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Nobody showed up!

There's nothing quite like the pain of hosting a party, or any event for that matter, inviting lots of people and few show up. It's humiliating. It creates a lot of self-doubt. And it definitely does not inspire the desire to try again. But Jesus tells a parable about this, a parable I think might be very helpful for us to consider when looking at just why participation in synod listening circles across the US in general was feeble, and what we should or could do now.

You know the parable...the one about the great banquet to which those first invited didn't come, at least not in enough numbers. So, the parable goes, the master said to go out and invite the crippled, blind and lame...compel them to come so that the banquet table is full. (Luke 14:15-23). Here's what's instructive for us as we take to heart the North American Bishops' recognition that we need to do synodality better (NACD #50)...go out, invite again, and go beyond the "usual suspects". Craft compelling arguments. Fill up the seats in your sacred listening circle "banquet." The instruction is this: Don't give up! Don't be humiliated! Don't close the doors or refuse to try again to do what God intends. As the parable says, go out and invite again. Go to the margins. Be compelling! Keep at it! This is THAT important.

About invitations and audiences

So, what does this parable tell us about our invitations and our audiences, and the effort we need to put into inviting and inviting, and inviting? First, if we invited the usuals, the 20% who typically run the parish and they showed up...well, that's to be expected. Just as in the banquet scripture, some who were invited showed up. It was still not enough to fill the seats around the table. The parable suggests we see this as normal. So what do we do? The parable says, go out and invite again. The North American Bishops acknowledge this is just what needs to happen...more opportunities to understand what synodality is and then to participate in one of its key elements: sacred listening circles.

BONUS: With the release of the instrumentum laboris there are 15 sets of questions around which you can convene a listening circle.

Let's take a closer look at all of this. It seems to me there were two audiences that just didn't show up well in our first round of local listening circles: the engaged who either did not get an opportunity or failed to respond to it for a variety of reasons; and, those who have left the tent or dwell at its very edges, lurking, suspicious or just plain done with the Church.

First, Jesus tells us in the parable that we need to craft a compelling argument for participation, and then dust off our shoes and go out to invite again. So, what is that compelling argument that will persuade more of the "regular partishioner" into participation? For the already engaged, here are some considerations:

  1. Share one ore more of the reasons WHY this process is important. Ask: How can it appeal to a sense of fidelity to their baptismal promise to support the church? How can it appeal to a sense of obedience to the Holy Father? How can it appeal to a desire to be part of listening to what the Holy Spirit is saying to the Church today?

  2. Let participants know at least one response to WIIFM: that all-important question of "What's in it for me?" Some places did a fabulous job of inviting people into listening circles where they came away enriched, better connected to fellow disciples, having learned something about this primary element of synodality and having helped the parish fulfill its mandate to provide authentic input. Others didn't appeal to this at all. What will participants receive in turn for their gift of selves? Figure this out and express it compellingly.

  3. Make listening circles a way of life in the parish so there are always opportunities to participate. Will there be multiple times and places to participate this time? Will whole families have a chance to participate together? How about Committees, Councils and small communities within the parish? Give these opportunities the kind of "first in importance" messaging they deserve! How might you do this better this time? Compellingly, as the Scripture instructs?

Now to that audience that never even heard the first invitation because they don't come near the doors of a parish...those in the parable who were described as crippled, blind and lame...whom we describe as the "nones" and the "dones"...the baptized people who have walked away from their connection to the Church or never claimed one despite being baptized. What's the compelling message to them...if there is one? Here are some approaches that might bolster your second-time-around invitations:

  1. Do the invitations in person if you can. Find these folks in your family and spheres of influence. Tell them about the desire to hear their stories and tell them the question that will be asked: "Speaking directly to the leadership of the Catholic Church, what would you want to say to them?" If they answer you right then, do your best to recall it and write it down. But even more importantly, invite them to come and hear these same stories from others with a trained listener in their midst...more probably in a home, or a bar or a library meeting room. NOT your Church hall...remember, they are not connected to the official Church.

  2. Have parents/grandparents of those who now claim they have no faith/religion or are done once and for all with Catholicism reach out to their loved ones with the invitation. Invite them to come together with others, to share their stories of being none and/or done and how they got there, via Zoom or in alternate meeting places. Or listen to them one-one over FaceTime or in a coffee shop. But listen and then record their stories.

  3. Be prepared with acts of healing and hope, to be generously offered during these listening sessions. Have tissues ready. Have prayers for healing ready. Be prepared to stop and sit with one another in rage or sorrow, offering nothing more than God's listening presence. Have prayers of lament prepared for this situation. Be prepared to receive rage and disgust with curiosity and safety, with questions and affirmations. No defensiveness allowed. Truth encouraged, in all its bald, raw forms.

The parable tells us to go to the byways and find these people, and compel them to sit with us. It's THAT important! And here's a last ponder: Might it be compelling if we earnestly desire to know what their story entails, and how it got that way, and if there is anything that could make it better? Could that be compelling: our own genuine interest in their experience and interpretation of it? Their story shared their way...and we listen and record their salient points, according to them...imagine how that alone might heal a wound or restore a bit of hope! Imagine if those dwelling at the tent's edges and beyond found real interest from those within the tent, coming from us! Imagine!

About relationships and trust

Here's another consideration as you look at the synod banquet you gave to which too few came...and that is to ask yourself if there's a trust/trustworthiness issue underneath the poor participation. Did you hear cynicism? Did you hear no confidence in the possibility of change? Did you hear the pain of closed doors and hearts and tables? If so, this is bigger than the quality and compelling nature of the invitation. This is a systemic issue that may need to be addressed at every level of the ecclesial system. Is this organization trustworthy? Why or why not?

And perhaps, just perhaps the reason that some parishes and entire dioceses did not really participate in the first round of local listening circles is because of another dimension related to trust. Does your priest trust your Bishop and does the Bishop trust the Holy Father's leadership? Do they trust the Holy Spirit's role as the leader of the Church? Do they trust the people of God to have a sense of the faith that they need to comprehend?

A word about baptismal dignity and trust

In parishes and dioceses where the invitation to practice synodality through sacred listening circles did not happen, could it be that parish and diocesan leaders did not/do not trust the people of God? Is it possible they do not trust the average baptized person has anything to say they need to hear? Could it be that the leaders do not trust the laity to have eyes to see what they cannot, ears that hear the cries of the brokenhearted, and hands that have been serving those who hunger; or that they do not trust the imago Dei in each baptized person to hold any Spirit-inspired message they need to hear? And therefore, dare we conclude the Bishops and priests do not trust in the Holy Spirit given in baptism and sealed in confirmation as the same Spirit Christ promised to send to teach us and guide us? If the answer to any of these questions, even in part is "Yes:" then we have uncovered one conversion point Pope Francis is making possible by calling for the shift to synodality as the way the Church is the Church. It remains to be seen how long this conversion will take.

Now what?

Two suggestions:

  1. Host more listening circles and invite participants using some of the ideas above. Be as compelling as possible with your "Why." Be warm and listen to the stories that underly the "no's." Why are they saying "No!" Share the messages with your parish leaders and parishioners. Invite their responses. What do they hear in both the spoken and unspoken messages? What might the Spirit be teaching?

  2. Check the trustworthiness of your parish/diocese/small group using our trust assessment. And then nourish what is right and vow to address what needs improvement.

And now a dream: That those of you reading this who believe the Spirit's call to synodality WILL continue to practice sacred listening circles, will bolster your personal spirituality in preparation for discerning in common and you will invite others to begin practicing synodality...even if you do it in 2s and 3s...for Jesus promised his presence whenever 2 or 3 gather in his name. After all...this is His Church! A dream...that you can make come true.

The Pentecost Vigil Project exists to help unleash the Spirit of synodality in the Church in the United States. We have no other agenda. If this is your dream, desire, hope as well, please ally with us. Share our blogs, Use our resources. Tell others of our presence. Donate to keep us afloat. Pray for and with us. Consult our website for information, resources, and most of all hope! Always hope, that when we unite ourselves with the Spirit, we'll be part of the new Pentecost.

Photo credit Kenny Eliason/Unsplash

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