Small group reports show synodal hopes, concerns of parish priests

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- As more than 200 priests from around the world met to share how their parishes experience a sense of shared mission and shared decision-making, many of them spoke of the essential bonds of priests with their parishioners and priests with each other.

The pastors met at a retreat center outside of Rome April 29-May 2 to provide input to the Synod of Bishops on synodality; most of their work took place in small groups divided by language: Spanish, English, French and Italian.

The priests were chosen by their bishops' conference or Eastern Catholic bishops' synod to attend the meeting, and the Vatican had asked the bishops to select parish leaders who had had "significant experience in the perspective of a synodal Church."

The questions they were asked focused on ways they have experienced synodality -- processes for praying, listening, discerning and making decisions together for the good of the community and for evangelization.

But the working group reports April 29 also often mentioned loneliness and burnout in the life of pastors, a need to recognize the contributions of women to church life and a need to promote a sense of brotherhood and mutual support among a diocese's or eparchy's priests.

One group mentioned the need for "mutual care among brother priests."

A group report from April 30 spoke of "a deficit of fraternity and communion among us priests" and a lack of care from the bishop. "One person commented that in 30 years of ministry, a bishop never asked him how he was doing, but only told him what to do," the report said.

Another said that many priests are just trying to survive "and rarely feel valued in what they do."

The same group said that "the ministry of women is not a problem of the laity but of the priests."

Many of the groups reported that while their parishioners were eager to share and to listen to one another, the word "synodality" and many of its associated themes, like "discernment," were unclear or confusing to people.

And one of the French groups submitted a basic question: "If synodality helps us to discern, the fact remains that a decision has to be taken in our parish communities. But ultimately who decides? This remains a strong question in our group, and we look forward to further exploration of this open-ended issue."

One English group said, "While there is a positive outlook on Synodality, it's evident that some parish priests may lack interest in embracing new initiatives along this path. Therefore, ongoing formation for parish priests becomes imperative to effectively implement the principles of Synodality at the parish level."

Another group said that while the synod process "has been more positive than negative," sometimes the parish listening sessions were used "as a place to vent, complain about the perceived state of the church or to bring up the ways in which they felt they have been hurt by the church. But again, all in our group found that these were occasions to walk with the people and listen."

Many of the groups echoed what synod-related sessions on the parish, diocesan, continental and universal levels have emphasized: laypeople want and need more education about the Christian faith and more guided experiences of prayer and discernment.

One of the Italian-language groups said that priests are afraid to entrust their parish councils with certain decisions because they fear the members do not have enough theological and pastoral background to understand what is at stake. At the same time, the group said, the priests "are afraid of losing power," and they know it is easier to give orders than to reach a consensus.

At the end of the day April 30, one of the Spanish groups said that with parishioners often expressing different needs and preferences, a parish might best become "a community of communities," and synodality could be the key to preserving unity and peace while allowing diversity.

Another group said that just coming together to share their stories has helped the priests, "because the Spirit blows in different ways, and God is at work. We see that in one place there are seven priests for one parish and in others there are seven chapels for one priest."

Most of the 18 working groups mentioned at least once a need to change seminary formation and to give candidates for the priesthood more practical help in learning what discernment is and how to exercise leadership in a way that values the baptismal dignity and gifts of the laity.

Several of the reports also mentioned the clerical sexual abuse crisis and how it has led many people to leave the church and many others to look at priests with suspicion or at least caution.

One Italian group said that Pope Francis' emphasis on synodality "has allowed us to start dreaming about the church again after the crisis," and, in fact, "the synodal journey pays attention to overcoming the logic of abuse of individual power and gives us the antibodies to overcome the contagion from oppressive and controlling dynamics."