Over the course of the past two years, Pope Francis has invited Catholics the world over to participate in the Synod on Synodality, a process of multi-level conversations designed to facilitate deep listening and, hopefully, ignite change from the ground up. From the very beginning of the Synod, Catholic Theological Union faculty, students, and alumni have been a part of the process. As a part of the Archdiocese of Chicago, Catholic Theological Union contributed a compilation of reflections in early 2022. CTU discussions were divided into three groups: Students and formators, faculty, and staff.
Ninety-six students and 20 formators made up the first CTU group. The concerns and hopes that came to light in their discussions centered on identity, specifically the challenges posed by racism and Chicago’s segregated history; merging parishes and lack of communication from the Archdiocese; and the continued power of hierarchy and clericalism in determining opportunities for Church involvement of people from various cultures and vocations. There were also concerns about the way the synodal process may continue to marginalize groups and voices not present in the synodal conversations. Questions were raised regarding increased opportunity for those on the fringes of the Church: youth, women, poor, religious “nones,” immigrants, those without theological education, victims of abuse, and LGBTQIA+ Catholics. Students and formators alike held onto hope for more dynamic, culturally contextual, and relevant catechesis and preaching, informed by the increasingly global nature of our Church aided by widespread use of technology, especially since the COVID-19 pandemic.
Staff conversations echoed the student and formator discussions very closely, with emphasis given to widespread inclusion of marginalized persons, the significance of using new technologies, and the importance of “going out” instead of waiting for others to “come to us.”
Faculty conversations raised the importance of ritual within the Catholic workplace – that it is deeply important for people who work for the Church to center themselves around liturgy, and that it’s crucial for all people to be able to bring their full selves to those spaces of worship.
The format of these conversations reflected the kinds of conversations happening around the world. Still, after holding these conversations in late 2021, we could not have predicted just how crucial CTU contributions would be to the planning and execution of the synodal discussions as the process continued.
Julia McStravog, MA ’14
Catholic Theological Union Alumnae
Julia McStravog graduated with an MA in theology from CTU in 2014 after studying Catholic-Muslim relations with Scott Alexander, PhD. Two weeks after commencement, she began working for the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) Committee for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs, where she stayed for three and a half years. While working at the USCCB, she decided to pursue a ThD from LaSalle University, and has recently defended her dissertation. Following a stint managing programs on ethics at the Holocaust Memorial Museum’s Mandel Center, Julia returned to the USCCB after being asked by the General Secretary of the USCCB, Fr. Michael Fuller, if she would Co-Lead the US Synod team.
Julia considers her background in interreligious dialogue to be crucial to her work with the Synod: “When I first heard about the synod, I thought [to myself] ‘Oh! This is a huge dialogue project!’” Julia characterizes dialogue by the relationship between external relationship and internal reflection: No one is excluded from the table, and each person is encouraged to speak aloud what they have been reflecting on individually. She credits what she learned about dialogue in class at CTU.
She also credits her time working with Bob Schreiter, CPPS, namesake of CTU’s new Schreiter Institute for Precious Blood Spirituality. “The synod has surfaced wounds people were aware of, but now they’re on paper,” said Julia. “I took a class with Bob Schreiter on reconciliation and forgiveness, and one of the things he always said was that people need to share their stories, and they need to share them over and over again, and as they share and heal, their story changes. That’s accompaniment: witnessing to these deep sacred stories.” This, she says, is the invitation of the synod: “The synod is a place where people are sharing their sacred stories, and I have the privilege and challenge of accompanying them on a national level.”
When we spoke with Julia in June of 2022, she described her day-to-day work with the synod project as just that, a practice in accompaniment: “I’m accompanying diocesan leaders, organizations and their questions, USCCB staff, and our bishops. I’m also on the receiving end of accompaniment; synod staff at the Vatican are accompanying us in this major project that we don’t know the outcome of. I just got off the phone with a diocese that’s excited about what they’re doing and want some ideas about continuing the work after they turn in their report next week.”
Maria Cimperman, RSCJ has also been working intimately with the Synod process from its early public stages. On January 12, 2022, Maria, as founding Director of the Center for the Study of Consecrated Life, organized an Online Dialogue about Synodality with Rafael Luciani, an expert on the Theological Commission of the Synod on Bishops. This was followed by another series of conversations on Synodality with Nathalie Becquart, XMCJ, Undersecretary of the Synod of Bishops, who participated in CTU’s Hesburgh Sabbatical Program in 2019. The first program was hosted bi-modally at CTU and the second of which was hosted online by NCR’s Global Sisters Report.
Professor of Catholic Theological Ethics
Catholic Theological Union
In Fall 2021, Maria was one of two women named to the UISG (International Union of Superiors General) and USG (Union of Superiors General) Synod Commission, which received responses to a series of questions on synodality from general superiors of women’s and men’s religious communities across the globe. Many of the participating members of the USG discussions are corporate members that sponsor CTU, and a number of UISG responses included congregations whose sisters have participated in CTU programs over the decades. Maria, alongside three other theologians, co-wrote the synthesis document containing the compiled feedback from the UISG-USG commission. The document was released in September of 2022. Approximately 1900 women’s religious communities and 250 men’s communities were represented.
During her sabbatical this past academic year, Maria’s research and travels have included work on synodality and reconciliation. She is also a co-convener of the Synodality Virtual Platform for the Catholic Theological Ethics in the World Church, which engages with moral theologians and social ethicists from around the world. For the next three years she will also continue to serve UISG’s ongoing synodal commitment efforts.
Dr. C. Vanessa White
Associate Professor of Spirituality and Ministry
Catholic Theological Union
In early January of this year, C. Vanessa White, DMin was selected by Cardinal Cupich to represent the Chicago Archdiocese as a delegate during Stage Two of the Synodal process: North American Continental discussion regarding the findings from Stage One, held on January 19. In early February, following the completion of the Continental Stage, Vanessa spoke on a panel hosted by Catholic Mobilizing Network (CMN), alongside alum Julia McStravog, where they both presented their perspectives on the Synodal process as it relates to a more restorative and just Church.
In her reflections on Stage Two, Vanessa cited listening, paying attention, recognizing the movement of the Spirit, intentionality, and a sense of togetherness despite differences as the ethos most clearly reflected in the synodal conversations. “The leaders have tried to pay attention… without interjections or interruptions.” Most importantly, in her reflections on the synod, Vanessa has extended the call to “pay attention to who is missing… who continues to be absent from these gatherings.” Persons with disabilities, LGBTQ+ Catholics, and youth and young adults were all discussed, but were not necessarily present to speak for themselves. It is also not clear how the synod was presented to marginalized communities. According to Vanessa, the posture of the meetings was patient and attentive, and what was communicated portrayed a commitment to marginalized groups. However, this does not necessarily mean the synodal process included the voices of those marginalized groups as one might hope.
One year after we spoke with Julia, she had data and insight to share in the CMN panel about some of the demographic breakdown of the second stage. Of the 931 delegates, 42% of the participants were lay women, 25% were laymen, 25% were religious men, and only 8% were religious women. While this provided relatively even representation of men and women, the voices of religious women were significantly less represented. At the time of the CMN panel, the US Synod team was compiling the final document representing the findings of the North American stage.
In May and June, the US Bishops on the synod team followed up with theologians who participated in the second stage and held listening sessions regarding their unique concerns regarding the theological implications of the synod findings. This unique opportunity for direct conversation between theologians and bishops was reflective of the unprecedented new work being done through the synodal process. Vanessa was a member of these sessions as well. As she details in an interview with National Catholic Reporter, Vanessa communicated concerns about the state of the document compiled by the US team. Many of the representation concerns she communicated in the CMN panel, including race and disability, were not reflected.
Still, the Synod on Synodality marches on. Countless other CTU faculty have been invited to provide insight into issues pertaining to synodality: from Pope Francis’ legacy to the unique needs of women reflected in the synodal discussions.
Most recently, on July 7, Maria Cimperman was selected to participate in the October Synod. She will be a non-voting “expert for the XVI Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops, “For a Synodal Church: Communion, Participation and Mission.” She will bring her theological expertise and serve as a facilitator for the conversation in the Spirit (small groups). We spoke to Maria upon the announcement of her selection: “I am grateful to serve the work of the Spirit in the Synod in any and every way possible. This is a very important moment in our Church in the ongoing reception of Vatican II. I ask every person to find a way to engage in spiritual conversations on the questions in the Instrumentum laboris (working document) so that all the people of God, wherever we are, are reflecting, praying, participating and together engaging what is calling us as the people of God. So much is possible!”
It is this relentless moving forward that Julia McStravog says gives her the most hope: “People want to continue sharing. They feel that transformation, they feel a deeper way to be Church. And while these consultations are not a sustainable pace, the discernment for the next way we move — the subsidiarity, the solidarity — people want to keep exploring those.” Perhaps this commitment to sharing is what it will mean to be the Church of tomorrow.