San Diego diocesan synod seeks to put 'Amoris Laetitia' into action

This story appears in the Amoris Laetitia feature series. View the full series.
A representative from of one of the working groups at the diocesan synod hands her group's scroll of resolutions to Bishop Robert McElroy at the synod's conclusion. At right, Paulist Fr. John Hurley. (Denis Grasska photo/Southern Cross)
A representative from of one of the working groups at the diocesan synod hands her group's scroll of resolutions to Bishop Robert McElroy at the synod's conclusion. At right, Paulist Fr. John Hurley. (Denis Grasska photo/Southern Cross)

Amy Morris-Young

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To develop achievable, realistic ways to respond to the challenges of Pope Francis' recent apostolic exhortation on marriage and family life, the San Diego diocese held a groundbreaking synod process which culminated Oct. 29-30.

Representing each of the diocese's nearly 100 parishes, 113 delegates distilled three recommendations for each of "five major challenges" contained in Francis' Amoris Laetitia ("The Joy of Love") and further detailed in the pastoral letter by San Diego Bishop Robert McElroy, which announced a synod would take place:

  • The challenge to witness to both the beauty and realism of the Catholic vision of marriage and family life;
  • The challenge to form a culture of invitation and hospitality to unmarried couples;
  • The challenge to welcome, nurture and form children;
  • The challenge to provide authentic pastoral support for those who are divorced; and
  • The challenge to bring spiritual depth to family life.

Presented to McElroy at the conclusion of a long weekend of intense discussion and deliberation, the 15 recommendations:

  • Called for parishes to establish mentoring teams to "welcome and accompany young adults," to support married couples, to "engage military families," and to carry out marriage-preparation follow-up;
  • Urged development of education and "formation in the areas of conscience formation and the internal forum, not only to implement the pathway to sacramental participation [for divorced and remarried] outlined in 'The Joy of Love,' but even more fundamentally to illuminate a core element of Christian discipleship itself;"
  • Asked for creation of a "Diocesan Office for Family Spirituality" that would, among other things, "develop resources for parishes to minister to families" including "the divorced, single-parent, widowed, deployed, deported, special needs, multigenerational households, LGBT";
  • Encouraged nurturing "a culture of support" in parishes and adding a staff position in the diocesan Office for Marriage and Family Life to provide help "for those in all stages of separation and divorce."

In the closing afternoon's background reflection on resolutions from the working group on pastoral support for the divorced, group facilitator Kent Peters* said that if provisions suggested in the group's recommendations had been in place during the life of his mother, her life could have been much different.

On Saturday he shared with the assembly about how his mother had felt abandoned by her spouse, by her parish, by her church, and by her Catholic friends because of the stigma of divorce. "An additional dagger in the back," he said, was his father's subsequent annulment of that marriage so he could remarry in the Catholic church.

McElroy set the tone for the two-day assembly in his opening remarks, echoing a theme that ran through Amoris Laetitia and his own pastoral letter, "Embracing the Joy of Love."

Related: "San Diego diocese gets ready for synod on family life" (Oct. 27, 2016)

It must be recognized that "judgmentalism must be radically banished if we are to deliberate in a manner reflective of the God whose mercy knows no limits and a church made not only for the pure, but for all," the bishop told delegates.

"We are called to tend to the spiritual, emotional and material wounds of those who are hurting deeply, not becoming focused on peripheral questions or shortcomings, but focusing on how the church can make a dramatic difference," he said.

"That is what this synod is all about," said Emily Reimer-Barry, alluding to McElroy's remarks. Reimer-Barry, who is department chair of theology and religious studies at the University of San Diego, served as the theological adviser to the working group on "The Challenge to Form a Culture of Invitation and Hospitality to Unmarried Couples."

"Yes, the church has this body of teaching about marriage, this commitment to marriage," she said. "But so many people in our world perceive those teachings as limiting, judgmental, and they feel excluded from being able to experience the fullness of grace."

"Divorce, married civilly, a member of family being deported. So many instances of families hurting in our context. Just reiterating church teachings is not enough," she added. "Focusing on the church as a field hospital and source of mercy, from Pope Francis' recent exhortation, is just a really provocative way to think about being the church here in San Diego. I am delighted to witness this process and participate in this."

NCR has extensive coverage of Pope Francis' Amoris Laetitia ("The Joy of Love"). Read more here.

The pastoral paths forward, hammered out over the weekend, were the culmination of a six-month process that involved debate, discussion and synthesizing hundreds of ideas, concerns, insights and hopes shared by thousands of parishioners during grassroots listening sessions and follow-up working groups over the months since the April 8 release of Amoris Laetitia and the follow-up pastoral letter by McElroy in early May.

While the delegates forged agreement on the final resolutions, there also appeared to be unspoken consensus that the process itself marked "an opening of the doors" and "reaching out to the unreachable" in the words of Lulu Valdivia, who represented San Diego's Our Lady of Refuge Parish and has worked extensively in post-abortion ministry.

She added: "I will say to Pope Francis and Bishop McElroy, it is just such a joy having the feedback and attention from you — me as a person, as a mother, as someone who has had trauma in the past. And you come and knock on the door and say, 'I'm here, what can I do for you?' Through these questions and the answering of the questions, I know there's hope coming. The thing is how do we reach more people? We need to reach more people. As I said, this is only the beginning."

Attendees share their reactions to the San Diego diocesan synod (Video by Amy and Dan Morris-Young) 

Fr. John Dolan, vicar of clergy and pastor of two San Diego parishes — St. Vincent de Paul and St. John the Evangelist — lauded the synod's structure and process.

"I would say more than anything that the process and the synod itself are probably more important to me than the actual results," Dolan said.

SD Synod program_web.jpg
Program from the San Diego diocesan synod

"The process is very important because dialogue is essential," he added. "There are two different forms of doing church. One is very dialogical, and the other is from a monological sense. And we have dealt with that monological world: things come from on high; they get shelved in some pastor's corner ... but ultimately it's 'We're going to tell you what to think.' And the dialogical world says: 'Let's all talk about this.' The synod really has been a great model for doing that."

According to synod coordinator Paulist Fr. John Hurley and many delegates, McElroy underscored that the synod's ultimate success will be measured by how well the derived action items are implemented.

"I think that if we want to be successful in this synod, we need to be laser-focused on executing the goals we've put forth," said Heidi Chokeir, delegate from San Diego's Santa Sophia Parish where she and her husband have been "actively involved in marriage ministries for more than 12 years."

A biotech communications consultant, Chokeir said, "The synod has been incredibly well organized and executed in terms of helping us explore the needs of the people and possible ways to respond to those needs, and then narrow it down to actionable goals. We've been pushed in our working groups to write each proposal as an action that is attainable, so we can't be wishy-washy and dreamy about things that aren't possible. We have to be grounded in realism if we are actually going to make an impact with all of this."

McElroy agrees. "If there's no follow-through, this model has failed. There has to be substantial follow-through."

"I will be the chair of the implementation committee," he continued, "but it will be drawn from lay leaders here, some of the religious, deacons and priests, who are in this group now. So, there will be a follow-through in terms of membership."

He added, "And it's not like I think every goal will necessarily be fully and ideally implemented, but that we follow through on this in large part at all the different levels in the life of the diocese is important. That will be a test of whether this model works."

Hurley said the diocesan synod implementation committee will probably be composed of at least three representatives from each of the five working groups that have distilled grassroots input on the five challenges areas.

Delegates repeatedly told NCR that they and fellow parishioners were encouraged and energized by the invitation to share thoughts and experiences of family life and marriage.

"It has been awesome," said Kim Dung Nguyen, delegate from San Diego's Our Lady of the Sacred Heart Parish. "The listening sessions have been helpful to me, helpful to the church. It is eye-opening for me to see what other [parishes] are doing, what other support groups or resources are out there in the diocese that I can learn from, and embrace and bring with me and share with our church."

"It's just phenomenal. It's a lot of information," added the mother of two.

Rodrigo Valdivia, diocesan chancellor, called the synod "a monumental moment in the life of the diocese" which emphasized that "we have a role to play in owning our church."

"From my perspective, having served in the church as a layperson for many years," he said, "I see this as a wonderful opportunity for people to see that laypeople can participate in decision making in the church. This process, I think, is really inclusive of lay people — lay leaders, but also just faithful parishioners. I think the bishop has made an opportunity for the Spirit to move in that way, and it's a great thing. Laypeople don't often have an opportunity … to participate in this decision making."

Fr. Michael Murphy, director of the diocesan Office of Priests and pastor of Sacred Heart Church in Coronado, pointed to the synod's role in affirming the richness of church teaching, but applying it by "really accompanying people along the journey to holiness, as the pope says."

"Of course, that's our primary call. But too often, I think, the people in the parish, in the pews, see just barriers there," he continued. "What I hope comes out of this is that we begin to find some ways around the barriers, not to change any of our doctrine, because our doctrine is sound, it is truth. But how do we, using the pope's understanding, lead people along who can't embrace it all the way?"

A popular retreat master and spiritual director, Murphy was the theologian consultant to the working group exploring how to deepen family spiritual life.

Asked what he judged to be the level of synod "buy-in" by clergy of the diocese, especially pastors, Murphy said it was his "sense from the priests who I have spoken with that they're excited about it because they see that there can be some movement."

"I think the concern is — as it always is with pastors — 'What else are you going to give me to do?' I think they are concerned that there are going to be all these directives that they're now going to have to implement in the parish," Murphy said.

"In fact, Bishop McElroy has already addressed that in an earlier meeting where he said that's what we have to avoid," Murphy added. "He understands pastors are going to say, 'Don't lay all this stuff on us. We are busy enough in our parishes. Don't ask us to do more things.' So I think there is some caution in that. But I think there is an excitement. … I think Pope Francis has stimulated excitement in the church. I think we're all feeling that."

McElroy said the issue of adding work for pastors and/or parish staffs has been front-and-center since he announced the upcoming synod in his pastoral letter.

A former pastor in the San Francisco archdiocese himself, McElroy said, "We've got to make it 'pastor friendly' ... in the sense that it cannot impose significant additional burdens on the pastors or the parish staffs."

"Many of the things we have talked about are a change of culture," said McElroy. "The priests will be willing to do not only some things a little bit differently, but also some additional things."

Reflecting "the face of the diocese" and the region's "extraordinary diversity," roughly half of the delegates were Latino, synod coordinator Hurley said, with representation of Vietnamese, Filipino and other ethnic groups, among participants whose average age was 43.

"One of the things that has been brought to our attention is that this appears to be the first thematic synod" [on the application of Amoris Laetitia], he explained. "We are not aware of anything else of this magnitude."

McElroy and Hurley said there seems to be interest among other dioceses and from other bishops in San Diego's synodal design and single-topic focus.

Other bishops "have asked me about it," McElroy said. "Several wrote to me ... because they knew it was starting, and said they're praying for it [the synod], which was nice. They find it interesting. A number of them have asked me how it's going, and I'm sure they will ask me how it went."

There were no models on which to base the synod's input gathering, feedback synthesizing, assembly deliberation and follow-up, Hurley said.

"We pretty much developed it ourselves," the Paulist said.

McElroy said the diocese might consider a similar synodal approach to other areas of church life in the future. He mentioned the church's weak track record with young adults as an example. In his pastoral letter, the bishop described the low rate of millennials taking active part in the church as "the most significant pastoral challenge to the church in the United States."

The last San Diego diocesan synod was held 40 years ago.

With Catholics numbering just over one million in a larger population of about 3.2 million, the San Diego diocese is contiguous with San Diego and Imperial counties of California, and borders on Mexico.

[Amy Morris Young is a regular NCR contributor. Dan Morris Young writes for NCR's reporting project on parish life, The Field Hospital.] 

This story was updated 11 a.m. CT, Nov. 2, to include video.

*An earlier version of this story attributed this statement to the wrong person; a cutline has been corrected.

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