranft, a first year public health major at Gwynedd Mercy University, called his experience of the listening sessions “uplifting and inspiring.”
“Not only did I share common experiences with my peers, but I felt a strong sense of community and belonging with those I have never met,” he added.
“I was able to see that the youth are very much alive in the church,” said Hanna Mariyam Mathai, a senior neuroscience major at Holy Family University.
She expressed a desire for more activities and gatherings to engage young people, some of which could even include exposition of the Blessed Sacrament in some way, she said.
“We need our youth to be strong for the church as they will be the next generation to lead the world!” Mathai added.
Brother Ernest Miller, vice president of mission, diversity, equity and inclusion at La Salle University, said this synodal process “urges us to find other opportunities for Philadelphia’s Catholic colleges and universities and Newman Centers to do more together, to cross-pollinate.”
He called it a historically unprecedented event for Catholic higher education in Philadelphia.
“The listening needs to continue,” said the De La Salle Christian Brother. “Building the pilgrim church is a journey for the long haul.”