'How do you argue with the miracle of the loaves and fishes?'

Joe Offer, chair of the parish pastoral council at St. Teresa of Avila Parish in Auburn, reveals a hint of relief as he talks about the synod listening sessions convened last January. An avid follower of Catholic media, he knew about the worldwide synod long before many even gave a thought to the curious word. He wondered if listening sessions might happen locally, and if they did, he speculated whether they might turn into unproductive sessions for complaints.

“I was very happy with the format,” Joe says, gratified and pointing to the synod’s use of Giovanni Lanfranco’s painting, “The Miracle of the Loaves and Fishes,” depicting the scene in Matthew’s Gospel. Beautifully reproduced on glossy cardstock for each participant, the mini painting prompted constructive discussion.

“How do you argue with the multiplication of the loaves and fishes?” he asks, moving quickly to offer an eloquent case for the Gospel context. He describes an observant awareness among attendees who easily connected the miraculous scene of the painter’s vision to their own participation in continuing and multiplying the blessings and fruits of faith. 

“I think our whole Church is divided,” Joe submits as a point of fact, and with an apparent understanding of a long list of reasons as varied as its people. But a focus on the Gospel led listening session participants away from that division and toward “what people have in their own hearts,” he explains.

Joe stresses the interior matters of parishioners’ hearts emerged over the typical worry of “what they think other people are thinking.”

“I think everyone realized it was time for us to stop judging other people and to listen to each other,” he concludes.

St. Teresa of Avila Parish held five distinct listening sessions: one session for the pastoral council and four others on separate days, including one meeting in Spanish. Joe attended three of five and witnessed “a variety of opinions” expressed by close to 60 participants.

“Most people were very happy to be there,” Joe says, reporting they were “happy to be heard and good about listening to others.” He indicates how attendees liked the idea of continuing with listening sessions beyond the formal synod and on “a regular basis.” The pastoral council is exploring how to make that happen.

Joe knows some parishioners chose not to attend, suspicious of the synod’s purpose. Yet, among those who did come, they spoke freely and respectfully about their frustration, if not anger, about church closures during the pandemic. They shared how online Mass “was not encountering Christ.” Others expressed heartache about the Church’s stance on divorce and remarriage.

Participants also conveyed life-giving aspects of their church experience. Joe reports two prevalent themes that surfaced – the Eucharist and the parish community.

“People expressed appreciation for being welcomed,” he recounts, citing how they “feel quite at home” and pleased at how the parish honors “their life events…the marriages, the funerals and baptisms.”

In listening to each other, Joe sensed that participants experienced a transformation, too, as they heard of each other’s shared reverence for the Eucharist and the seriousness of fellow parishioners’ prayers.

“Some assume that other people are not serious about their faith,” Joe says, referring to comments he receives in his various roles leading adult faith education, Bible study and as sacristan. He applauds the synodal process of listening as the best way to come together and truly listen rather than make presumptions.

“I hope that the diocese and the Church, in general, can carry on with this,” Joe appeals, with hope “that we do what we can to teach people to listen to each other.”

“My theory is that it’s not the content of what was discussed that is important,” he offers, adding that “the beauty of it was that the sessions were an exercise in synodality.”

Perplexed by negative news on the synod and the general lack of awareness about it among most Catholics, Joe sees the synod as “a wonderful way to take time to express what’s in our hearts and take time to listen to what other people have to say.”

“I found it very impressive,” he concludes, and admits he was pleasantly surprised “at the wisdom of many people and the depth of faith.”


About St. Teresa of Avila Parish in Auburn at https://stteresaauburn.com.


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