PHILADELPHIA (CNS) — Jennifer McMahon, a second-year biology student at Villanova University, said recent on-campus listening sessions in preparation for the 2023 Catholic Church synod made her feel like her concerns “were recognized not only by the church, but my peers.”
“I was nervous about feeling alone in my struggles with my faith, and it made me feel embarrassed to talk about it,” she said. “However, I have felt welcomed and comforted by my peers who have experienced similar difficulties.”
In early April, nearly 50 college students from across the Archdiocese of Philadelphia gathered at La Salle University for an inter-campus listening session as part of the first phase of the “Synod on Synodality.”
The event was the culmination of a six-week effort across 14 participating institutions — involving all 11 Catholic university communities and three Catholic Newman Centers — to integrate university students into the synod.
An almost equal number of trustees from all campuses, including three presidents, several vice presidents for mission and student life, and a representative from the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, attended as listeners.
Among the listeners was Archbishop of Philadelphia Nelson J. Pérez, who participated in both a small group listening session as well as the larger plenary session.
“As a Catholic higher education administrator, I am heartened by the courage and deep commitment of students to be part of positive change,” said Deanne D’Emilio, President of Gwynedd Mercy University. , who was herself a listener that night.
“I also appreciate the presence of the Archbishop, whom I observed really listening and who welcomed the point of view of each student,” she added.
“The synod presents an incredible opportunity for our students to experience the church,” said Kathryn Getek Soltis, director of the Center for Peace and Justice Education at Villanova University and member of the initiative planning team.
“A lot of times it looks like the church exists whether they’re there or not,” she said. “But in this journey, our young people have made the church something that is changed by their presence, something they do.”
The facilitators designed the cross-campus listening session in light of what more than 30 campus “facilitators”, trained in the process of synodal listening, learned from the nearly 400 students who participated in the 43 sessions of listening sessions organized on campus since the beginning of February.
These listening sessions, in line with similar sessions held around the world, aimed to elucidate the joys and obstacles of students in journeying with the church, as well as their hopes for its future.
To this end, the April 4 event created an opportunity for social connection, personal reflection and sharing, prayer and accountability.
Highlights included an institutional roll call; student reflections on the Gospel account of Pentecost; a large group review, or prayerful reflection, on their gathering that day; and smaller listening sessions focusing on themes that surfaced in on-campus listening sessions.
The students also had the opportunity to share their ideas among themselves and with Bishop Pérez during a plenary listening session.
To amplify student engagement with the synodal experience of “daring talk and deep listening,” St. Joseph’s University alum artist Becky McIntyre created an interactive art installation to visually capture the joys and student obstacles in traveling with the church.
The students pitched their ideas on translucent colored paper in the shape of footprints, which they added to a life-size sketch of the official logo that McIntyre painted on a large paneled window in the assembly space, creating a visible stained glass window. by passers-by outside.
The installation was titled “A Window to the Future of the Church: Journeying Together in Celebration and Accountability”.
“Visual art allows us to leave our physical mark on the world and gives us space to imagine more of a new world together,” said McIntyre, who also served as visual note taker throughout the evening. . Their work will feed into the final report as well as into future group initiatives.
“I believe the art installation gave each student a tangible way to contribute to the community of voices sharing their hopes for the future of the church – to know that their voices were not only heard, but also seen, and journey together towards that future through the image of the installation,” she added.
For Jaclyn Newns, mission and ministry manager at Chestnut Hill College, “The glassy empty spaces of the art installation invite us to think about the bodies that are not in the room – the individuals who may feel outside of the church, speechless. ”
“There is room in our pews for more people and opportunities in our pulpits for more voices,” she said. “As a universal church, a reflection of a diverse body of Christ, we must continue to ask ourselves, ‘What are the voices that are not in the room and around the altar?’ For truly, these people also bear the image of God and their inclusion would bring greater beauty to our church.
Justin Hartranft, a first-year public health student at Gwynedd Mercy University, called his experience of the listening sessions “uplifting and inspiring.”
“Not only did I share common experiences with my peers, but I felt a strong sense of community and belonging with those I have never met,” he added.
“I could see that young people are very much alive in the church,” said Hanna Mariyam Mathai, a neuroscience major at Holy Family University.
She expressed a desire for more activities and gatherings to engage young people, some of which might even include an exhibition of the Blessed Sacrament in one way or another, she said.
“We need our young people to be strong for the church because they will be the next generation to lead the world!” Mathai added.
Brother Ernest Miller, Vice President of Mission, Diversity, Equity and Inclusion at La Salle University, said this synodal process “urges us to find other opportunities for Philadelphia Catholic colleges and universities and Newman Centers do more together, to cross paths.”
He called it a historically unprecedented event for Catholic higher education in Philadelphia.
“Listening must continue,” said De La Salle Christian Brother. “Building the Pilgrims’ Church is a long journey.”