On Monday, April 4th 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. Most notable among the listeners was Philadelphia’s Archbishop Nelson Perez, 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.”
“The synod presents an incredible chance for our students to experience church,” said Dr. 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. 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 by the Discerning Deacons initiative, 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, aimed to elicit students’ joys and obstacles of journey with the church, as well as their hopes for its future. To that end, the April 4th 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, smaller listening sessions oriented around themes that surfaced in campus listening sessions, and a chance for students to share their insights with each other and Archbishop Perez in a plenary listening session.
“I felt that my concerns were being acknowledged not simply by the Church, but my peers,” said Jennifer McMahon, a sophomore Biology major at Villanova, about her experience of the listening sessions. “I was nervous that I would feel alone in my struggles with my faith and it made me embarrassed to talk about it, however, I felt welcomed and comforted by my peers who experienced similar struggles.”
“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, who expressed desire for more activities and gatherings to engage young people, some of which could even include Exposition of the Blessed Sacrament in some way. “We need our youth to be strong for the Church as they will be the next generation to lead the world!”
To amplify the students’ engagement with the synodal experience of bold speech and deep listening, artist Becky McIntyre, an alum of Saint Joseph’s University, created an interactive art installation that visually captured students’ joys and obstacles with journeying with the Church. Students offered their ideas on translucent colored paper in the shape of footprints, which they added to a life-sized sketch of the official logo that McIntyre painted on a large panel window in the gathering space, creating a stained glass window. 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 and 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 towards that future through the installation’s image.”
“The 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,” said Jaclyn Newns, Chief Officer of Mission and Ministry at Chestnut Hill College, about the art installation. “There is room in our pews for more people and opportunity at our pulpits for more voices. 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.”
The Philadelphia Catholic Higher Education Synod now prepares for the next phases of the synod. A team will create a synthesis report of all listening sessions–both on campuses and on April 4th–to be shared with all participants, campus leaders and the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities. Representatives from the campus communities also plan to share the plan with Archbishop Perez during the season of Pentecost in order to underscore the power of the Holy Spirit at work among college students in the Archdiocese. Emerging themes provide an important blueprint for engaging a population that is increasingly disaffiliated with the institutional Church and fundamental dimensions of Catholic religiosity: journeying from discord to unity, journeying from exclusion to inclusion, journeying from broken trust to accountability, journeying from being led to leading, journeying from fragmentation to wholeness, journeying from performance to integrity. The hope is that insights will be integrated in a similar synthesis report the Archdiocese will draw up as it prepares for the national and intercontinental phases of the synod process. Then, like the world’s Catholic bishops who will gather in Rome in 2023 for the synod itself, leaders from this re-connected group of Catholic campuses will discern together ways of attending to obstacles and hopes that the students named as they move forward into a new academic year.
“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,” reflected Br. Ernest Miller, FSC, Vice President of Mission, Diversity, Equity and Inclusion at La Salle University, which hosted the historically unprecedented event for Catholic higher education in Philadelphia. “The listening needs to continue. Building the pilgrim church is a journey for the long-haul.”
“I hope that the listening sessions will become something we do more often, that this process will encourage all of us to make time for more ‘coffee dates’ with our friends, our priests, religious sisters and brothers, campus ministers, and especially with those who feel left out and misunderstood,” said Julia Oseka, a first-year Physics major at Saint Joseph’s University who offered a reflection during one of the gathering’s plenary sessions. “Let’s accept God’s invitation to be the embodiment of inclusion, attentive listening, and that reckless love that knows no boundaries.”
Regardless of long term outcomes, the immediate impact of the synodal experience was palpable and perhaps best captured by Archbishop Perez’s closing words on April 4th: “Never underestimate the power of the Spirit working in you, through you and despite you.”