“It was amazing how the Holy Spirit was working,” says Olive Romero, a member of the parish pastoral council at St. Catherine of Siena Parish in Vallejo. She recalls how easily participants expressed themselves during listening sessions, citing how “their thoughts were very organic and genuine.”
She believes the parish was among the first parishes or organizations to hold listening sessions in response to Pope Francis’ October 2021 request for this worldwide “ecclesial event.”
Olive speaks contentedly and with a sense of gratitude for her parish’s positive synodal experiences. Plus, as president of the Diocesan Pastoral Council, and a representative to the Solano Deanery, her knowledge of the larger diocesan synodal processes gave her great appreciation for the idea of people coming together – journeying together – to share and listen.
“It’s great to see and hear and learn what your family members know and feel about the Church,” she says, drawing a parallel to the family dinner table. She underscores the listening sessions as simple and safe, with casual conversation.
St. Catherine of Siena opted to have its parish pastoral council and its liturgy committee convene for two separate listening sessions last December. Olive facilitated the parish council’s gathering and she also served as a notetaker for the liturgy committee’s session.
“People felt safe,” she notes, suggesting they were “willing to share personal information” and dialogue at a level not typical of council and committee meetings with agendas and business to address. Instead, Olive hints at the prevailing freedom to speak from the heart.
“We set the expectations,” she explains, describing steps taken to prepare and assure participants of the key objectives to share and listen to each other. Beginning with a video message from Bishop Jaime Soto followed by other brief media presentations, facilitators expressed the importance of creating a space free of judgment, without interruption, and ready to hear.
“That’s often all that’s needed,” she insists of the simple formula “to create that feeling among people that they are being heard.”
Olive marvels at how participants were engaged, accepting and non-judgmental. Even when participants were asked to consider burdens or challenges at the parish, the most prominent concerns raised centered on how to limit distractions and help worshippers free their minds to be “in the moment” at Mass.
Olive alluded to the listening sessions as an important example of how to find common understanding of the realities lived by others. She sees this type of engagement – talking and listening – as vital to making “your church experience the fullest.”
Olive recounts how one parishioner shared, “I wish the microphone could be fixed,” expressing frustration with sound feedback. “It’s simple,” Olive says, proposing a quick microphone fix for a more pleasurable, disruption-free Mass.
Olive recognizes that more troubling and intensive topics likely surfaced at synod listening sessions around the diocese and world. Nonetheless, her point is that a spirit of engagement prompts a mission of renewal, and it certainly speaks volumes for the value of the synodal process.
“If I were to guess what Pope Francis is going for,” Olive says, considering the parish’s experience, “he wants everyone to participate and he wants everyone involved in creating the Church,” always attentive to communion, participation and the mission of evangelization.
Moved by the Holy Spirit, Olive’s words seem to echo the Holy Father’s words in his address that opened the synod process last October: “Without real participation by the people of God, talk about communion risks remaining a devout wish.”
Olive surmises that without “real participation,” the Church stands stagnate. Real participation surpasses “talk” by engaging, listening, hearing and acting. “I wish the microphone could be fixed” becomes more than a mere wish. It becomes the encouragement for something different – in this case, the beginning of a more meaningful and focused worship encounter beyond what exists now. And while the annoying feedback from a microphone sounds simplistic when compared to larger struggles in the Church, it is the perfect example for listening and hearing the high-pitched, scratchy feedback of everyday – and turning to, and listening to, the Holy Spirit.
“It truly is the work of the Holy Spirit,” Olive maintains, stressing the importance of a listening Church whose people dialogue, recognize God-given gifts and talents, and share them as part of life’s journey. “That’s part of our mission,” she says.
About St. Catherine of Siena Parish in Vallejo at https://stcatherinevallejo.org.