“The pope wants us to learn to listen,” says Father Francisco Hernandez, pastor of St. John the Baptist Parish in Chico, about the process that Pope Francis asked each diocese in the world to undertake in preparation for the worldwide Synod of Bishops in the fall of 2023.
Erika Sajben, a member of the parish pastoral council, echoes his words. Recognizing the societal need and the leadership of Pope Francis, she notes, “The Holy Father sees we need to get back to the basics (of listening).”
In an upstairs meeting room at the parish, two intimate groups of diverse participants gathered in late January for the parish listening sessions. Twelve participants attended in English and 14 in Spanish, where conversation, reflection, and prayer filled the two hours. The sessions were completed in advance of the upcoming synod with the theme of synodality, emphasizing the art of listening.
Father Francisco attended both listening sessions and was moved by the conversations which occurred in each group. Reflecting on the experience of the sessions with 12 fellow priests, he shared about his joyful surprise. The consensus of his conversation group spoke to the early yield of fruit from the synod, occurring in advance of the worldwide gathering in Rome.
“Anytime there’s a synod, you expect the fruits to come after the synod, with the publishing of the documents,” he says. “Personally, I felt the fruit is already coming. After COVID-19, I saw people being afraid to be with others, but when I saw (the attendees of the listening sessions) here at the parish, I saw them as enthusiastic. They needed to come back, to be interacting with others. I saw the fruits already. It’s now our responsibility to continue that work.”
Erika coordinated the English session and spoke to the importance of listening within a parish community. “We need to listen on the parish level and to be present with one another. When we take the time to listen, everyone can be very open and honest. I was very encouraged by the session.”
Erika welcomed the group and presented the diocesan resources, including the video support and the printed prayer cards, which helped encourage conversation and provide structure for the session. “We didn’t say much, we really only listened. We asked the questions and gave room for silence, giving each participant a turn to speak.”
Providing time for silence allowed for reflection, while the tracking of responses ensured each had the opportunity to speak. All participants in the sessions shared aloud, where a prayerful environment removed any sense of urgency, so as to not rush through the process.
Personal invitation brought the groups together and a diversity of life states was achieved. High school students, college students, practicing Catholics, and lapsed members all attended. The result was an inter-generational and collaborative conference of individuals from the greater Chico area, Erica says. One attendee for the English session was present through Zoom, where a laptop was placed in the space of where she would have been. Despite a COVID-19 diagnosis, she was still able to participate virtually.
The individuals’ responses from the sessions remain anonymous. It was not a time for complaint or criticism, but rather communion and confidentiality. There was encouragement to speak freely, which was achieved. Father Francisco shares that participants “felt free to speak up,” and participated accordingly.
A pensive environment was conducive to the meditation on the prayer card image of “The Miracle of the Loaves and Fishes.” The activity allowed for the group to collaborate and build on the comments of others. Young and the elderly of the group listened to one another. The comments of a teenaged participant were lauded and added to by an elderly parishioner. It gave the opportunity for others to hear what was said and process their own thoughts. The guided reflection discussed the elements of the artwork, where individuals’ feelings and interpretations were shared.
Father Francisco speaks to the universality of the Church in preparation for the synod. “We are going through the same situation in the whole world. Yes, with the uniqueness of each parish, country and culture, but I imagine there is a sense of sameness throughout the experience. So, I expect the synod will reflect that and we will have a document to follow. The Church never rushes; it takes time to think and reflect and make decisions.”
About St. John the Baptist Parish in Chico at https://sjbchico.org.
In photo above, Father Francisco Hernandez, pastor, and Erika Sajben, a member of the parish pastoral council, stand inside St. John the Baptist Church in Chico.