In autumn 2021, parishes, schools and communities in the diocese took part in listening events to listen to each other and to discern what the Holy Spirit is saying to the faithful, in the first phase of the synodal pathway initiated at the request of Pope Francis. The following is the report of the findings, which was presented at a pre-synodal gathering in Westminster Cathedral on 19th February 2022.
There is an audible relief, thanks, an immense gratitude in the voices of the people of our diocese during the synodal journey. We heard people say:
- ‘I’m 77 and no one has ever asked me about this.’
- ‘Children loved their voices being heard; they felt passionate about having their say in the future of the Church.’
The listening and sharing within synodal conversations, one-to-one and in groups, was, for many, a rich experience. Many particularly noted the richness of the sharing between those who took part in synodal conversations. The conversation was described as
- ‘A wonderful experience’ and ‘heart-warming’
- Listening to others has had a positive and humbling effect on me and has strengthened my faith as a result.
- We’ve been learning to listen more to others and realising the Holy Spirit is speaking through them.
But there was sadness and disappointment too, that more people did not engage. And some were doubtful that it would achieve anything. One person shared an appeal to Pope Francis, asking that now expectations have been raised to ‘please fulfil on the promise of listening’. And others appealed to priests and our bishops to ensure that this synodal journey continues.
There are many thousands of adults and young people in parishes, communities and schools that did engage. People came together in person as well as sharing in writing.
For many this experience is already having an impact on their community life. One parish shared:
- This synodal process has drawn us closer together and closer to God. Spiritual conversations are continuing regularly after Mass. More opportunities to pray together are being established.
Cardinal Vincent invited us to begin this process by reflecting on our experiences of journeying together during the pandemic.
The experience of the pandemic was incredibly hard, but people shared how they have discovered things about our faith and about our life as members of the Church. Some spoke of the synodal process as almost like a catharsis, a contribution to the recovery needed after lockdown:
- Sharing experiences of pandemic in the synodal sessions was very moving and heart breaking. Tears were shed but talking about experiences brought a measure of healing.
For many this was a time of heightened awareness of the gift of faith, of the Church community, and particularly of the celebration of the Eucharist, and the richness of our worship and prayer. Of course, at first, this was a realisation born out of not being able to access much of what we had previously taken for granted. But through this experience, the joy of the faith was entered into more deeply.
- One person shared that it was like preparing for First Holy Communion again: a rejuvenated faith.
- There was a sense that things were being stripped back to the essentials: to spirituality, simplicity and service of others.
That renewed engagement with spirituality came through the Church entering people’s homes and families, through online Masses. People spoke of a sense of unity with the whole family of the Church, a feeling of being part of something bigger.
But also, there was discovering, rediscovering, of other aspects of faith: in shared family prayer time, saying grace before meals, in the support of an online prayer group, WhatsApp groups, the rosary, reading and praying with scripture. People shared:
- I went to stay with my brother for three months in the early days. We prayed the Mass text together. We would very seldom have prayed together otherwise.
- My faith grew by being able to regularly attend Mass via livestream. After my sister died of Covid, I know God’s grace touched me.
- ‘Visiting’ churches online for Mass and hearing other homilies stirred up a desire for more understanding of scriptures.
And the simplicity, people realising what was important. The sacraments, yes, ‘many shared the sheer joy in returning to Mass after lockdown’, but also the community, the need to know we belong and the simplicity of knowing God’s presence:
- Introduction of stewards had the additional benefit of making church more welcoming, creating an enhanced sense of Church being family.
- God remained present … God was with me when I was doing home schooling.
We heard of rediscovering the aspect of service, too. The outreach to those in need was a central focus for many parishes: recognising the isolation and needs of others, and responding. Thousands of young people, too, identified this in their synodal conversations in schools. As one school shared:
- The pandemic has taught us the importance of others, of their company, compassion and love.
- One headteacher reflected on the role of Catholic schools: The Holy Spirit was present in how we lived out the mission, in the way we pulled together during the early stages of the pandemic.
Our diocesan communities reaching out to those isolated, too. Like St Joseph’s working with those with learning disabilities:
- We endeavoured to keep in touch with all students throughout the lockdown and take into account each individual’s likes/dislikes and hobbies … some beautiful work was created. Some partnerships beyond the Church were developed with ‘technology charities’ in order to keep those vital links open with students.
You can see some of that work in the Cathedral Hall today.
The pandemic also has highlighted areas of sadness, and for some, experiences of hurt and pain:
For many, being cut off from the physical celebration and reception of the Eucharist was very hard. Some admitted envy they developed for priests who were still able to be physically present at Mass.
Some parishes were well connected and people felt supported. Several parishes shared how they had reached out through email and digital means, a huge step forward for them. But other parishes spoke of data protection laws as a significant barrier during the pandemic, preventing parishioners from helping the most vulnerable.
Others felt their parish closed; it seemed that the priest withdrew and no support was offered. And there was sadness shared for those people who felt isolated, cut off from their community through ‘oversight’, digital disadvantage, age, or worry about returning during the early easing of restrictions. Some of the voices shared were heart-wrenchingly honest:
- In true London style we tended to leave each other alone.
- I have no access to anything via TV or computer. I used to say the rosary to go to sleep.
There was sadness, born from the concern of the people, for their priests, knowing they were alone, perhaps without any support. Yes, throughout the synodal conversation there were times when people shared frustrations, even pain caused by priests. It’s still clear that there is also a deep love for priests (and deacons and religious) in our diocese.
Young people shared their sadness too. Some of them felt ‘forgotten about’ by their parishes during lockdown:
- I was very, very alone as an only child when my school and church were closed.
- Some students have still not returned to regular church attendance and mentioned how they miss this sense of community.
- Some children have had their First Communions delayed or were saddened that this important Sacrament lacked the sense of celebration they had imagined.
Some of the sadness and pain encountered during the height of the pandemic remains. Some people have not returned. And there is a deep desire from others to see them come back. Some people, even, blaming themselves:
- I took it personally that people didn’t come back. What am I not doing well?
- There’s a deep longing for social activities in the parish to resume and for opportunities to pray and to do good together.
Others remain very disappointed that the churches were closed at all and that the Sunday obligation was not upheld, that in some way Church leaders gave in to politicians. Perhaps this is an expression of the sense of loss they experienced at being separated from the Eucharist, and some spoke of blaming the Church leadership.
Others experienced the lack of Sunday obligation as an opportunity to reflect. In some way, they feel, ‘going to church on Sunday’ has been made the ‘marker’ of being a good Catholic. Is this an opportunity to reflect on how we live our faith more actively in the world?
Within the synodal sharing is a call to recognise the experience that many people went through, losing family members and prohibited from being with dying family members. Some people will have felt very acutely the ‘absence’ of God in their lives. Reconnecting with these people may be a great challenge.
As we end this section, we can note how reflecting on the pandemic during the synodal process has inspired people to realise some encouraging insights:
- Before the pandemic I’d just come to Mass, not talk to anyone and leave quickly. Now I talk to everyone.
- We still care. We want to be connected. We want the Church to thrive.
The synodal conversations led us to share about our wider experience of journeying together in the Church.
We reflected on three aspects:
Our communion, or community with one another, in union with God;
Our participation in the life of the Church;
And our experience of the Church’s mission, proclaiming and living the Gospel.
There are parishes and communities celebrating a real sense of belonging, with opportunities for people to participate and engage in living their faith with a wider community.
We heard of the importance of the spiritual life of Catholic communities. The Eucharist, prayer, and the Sacrament of Reconciliation as a means of healing. Key moments were often talked about. Both the times of joy, baptisms and weddings, and also times of sadness, funerals in particular. These are key moments when faith nurtures, bringing strength and love.
We heard of the love of worship and music, from all across the Church’s tradition:
- Great joy from heartfelt worship of God with all the beauty our frail humanity can muster
- Attending the Traditional Latin Mass means I have never been more engaged with my faith.
- The Praise Group we founded is uplifting, joy obviously present, as people spontaneously lift their arms.
There was also heartache and disappointment shared about aspects of community, participation and worship. In particular, sadness at our lack of making a real effort to ensure children and young people can participate in the Mass.
There were people who were deeply saddened in their experience of being restricted from the celebration of the Old Rite. And those who shared experiences of tension between preferences for traditional versus more contemporary worship.
It was also striking to hear from those who said they do not feel welcome. One parish summary shared how the Church can feel like a ‘closed shop’ to many. This was reflected elsewhere:
- I feel very disconnected from the Church, but I still go every week to pray.
- ‘As new arrivals, we went to the more “local” church and were told that if we lived in our postal area we needed to go to another church.’
- I didn’t feel included. I came from another faith and got baptised, but only three or four people welcomed me. I thought I wasn’t welcome, or that I had done something wrong.
This sadness was shared more generally. Many felt that somehow we have seemingly reduced our participation in the church community to going to Sunday Mass and home again. As one parishioner reflected, perhaps it is in fact us, the ones who are going to Mass, who are missing from the wider life of the Church.
There was much shared about the wider life of the Church, in particular the Church as a force for good in the world. There were many examples of reaching out to the homeless, those in food poverty, and to the world in need overseas. And stories of our own parishes, schools and communities reaching out to one another:
- Our parish community is well served: the sick, the housebound, when someone is in crisis.
- There was one lady who was repeatedly mentioned by the students at St Joseph’s. The students shared memories of praying with her at the Saturday clubs and doing jigsaw puzzles, meeting friends, singing songs.
There is a sense of joy from those sharing in the ministry of the Church, such as the Eucharistic minister bringing Eucharist to the sick and housebound. And people shared their appreciation of the pastoral support they gain from the Church and from their faith, especially strength and peace drawn from faith when in need.
- ‘A parishioner expressed deep appreciation for the prayer and support they had experienced when their marriage partner was taken sick. When their own faith wobbled, the community helped them hold on.’
For many, faith provides a foundation of guidance, of steadfastness, a moral compass. There is joy discovered in times of sharing faith and building relationships with others, including though our ecumenical friendships.
People express joy in the diversity seen in our parishes and schools, with different nationalities, cultures and different ways of celebrating faith and living Church. The experience of being able to attend Mass in their own native language, or feeling welcome as an immigrant into our churches was appreciated. Many did share that feeling of oneness, of unity and community, of belonging.
But many others do not see themselves valued or represented in their churches. For some, that’s because the leadership seems disconnected from them, or the liturgy is not inclusive, or the art, architecture and culture is unreflective of them:
- The Year 6 pupil who shared ‘whenever I go to church no one looks like me, and the images on the walls and windows, there’s no one who looks like me.’
There is great sadness, too, in recognising who is missing, or those who experience themselves undervalued or unwelcome. Whilst diversity may exist in our communities, people shared that not everyone is properly included and valued.
It’s hard not to listen to the thousands of voices across the diocese without hearing that a significant area of concern shared here is the experience of the role and place of women in the Church. This was shared by women and men, young and old, from within and beyond the Catholic community.
People experience how women do a huge amount of work in and for the Church but they go unrecognised. School students across all ages shared sadness, disappointment and even anger about the Church’s attitude to women, saying ‘women are suffering in the Church’. It was poignant to hear how women and girls do not feel included:
- ‘I have a tension in me, as a faithful Catholic, every time I go to Church, as I don’t feel included.’
- 'A girl in Year 7 shared that she had to move parishes as her priest does not allow female altar servers.’
- Our children were brought up Catholic but now do not practise, because of the attitude of the Church towards women.
- Why is it that women are still so unimportant, yet make up the vast majority of your congregation?
Throughout the diocese there is also another area of significant sadness: questioning how welcoming we are as Church to LGBT people, or those in different types of relationships … people who are divorced and remarried, and single parents:
- ‘The Church’s stance on sex and sexuality is alienating, is given disproportionate weight, and does not reflect core Gospel values of love, forgiveness, compassion, mercy and care for the poor and sick, and social justice.’
- ‘Every single student [in one school] mentioned LGBTQ+, women, divorced, single parents.’
- Some young people spoke of family members who are part of the LGBTQ+ community and who they worried would not be loved by God or accepted by the Church.
Those sharing as part of the LGBT+ Catholics ministry in the diocese appreciated being embedded in diocesan and parish communities and recognised the welcome that is given at the start of their twice-monthly Mass. But beyond this it can still feel that they ‘are rendered invisible’.
Sadness too is in the constantly repeated cry for our youth to belong and be included and reached out to. And a feeling that anyone who is different, with different life experiences, mental health issues, disabilities, may not feel included. Our churches in particular are not accessible to those who are deaf, those with intellectual disabilities, and perhaps even those who experience financial poverty. We are not seen as a Church of the poor, but rather a Church of material wealth.
Our schools were perhaps prophetic on who else is missing from our communities. Students across our diocese reflected on how sinners may not be being made to feel welcome. Almost every school shared this. One school shared it this way:
- ‘Lost Sheep’, criminals or people who have sinned and avoided church may not feel comfortable if others know what they are like.
Prisoners, in particular, were spoken of many times by schools and by some of our parishes, a sense that they are not extended a welcome from the Catholic community. And prisoners themselves, sharing their experience in a synodal conversation in Wormwood Scrubs with Cardinal Vincent, asked that the wider Church does not forget them;
- One inmate spoke of the regular letters he had received, throughout his nine-year sentence, from a parishioner of his home parish. He was much strengthened by a card he had received at this time, signed by 40 parishioners, most of whom he did not know, assuring him of a welcome back.
We heard many times from those who feel saddened that individuals from other Christian faiths feel unwelcome, as they are not able to participate in Communion at a Catholic Mass. Some people find this divisive, as one person shared:
- I don’t feel the Catholic Church is very welcoming to outsiders. I get the impression you would only visit the church if you were a Catholic. As a Christian I would like to feel more welcome.
Disappointment also surfaced when considering people’s experience of participating, or not, in how the Church makes decisions. Although some told of efforts in collaboration, this was not embedded, and sometimes likely to be ineffective. Weak parish councils were cited as examples of how we’ve not achieved meaningful co-responsibility yet. Priests acting outside of parish council structures, rendering the lay people feeling nominal at best, or even hurt and overlooked.
And more generally there are voices sharing how there is a lack of authenticity and transparency at local level:
- We are excluded from decision making. Many good lay initiatives come to nothing.
- I’m afraid our parish feels fake most of the time. I’m sorry to say this but it’s been like this for 30 years plus.
- Church leaders are like untouchables. They are cut off from the laity.
- Our priest is constricted by Church leadership.
- There is a lack of transparency in the finances of the Church.
The lack of authenticity and transparency is heard most starkly with the deep pain, hurt and shame caused by sexual abuse by clergy and Church leaders, and the cover-ups which followed. We heard of that pain, disappointment and blame often:
- Church image became more important than integrity.
- I have lost trust.
- For me the hardest thing to fathom is how anyone called to live a religious life could ever justify the cruelty that took place.
The woundedness of the people in parishes and communities impacted by the knowledge that priests have abused was clear in the synodal conversations. But more profound was the plea for the Church to listen to survivors of abuse and to respond.
Another area is a tension between the longing for the Church to be pure and not dilute its teaching, and others sharing sadness that that the Church appears not to move with the times. First, there is first a deep love and longing for something:
- ‘The Church is the mother of all her children and children should respect and obey their mother.’
- The pressures of ‘commercialism’ and ‘received wisdom’ from social media channels need to be counteracted with a stronger reiteration of Christian values.
But there are also voices which share an experience of stuckness which even extends to a tempering of the Church’s mission:
- There is a sense of conservatism within the Church which resists any change.
- There is too often a sense of comfort in familiar settings that can lead to a disregard for those on the margins who are truly in need.
Reflecting on participation also led to a recognition that so much is undertaken by so few. There is usually a small group of people doing most things in our communities. It was felt that the commitment of volunteers is sometimes taken for granted or they are undervalued by the leaders. And yet there was a deep recognition that priests and deacons are burdened so much.
The love for priests and desire to have more connection with them was shared by schools, too. School leaders noted that priests are less visible, less connected, now than in years past. Previously it ‘felt that the priest cared to be in school, but now asking, Why don’t the priests come in anymore?’
Finally in this section, there is, however, an appreciation of priests, and concern for their wellbeing:
- I honestly think that priests are in a position where too much is demanded of them. Like any caring profession – dealing with the community is time consuming and mentally and physically demanding
In this final section we will draw together some of the insights which people shared about what is the Holy Spirit might be saying to our parishes and communities and to the Church in Westminster.
This was a synodal journey of people who loved the Church, who wished and wanted good things for the Church, the people, its leaders, the mission, and for the Church to be seen and known as a sign of hope, faith and love in the world.
It is worth noting that there was some focus on Church doctrine, sometimes separate from the ‘synodal’ focus of sharing our experience of journeying together. And sometimes very directive statements of what the Pope, the bishops, priests or people need to do: how we should be stricter, or not; how children should be taught particular aspects of the faith; or which teachings should be changed. All of this has clearly still come from a place of love for the Church. Whilst we cannot always capture the elements which fall beyond the scope of the synod, we have tried to listen to these in the context of the wider experiences which were shared.
As we said at the beginning, there was an appreciation of the synodal process, and a surprise at the fruits which have already flowed from it.
And within this sharing people have moved towards gathering the fruits and discerning what the Spirit might be saying.
As we reflect on this, we will group them into several areas. They are not perfect but they may help:
1. Participation and synodality
People felt that the Holy Spirit is prompting us to ensure that listening and sharing continues. One parishioner reflected that they realised they had always experienced participation in Church, as if being treated like a child, directed what to think, and opinions never sought. But this, they felt, was different.
The positive experience of the synodal events has led to a desire for increased connection and participation: encountering one another, listening and sharing in the journey of the faith community.
- This synodal process has revealed that when we listen in silence the Spirit works wonders. We desire to continue ‘journeying together’ seeking the inspiration of the Holy Spirit to make use of all the gifts and talents of the community.
- The synodal path was a great experience of touching unknown realities within our parish and seeing how God can make us one though so different.
- Discernment must lead to decision, action and implementation.
2. Liturgy, prayer and formation
As we’ve said, the pandemic has particularly led to a realization of the riches within our liturgical and spiritual tradition. There is a sense that the Spirit is leading us to rediscover these and share them. Some people spoke of the capability of the Church to offer a wide range of ways for people to engage with worship, prayer and liturgy.
Some reflected that the Synod sessions have increased their hunger to understand scriptures and to apply them to everyday life. There was a beginning of discerning how to do this, as well as creating more opportunities for formation in faith, prayer and how to share faith:
- A palpable sense Jesus is calling us to ‘Come and drink deeply’ from him;
- A desire for workshops to teach prayer and exploring the gospels and other areas of Catholic teaching;
- Could the Holy Spirit be encouraging us to look to him to show us a way where the beauty of tradition can merge with the creativity of the modern for the praise and glory of God?
3. Diversity and inclusion
There is an overwhelming sense that people feel the Spirit of God is calling us to be more welcoming and inclusive, valuing all:
- ‘The Holy Spirit is promoting a sense of gratitude in us for all people.’
- ‘The Church must not just be welcoming but truly valuing.’
- ‘We dream of a Church which welcomes everyone and does not discriminate… a Church where everyone can use their particular gifts and talents…a Church which helps those who are marginalised.
As we have said, several aspects emerged, not least the role and place of women. Whilst there was sharing about consideration of women priests, and perhaps more so about women deacons, most discernment about the valuing of women was not solely focused on ordination:
- ‘We dream that women may be more trusted, and their charisms used.’
- ‘We need to reflect on the power and gifts of women in the Church better.’
Unsurprisingly there was also some reflection on allowing married priests, developing in part out of the experience of seeing the overburdened nature of priests and the loneliness that people perceive. And whilst, potentially, that is shifting beyond the scope of our synodal conversations, it undoubtedly leads us to ask about what the Holy Spirit might be saying to support our priests?
LGBT people were also a focus as people discerned what the Spirit might be saying.
Overwhelmingly people of all ages shared of the dream of creating a Church where people feel genuinely included and valued whatever their sexual orientation.
Others went further and felt the Spirit of God might be moving us to explore a developed theology rooted in pastoral realities and recognising that LGBT+ people are a gift to the community, shifting Church language and making positive restoration for some of the hurt caused to LGBT+ people from discriminatory attitudes within the Church.
And also a recognition that we need to follow the Spirit’s prompting to ensure no one is left on the margins. This will mean practical solutions. As one school put it:
- ‘More accessible Masses to those who are deaf and visually impaired using sign language and screens; more forgiving, less judgemental; more home Masses; parish priest phoning people.’
4. Outreach and encounter
One parish discerned the need to move beyond the organised outreach that the Church is used to, outreach to the homeless, those in food poverty etc, to also consider how to reach out, include and value everyone in the midst of their lives:
- How do we reach out to others, e.g. single mothers, those who struggle in daily life or those disaffected by the Church, ‘shy’ parishioners?
Inclusion and outreach to young people was also a stand-out area of discernment. There were some reflections on the need for professional youth workers and deacons to be paid to help, more youth socials, and more youth-friendly liturgies:
- How can the parish create a framework to help young people to have an active role in the parish after Confirmation, so they don’t feel left out?
And also from our schools, reflecting on how, for them, the social teaching of the Church is a ‘hidden gem’ when working with young people. How could this be shared more?
Whilst our relationships with other Christian traditions and other faiths were celebrated in some synodal conversations, there is a clear desire for further growth in our collaboration, and in particular our responsibility to work for all Christians from all denominations to be united together:
- Are we reaching out effectively to other local churches? Past and present efforts, including foodbanks, are fine, but what more could be done? Could we organise more inter-faith prayer groups, learn more about their outreach efforts, mirror more of their evangelisation?
And there was a sense that there is so much more possibility to extend the Church’s communion, participation and mission in our work for justice and social outreach:
- The Holy Spirit is calling the Church to loudly, clearly, emphatically and repeatedly state that refugees are welcome in our parishes.
- How do we engage with climate change and justice? How do we deal with the challenge that most people don’t know the rich moral resource of Catholic social teaching?
- Pupils mentioned the Pope’s encyclical Laudato si’ and said how they would like for the Pope to write more letters, particularly about the environment.
In summary, it might be useful to note how the word accompaniment and the image of walking together arose in the synodal sharing:
- Be outward looking, accompanying those in difficulty with love but always bringing to them the joy and truth of our faith.
One way to summarise the discernment is to see how there were dreams of accompanying people in four different ways:
- Accompanying people in life
The Church needs to be ‘walking with the people in the messiness of life’. Trusting in and knowing the presence of the Spirit in everyone, and valuing everyone without exception. Bringing people into a relationship with God … helping people discover how ‘God wants to be involved in every facet of their lives, wants them to be happy’.
- Accompanying the parish community
To build a place of belonging, a home, with formation, education and accompaniment in developing co-responsibility for our common mission.
- Accompanying the world in outreach
A Church which is poor and loves and ministers on the margins, ‘known, loved and perhaps hated for prioritising the poor and marginalised Church should be more prominent [in its] values and beliefs’.
- Accompanying one another, continuing the synodal journey of encounter, listening and sharing
Building on this pathway and continuing to discern together the presence of the Spirit of God in our experience of journeying in the Church. And encountering others: other Christians, other faiths and the wider community, cultures, learning from others, and encountering God in one another.