How to Throw a Great Synodal Discernment Party: A Discerning Deacons Recipe

St. Paul/Minneapolis DCS Session on April 23rd, 2023 - Photo courtesy of Brennan Hall

Last week, in their Final Document for the Continental Stage of the Global Synod, the North American Synod Team indicated that we all need to be formed for synodality – all of us! How does this formation happen? By doing the thing. All we need is to circle up for listening, discernment, and forward momentum – together. 

Throughout April, the people of God in Philadelphia, Chicago and the Twin Cities of St. Paul/Minneapolis gathered to discern about “rethinking women’s participation” in the Church, the six-paragraph section of Enlarge the Space in Your Tent, the global synthesis document. Based on their learnings, here’s a Discerning Deacons’ recipe for synodal formation!

  • 2.5 to 3 hours for an in-person gathering
  • 1 gathering space, preferably with movable furniture; a screen for projecting key images and messages; and acoustics that ensure everyone can be heard
  • Anywhere from a baker’s dozen to full bushel of people who need to hear the good news that the church is “rethinking women’s participation”
    • Add a dash of babies and toddlers to make the future very present
    • Fold in a few teenagers to keep you rooted in hope. In Chicago, high school students welcomed participants as they arrived, and in the Twin Cities a teenage girl full heartedly proclaimed paragraph 64!
    • Add a pinch of fathers, brothers, sons, husbands and priests who can invite others to stand shoulder to shoulder with women
  • 1 agenda to map the journey. The Twin Cities’ Participant Guide is a great example!
  • 3 to 4 movements of prayer to invoke the Holy Spirit, break open the Word, reflect in the midst of synodal conversations, and commission
  • Facilitators – either an individual or team –with supporting roles such as a presider for prayer, time keeper, notetaker, interpreter, etc. 
  • 2 to 3 questions to prompt participants speak candidly about what matters most to them
  • At least one ask: What next step can participants commit to taking in order to keep walking together?
  • 2 evaluations: one for participants and one for the planning team to facilitate ongoing learning 
  • Shifts in energy – see the Minnesota team’s secret sauce for conversion of the heart

Preheat your Gathering
Turn up the heat in your space by turning up your turn out efforts to personally invite the people you most want in the room. In Philly, team members identified two to three people they were responsible for turning out and tracked progress, including contact info, on a shared spreadsheet. This made reminder and follow up emails easy peasy. Folks in the Twin Cities tabled after Masses. Philly crafted announcements for the bulletin and commissioned people to extend the invitation from the pulpit – see templates in the Philadelphia team’s turnout resources

Beautify your Tent
Communicate to your participants the significance of the event and their contributions to it by transforming the space you gather with subtle expressions of beauty. The Minnesota team used table cloths and simple centerpieces. You could use holy cards or fresh flowers or candles. Philly and Chicago ensured that an icon of St. Phoebe graced the space. Build an altar using sacred objects from among your team or participants. The Chicago team hung four large butcher rolls of paper on one wall with prompts to which participants were invited to add their own responses:
Share a hope, prayer or dream that you have for our church
What is something that fills your heart about the church? What breaks your heart?
Fill in the blank … I feel like I belong in the church when …
How would women deacons impact your faith?

Ground your people in prayer, create a sense of the whole with ritual, mobilize them with a rousing commissioning. Here is Philadelphia’s simple prayer service to open the session, which included a praise dance and reflection on Romans 2:1-16. Consider building in quiet moments of reflection in between rounds of synodal conversation -the Twin Cities included space for journaling in their Participants’ Guide. Pray people out the door with a commissioning that fortifies them.

Become a People
Build up a sense of collective protagonism in the room – a sense that participants are part of an unfolding movement in our Church at every level, that what they bring is valid and necessary, and that they are not alone on this journey! Start the session with a roll call: “What institutions are in the room?!” In Philadelphia, a lightning round of introductions – name, parish, and 10–word answer to “Why did you say yes to the invitation to come today?” – resulted in more than 40 prophetic testimonies that built group trust in under seven minutes! If you’re hosting an event that will include people from multiple parishes and other organizations, consider framing participants as “delegations” from those institutions. The Minnesota team discovered that doing so helped participants see themselves as “delegates” who would return to their own communities prepared to create similar experiences for their people! Chicago added a dose of fun to their gathering – enjoying some Rainbow Cone© ice cream helped people experience the joy of becoming a people on the synodal path. Chicago concluded their gathering by singing Happy Birthday to Sr. Pat, who was turning 94 the next day (and whom you might recognize from Band of Sisters) – a visible reminder that this is a generational endeavor, to be part of renewing our living tradition!

Share four things we believe every Catholic should know:
–  We are in Synod! The global Synod on Synodality is underway and there is a major assembly of bishops happening in Rome this coming October. Pope Francis extends to us a radical invitation to become a synodal Church; but becoming such a Church is not a given and its outcome is uncertain – our participation and leadership is needed! 
– “Rethinking Women’s Participation” has emerged through synodal listening sessions with millions of Catholics from around the world as a major theme for deliberation and discernment for our Universal Church as part of the Global Synod.
St Phoebe, the deacon, was a real person (Romans 16:1-2). We can help restore her memory. We can help to renew the diaconate today to accompany people at the peripheries – wherever the light of Christ is needed most in our communities.
The headline only you can write:   Write & share a paragraph or two about the impact it would have for you or your loved ones if our Universal Church moves forward these proposals and calls to action lifted up in Enlarge the Space of your Tent.

Give people a taste of synod!
When designing your session, privilege this component with time and care. Create an experience of Church in which we receive and reflect on what millions of Catholics around the world have already contributed to global the synod process. Give some thought to how your participants will hear and pray with the six paragraphs on rethinking women’s participation in the Church. The team in Minnesota selected specific members of the community to read those selections, knowing that certain voices would amplify particular messages. In Philadelphia volunteers read the paragraphs in English and Spanish. In terms of shaping your synodal conversations, Chicago crafted prompts designed to help participants share from their stories in order to illuminate themes from around the world: “What is something that fills your heart about the church? What breaks your heart?”; “What is one image you have of a church that gives you hope or inspires you?” They also tried a fill-in-the-blank approach: I feel like I belong in the church when …I feel welcome in the church when …  Be creative with how participants share out the graces of their conversations: one-word popcorning, a post-it note art installation, a gallery walk with large 3-M sheets capturing group insights. 

Get People Jazzed for the Next Strategic Step
To ensure that your people continue becoming a people after the session, to invite them to reflect on what they just experienced and to take some next steps together as a community. The last page of Twin Cities’ Participant Guide was designed as a tear off to capture how people were leaving the space. Here’s Philly’s next steps form. Encourage delegations to agree on a date for their own follow up meeting before leaving your gathering. Consider a follow up email to all participants – and to those who were interested but could not attend – that contains those learnings and commitments. Channel the energy you’ve created into collective strategic action  by inviting people to a concrete next step, such as joining a St. Phoebe Prayer service or committing to another meeting with those interested walking together to help.  

Make a Memory!
Take a group photo and share it with participants! Share your gathering and its fruits with Discerning Deacons. Consider a write up for your parish bulletin or local Catholic news source. 

Check out resources shared here and others in our Resources for Discerning with DCS Paragraphs 60-65 folder. Want some coaching? Sign up for “office hours” with Maureen O’Connell, Director of Synod and Higher Education Engagement, on Thursday, May 4th from 3 to 4 pm ET (Register) and Monday, May 8th from 7 to 8 pm ET (Register). 

Share this Article

“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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