2022: A year-end Discerning Deacons examen

We offer today’s reflection as an examen, a review of the remarkable synodal path on which we have been traveling. A year ago, December, we were eagerly planning for how best to accompany, train and equip potential Synod Animators as they organized local listening consultations in their dioceses for the first phase of the global Synod on Participation, Communion, and Mission. We felt affirmed as protagonists having traveled to Rome with Núcleo Mujeres REPAM for the opening Mass of the global synod and having briefly met Pope Francis during which gave him the gift of Laura James’ image of St. Phoebe, patron of women deacons.

The prophetic ministry of the deacon is a gift given back to the Church at the Second Vatican Council, and we believe that the invitation to be part of a synodal Church is a way to renew the diaconate for mission in the third millennium. Deacons are like ministers on the threshold and bridge builders who connect those who might be left out of the distribution of the bread, by bringing their needs before our bishops and presbyters – so that together we can walk as a people of God.

Forming Ourselves for Synodality
Early in January 2022, we sent out a wide invitation to Catholics to become protagonists – people seeking to form and be formed for the first listening consultation phase of the global synod. Guided by the preparatory documents of the office of the Synod and by the Spiritual Conversations model, our team developed a purposeful and theologically grounded ministry formation process.

We gathered more than 150 participants in the initial Synod Animators Retreat and Training, with 100+ remaining actively involved in ongoing formation activities to be formed in the capacities of encountering, listening, dialoguing and discernment.

In less than six months’ time, Synod Animators conducted 358 synodal listening consultations with approximately 8,819 people. Where venues were reported, 188 encounters took place in person, and 122 were virtual. Approximately 2,116 participants were under the age of 18 and were engaged in a parish of school context.

In March we also partnered with the League of Catholic Women Foundation Fund, the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet, and St. Catherine University in St. Paul, Minnesota to host a synodal thematic forum on women and the diaconate, that included Archbishop Bernard Hebda. Our key question: “What is the Holy Spirit saying to each of us with regards to ordaining women as permanent deacons as a way to grow in our journeying together?” The top theme noted was that ordaining women as deacons could help the church grow in mission by unlocking the potential of thousands of ministers for unmet pastoral needs

Throughout these consultations, Synod Animators and note takers contributed thoughtful reports from around the U.S. and a few beyond. Our team of writers synthesized what was heard into a report, Discerning Deacons for a Synodal Church, which we shared with the Synod in Rome and with the U.S. Catholic Conference of Bishops (USCCB) as part of Region XVI (in which contributions were offered by national Catholic organizations).

DD on the Road
Throughout the year we took Discerning Deacons on the road to encounter new audiences, to share the good news of the synod, and to engage Catholics in the discernment of our Church about women’s ministry roles. Among our stops, we were received at the Religious Education Congress in Los Angeles; St. Barnabas Parish in Chicago; National Catholic Conference of Hispanic Ministry – Raíces y Alas Conference in Arlington, VA; the annual Assembly of the Association of U.S. Catholic Priests (AUSCP) in Baltimore; the Leadership Roundtable’s Catholic Leadership Summit in Washington, DC; the Ignatian Family Teach In for Justice in Washington, DC; and the Voice of the Faithful convening in Boston as they marked 20 years of the effort to renew Church structures and lay participation in the aftermath of clergy abuse scandals. The opportunities to meet in person and to deepen relationships have allowed us to witness the persistent hope many of us carry in our hearts that the Church can be renewed for mission.

Witnesses and Witnessing
In our weekly bulletin, The Witness, we welcomed guest reflections from allies like rural pastor Fr. Michael Hickin, urban pastor Fr. Brendan Busse, SJ, and Deacon Steve Wodzanowski who share the vision for enlarging opportunities for women’s leadership roles in our Church so that the Church can grow in its capacity to love and serve the people of God. Sr. Elizabeth Young wrote about the momentous Australian Plenary Council in which the final document stated that “should the universal law of the Church be modified to authorize the diaconate for women, the Plenary Council recommends that the Australian Bishops examine how best to implement it in the context of the Church in Australia”Gratitude to the Australian bishops for signaling to the universal Church their readiness to welcome women deacons.

This year Casey and her family journeyed on a synodal pilgrimage learning from the extraordinary witness of deacon couples in Chiapas, Mexico, as well as participating in the 60th anniversary Mass of Vatican II in Rome among many adventures. Ellie experienced first-hand the stamina and dedication of Sr. Ciria Mees’ diaconal ministry in the heart of the Bolivian Amazon, and she penned a reflection that has been widely shared about the difference it makes to our daughters and nieces to reclaim the history of Catholic women deacons.

DD also sought to deepen our understanding of the synodal path as it has been developing around the world: in Latin America with Mauricio Lopez, in Australia with Dr. Richard Lennan, and in Ireland with Dr. Nicola Brady. The USC Institute for Advanced Catholic Studies welcomed Casey to participate on a panel on Women in Ministry in the Catholic Church, along with Notre Dame sociologist Dr. Tricia Bruce and America writer Rachel Lu. The recording of our December webinar in partnership with Boston College and featuring USCCB’s Richard Coll, theologian Dr. Rafael Luciani and DD’s Dr. Maureen O’Connell will be made available in January.

A Historic Pilgrimage to Our Lady of Guadalupe
This year we celebrated the Feast of St. Phoebe by journeying to a holy place that would allow us to experience new graces and spiritual renewal. Discerning Deacons and members of the Women and Ministeriality Thematic Core Group of the Ecclesial Conference of the Amazon-CEAMA joined together to organize a historic, intercontinental pilgrimage to the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico City August 31- September 5, 2022.

Fifty-six pilgrims participated, moved by a shared devotion to Our Lady of Guadalupe and a living commitment to foster a synodal, missionary Church. Pilgrims arrived from across the Amazon – Brazil, Bolivia, and Colombia – together with participants from 14 states in the US, including delegations from Los Angeles, Minnesota, Chicago, San Francisco, Ohio, South Bend, Washington, D.C. and Miami.

Through lively celebrations of the Eucharist, synodal dialogue, communal discernment sessions, and day-long journeys to the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe and other sacred sites, pilgrims sought to live these core questions together:

  • What do the encounters between Our Lady of Guadalupe, Juan Diego, and the bishop reveal for how we are to walk on a synodal path together in the third millennium?
  • What is being revealed about women’s roles, leadership, and gifts for ministry for the Church today?

Last week for the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe on December 12, we offered the fruits of these profound days of prayers in this synthesis, including a letter of introduction by Archbishop Roque Paloschi of Porto Velho, Brazil. We humbly offer this report as a contribution to the continental stage of the global synod as the faithful continue discerning how the Church is being called by the Holy Spirit to rethink women’s participation, including for the ordained diaconate.

We’ve Been Heard!
Throughout the year we were cautiously hopeful that the synthesis documents for the U.S. and for the continental stage would indeed reflect the many hopes, dreams, laments and concerns we were hearing in hundreds of listening consultations. We were relieved and delighted that the U.S. national synthesis published in September plainly names the common desire by the faithful “to be a more welcoming Church where all members of the People of God can find accompaniment on the journey.” This includes a more welcoming posture towards LGBTQ Catholics and their families, divorced Catholics, women, diverse cultural and ethnic communities, people of color, young Catholics, and to remove barriers to accessibility for people with special needs. The centrality of women’s contributions to local faith communities is recognized, and the desire “for stronger leadership, discernment, and decision-making roles for women – both lay and religious – in their parishes and communities” is named.

In October, Pope Francis announced that the global synod process would be extended by another year into 2024 “The fruits of the synodal process that has gone ahead are many, but in order for them to bear much fruit, we can’t hurry,” said Pope Francis, adding that the extension was an effort to help make synodality part of the “constitutive nature of the church.” (from NCR Coverage). At Discerning Deacons we welcomed this news. It gives all of us another year to be intentional and focused on building our capacities for listening, dialoguing, and discerning – particularly between the sensus fidelium (the sense of the faithful) and the magisterium as we discern God’s call for how we are to journey together as the Body of Christ in the third millennium.

We continued to experience the power of unexpected grace when in late October the working Document for the Continental Stage (DCS), entitled “Enlarge the space of your tent,” dedicated six paragraphs to rethinking women’s participation in the Church (#60-65). The Vatican synthesis team articulates what has been heard regarding women’s participation in the Church and the discernment steps forward. “From all continents comes an appeal for Catholic women to be valued first and foremost as baptised and equal members of the People of God. There is almost unanimous affirmation that women love the Church deeply, but many feel sadness because their lives are often not well understood, and their contributions and charisms not always valued,” states the DCS (#61).

This issue is named as being “critical and urgent” and notes that for the Church to fulfill its mission a conversion of the Church’s culture is needed, along with new practices and structures (#60). The DCS states that, “After careful listening, many reports ask that the Church continue its discernment in relation to a range of specific questions: the active role of women in the governing structures of Church bodies, the possibility for women with adequate training to preach in parish settings, and a female diaconate.” (#64)

These three recommendations for discerning women’s fuller participation in the Church are now open for discernment among all the People of God in the next stage of the global synod – the continental stage. It is good news meant to be shared widely and broadly! With your support, we hope to share “Enlarge the space of your tent” with as many people as possible in 2023. The St. Phoebe School of Synodality which we launched in the fall and reflection sessions on “Enlarge the space of your tent” will continue into 2023. You are welcomed to journey with us and to invite others to join in as we keep growing this “critical and urgent” discernment conversation over the next 22 months.

Support the Mission: Become a Patron of Discerning Deacons
During this season of giving, we also invite you to participate by making a financial contribution. Thanks to the support of our benefactors, this year DD was able to live our mission to grow the conversation.

We recognize that everyone does not always have the time to meet or to organize, so if you have been wondering how to express your support for Discerning Deacons, giving financially would make a difference. We are humbled by the support we have from people who give $10 a month or $5,000 a year. Each donation reminds us that we do not walk alone, and we are encouraged by your belief in our efforts! Thank you for supporting our work as we continue moving forward. Click here to donate.

A few things we’ve learned on the synodal path
As we complete the work and ministry of 2022, we are pausing to reflect and to give thanks for a few things we’ve learned as a discerning deacons community on the synodal path. We learned that ordinary Catholics in parishes and schools and Catholic organizations can be protagonists in gathering people together for encounter, listening, dialoguing and discernment. The global synod seeks to enlarge the space of the tent so that everyone has a role.

We learned that people love their faith and the Church and are eager to share their hopes, dreams, concerns and laments if invited to do so.

We learned that the Holy Spirit is alive at the peripheries and that the face of Jesus Christ can be found at the margins. God’s communion is usually bigger and more surprising than what we would imagine.

We learned that we can build community together when we take risks to share our joys and disappointments, our dreams and our fragile, persistent, renewed hope for being able to journey together – even across our differences.

We learned that we have many allies among the laity, deacons, deacon wives, religious sisters, priests and bishops who want to walk the synodal path with us.

We learned that we can make valuable contributions to the global synod process and that the Holy Spirit is alive with an overflow of unexpected graces.

We learned that, similar to Juan Diego, we too are being called to be unlikely protagonists for a listening Church by leaning into our diaconal charisms for creating new encounters in which the Spirit can move for the common good of all.

We learned to let our hearts be filled with gratitude for the extraordinary blessings of this year and for each one of you walking alongside us. We, Ellie and Casey, and our remarkable DD staff Anna, Carolina, Lisa, Maureen extend our deepest thanks!

We have listed for easy reference DD in the news in 2022. And we invite you to join us in prayer as we begin 2023. The diaconal women from St. Paul/Minneapolis will lead us in our monthly St. Phoebe Prayer for a Synodal Church on Tuesday, January 3rd at 8 pm ET and reflect on the Epiphany – including the gifts of wise women. Join us by registering here.

The next issue of our newsletter, The Witness, will be published January 11. Till then, wishing you and your loved ones abundant blessings and peace this Christmas Season,

Picture of Ellie & Casey

Ellie & Casey

Co-Directors of Discerning Deacons

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“Our St. Phoebe Day celebration was a Catholic mass at its best—coming together, unified at the Eucharistic table, getting nourished through meaningful ritual, prayerful and relevant songs, a challenging message on synodality from scripture, and engaging and honest testimonies from two women in our community. St. Joan of Arc parish today did what Jesus did years ago—fed souls and gave people hope.”
St. Joan of Arc Catholic Community
Minneapolis, MN
“Together, we are grateful that the ministry and example of St. Phoebe enlivens our community to participate in exploring the unique gifts of women in our faith community. Here at Cranaleith, we feel strongly about creating space for all those seeking wholeness and transformation for themselves, their communities and society. This retreat was an opportunity for us to do just that.”
Cranaleith Spiritual Center
Philadelphia, PA
“The icon of St. Phoebe is still present in our Chapel today, where we are able to remember her witness and ask her to intercede on our behalf.”
Rosemont College
Rosemont, PA

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