Christ our Hope: Declaration of the 2018 Synod of the Diocese of Burlington
Almighty and ever-living God, You continually guide and sustain your pilgrim Church, which you established as “the universal sacrament of salvation.”
So begins the “Prayer for the Diocesan Synod,” a prayer which we as a Diocese have prayed for almost two years as we prepared for and met in a synod. These words remind us that as a pilgrim Church, “the Church is not a static reality … but is on a continual journey through history, towards that ultimate and marvelous end that is the Kingdom of Heaven.” Therefore, wherever the Church is found and the Gospel is preached, its primary mission and message are the offer of eternal salvation found in and through Jesus Christ and His Church.
“For God so loved the world that He gave His only Son, so that everyone who believes in Him might not perish but might have eternal life” (John 3:16).
This citation from John’s Gospel is one that is very familiar to us. It is a basic summary statement of faith. Following upon Jesus’ admonition to “go … and make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:19), the missionary actions of the Church have been directed by the proclamation of Jesus Christ, the Son of God and the Savior of the World. Since its very beginning, the Church has been a missionary Church. This was true in the discovery of the “new world” of the Americas. Beginning with Jesuit missionaries to North America, for 350 years the Catholic faith has been present in the State of Vermont. Throughout those years, the Church has grown and evolved in different directions, from the height of its membership and physical presence in the state in the 1960’s, to the challenges that we face now as membership dwindles and parishes are closed or merged with other parishes. Much of this challenge is driven by changing demographics and cultural shifts, but the reality is that the Catholic Church is no longer part of the recognized cultural establishment of the state. We are now a missionary Church. While in the past the dynamic was to maintain the Church and carry out its mission within a mode of maintaining the status quo, the situations and circumstances we face today call for us to move “from maintenance to mission.” We must become a Church that goes out and spreads the Good News to all, including those who have left the Church and those who have never been a part of our Church.
“Direct the Church in Vermont during this time of preparation for the Diocesan Synod.”
From the very beginning of the synodal process the dynamic has been to seek-listen-discern: to seek input from all, to listen to all and to discern with all who are part of our Church. In the first stage of the process, “listening sessions” took place in each deanery and parish. Input also was sought through on-line and mail surveys. All of this data was collated and presented to the Synod Preparatory Commission that distilled the many and various responses to ten possible priorities. Once again, we returned to the parishes and deaneries seeking further input on which of the ten priorities would be rated as most important. The process proved to be dialogical, back and forth from the Diocese to the parish and back again. Finally, three priorities were established by the bishop and preparatory commission and the actual synod sessions were convened.
The delegates to the Diocesan Synod, men and women from each parish or parish cluster as well as many of the clergy of the Diocese, came to the synod meetings ready to “discern the signs of the time wisely, that we may joyfully proclaim the Good News of salvation through Jesus Christ” (Synod Prayer). These delegates were not daunted by the tasks and challenges that we face now and in the future in the Diocese of Burlington. Instead, they were and are believers who are ready to “go out to the highways and hedgerows and make people come in” (Luke 14:23) that God’s house may be filled. As they listened to one another, what became clear was how much the delegates love the Church. Their words were filled with passion for their faith and hope for the future. The dialogue and deliberations that took place in the sessions confirmed more and more that people need to hear the Good News of God’s mercy, the Good News of Christian hope and the Good News of salvation in and through Jesus Christ and His Church.
From our synodal deliberations, three key pastoral priorities emerged, each of them related to the mission of the Church:
- Evangelization — call people to faith;
- Building and supporting vibrant parishes — give people a place where faith lives; and
- Communications — proclaim a message that can be heard, received, understood and accepted.
While we continue to engage in what we are already doing as the Church in Vermont, these three priorities will be primary foci that will direct the pastoral mission of the Church throughout the years to come. The recommendations provided at the end of each section of this document provide concrete actions toward the fulfillment of our three priorities that will be undertaken in the next few months. It is important to note that the recommendations from the synod are intentionally broad, as the actual convening of the synod was only the first step in the work ahead. What is most important is the follow-up and implementation of the recommendations. It is in this process that the details will be clarified and actions will be taken.
The Scriptures offer clear direction as we move forward as a Diocese. The first is a simple method for how each of us, no matter what our place in life may be, can be missionary disciples: “Always be ready to give an explanation to anyone who asks you for a reason for your hope” (I Peter 3:15). The second is the reason for our hope for the future: “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and forever” (Hebrews 13:8). He is the one constancy in our lives. In Him “we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28). May we never fail to trust in the Lord; with Him, “all things are possible” (Matthew 19:26).
“Do not be afraid to welcome Christ and accept His power. … Open wide the doors for Christ.” —Pope St. John Paul II
The task of evangelizing all people constitutes the essential mission of the Church. It is a task and mission that the vast and profound changes of society make all the more urgent. Evangelizing is the grace and vocation proper to the Church, her deepest identity. She exists in order to evangelize.
Evangelization is joyfully bringing the Good News of salvation to others. Catholics have something precious to share — their faith — and by virtue of their baptism, they are called to evangelize all people. This evangelization effort is centered in the person of Jesus Christ and the salvation that He accomplished through His life, death and resurrection. This salvation is offered to all and continues in and through His Church. As such, Christ must be the center of individual, parish and diocesan faith, as well as our efforts to welcome others into the Church and engage and transform the world.
But in order to accomplish this task, Catholics must continue to evangelize themselves so that they may more deeply recognize and understand the wonderful gift they have received. They must then joyfully and sincerely bring that gift to others, including young adults who have left the Church or are ambivalent toward it and young parents to assist them in raising their children in the faith. These works must be sustainable and regularly assessed for effectiveness.
Members of the Church are thus called to holiness of life from which — strengthened by the Church’s sacraments — they derive the ability to live joyful lives and charitably perform acts of spiritual and corporal works of mercy.
This is never a solitary journey of faith. The essential nature of the Church is communal. While each believer responds individually to faith in Jesus Christ, that faith is lived out within the communion of the Church, the Body of Christ. The task of evangelization is therefore not just to call others to a private belief in Jesus Christ but to a belief that is found in and through the Church and its sacraments. This is most especially true of the Eucharist, the “source and summit” of the Church’s sacramental life. The Church’s sacraments are both the means and enactment of the call to individual and communal action. By their very nature, the sacraments evangelize, catechize and form the Holy People of God.
The task of evangelization is different from catechesis. While they are closely related and must work together, evangelization focuses on the will, helping people to desire the gift of salvation; and catechesis focuses on the intellect, teaching people the truths of the faith. Nevertheless, catechesis — “instruction by word of mouth” — is the necessary sibling of evangelization so that we may not only believe but know in Whom and what we believe.
Synod delegates recognized the particular importance of evangelizing youth, young adults and young families; a focus on them should be included in evangelization efforts.
Synod delegates also emphasized that care must be taken so that the celebration of the sacraments is done with attention and dignity. In particular, the Mass needs to draw participants to a deeper spirituality by containing engaging music and challenging preaching. All liturgy should be celebrated according to the Church’s rubrics and texts that often evangelize in ways that bear great fruit.
Attention should be given to special opportunities for evangelization such as at baptisms, weddings and funerals. Synod delegates called for evangelization to be part of every outreach parishes do, such as marriage preparation, sacramental preparation, social gatherings and soup kitchens.
Interior renewal requires a profound change of mind and heart, and personal spiritual growth must be rooted in the Eucharist (especially through Sunday Mass attendance), devotion to the Blessed Mother, embracing the teachings of the Catholic Church, engagement in parish life and works of mercy and the willingness to sacrifice.
In addition, synod delegates emphasized strong faith formation is needed to nourish and challenge the faithful to make the practice of the faith and prayer part of their daily lives.
1. Establish a Diocesan Evangelization Committee under the direction of the executive director for evangelization and catechesis.
2. Develop a pastoral approach that helps every parish become an intentionally evangelizing community.
3. Establish an evangelization committee in every deanery, revising the deanery structure if necessary to make this effective.
4. Develop a diocesan-wide curriculum for religious education in grades K-6.
5. Develop a post-confirmation program for middle and high school students.
6. Develop and implement a program of adult catechetical and faith formation for the Diocese.
7. In evangelization efforts, stress intentional outreach to young people in the Church, those ambivalent about the faith and those fallen away from the practice of their faith.
Building Vibrant Parishes
“A parish is a certain community of the Christian faithful stably constituted in a particular church, whose pastoral care is entrusted to a pastor … under the authority of the diocesan bishop.” — Code of Canon Law (1983), canon 515, §1
This definition of a parish presents the essential elements that must be considered as the Diocese of Burlington strives to proclaim the Gospel and form and maintain vibrant parishes now and into the future.
A parish is a community united in the universal call to holiness that is given through baptism. While traditionally established and organized territorially, the synod delegates recognized the current reality that people choose their parishes for reasons other than geography. The community that is entrusted to a pastor’s care is less clearly defined and identified than in the past. This reality must be acknowledged if vibrant parishes are to be built up.
This response to the universal call to holiness is expressed in many ways within a vibrant parish, such as through the liturgy and the sacraments, especially the Eucharist, “the source and summit of the Christian life.”
Additionally, the response to the universal call to holiness within a vibrant parish is expressed in the corporal and spiritual works of mercy, fruits of the Holy Spirit, love for the truths of the faith, regular celebration of the sacraments — which includes weekly Mass — and fidelity to the precepts of the Church.
Parishes are meant to enjoy stability in the present and the future. The synod delegates expressed the fear of some Catholics that the possibility of parish mergers and closures presents a challenge when trying to discuss and plan for the future. If stability is an essential element of parish life, then the Diocese must be able to clearly identify and define the criteria that will be used to determine if mergers and/or closures are to be part of the pastoral plan to build vibrant parishes.
A parish is entrusted to the pastoral care of a pastor. The synod recognized and affirmed the essential role the pastor plays in ensuring the success of parish life. Vibrant parishes need strong, joyful and inspiring spiritual fathers. Yet there is a need to develop plans to allow priests to focus upon the areas in which they have the greatest expertise, namely, the spiritual and liturgical elements of parish life, while relieving them of the worldly elements of parish life.
With these elements identified, at the direction of Bishop Christopher Coyne, the Diocese of Burlington engaged the Catholic Leadership Institute to help current parishes conduct self-studies to identify if they are vibrant and what areas need to be developed to become vibrant.
The self-studies will focus on four areas of parish life that reflect many of the concerns that were identified in the synodal consultation. A vibrant parish: focuses on the spiritual maturity of its members, including on-going catechesis for all members to deepen understanding and love of the truths of the faith; has a culture of shared leadership between the pastor and parishioners; has a strong focus upon the essential nature of the Sunday Eucharist that is celebrated with beauty and reverence; and encourages and empowers its members to embrace a missionary spirit and become evangelizers.
While parishes differ because of size and location, a vibrant parish embraces all of these areas in some way; thus, a small parish can be a vibrant parish. What is common to both small and large vibrant parishes is participation and commitment of clergy and laity.
As the Diocese moves forward, parishioners must understand that a parish is more about who Catholics are as disciples of Christ and less about buildings and programs.
8. Engage in a survey of all parishes based on common criteria that recognize the differences between urban/suburban and rural parish communities. This survey can then be expanded to include the wider Vermont community, including non-Catholics.
9. Following the survey, implement a process to build vibrant parish communities centered around the liturgical, sacramental and devotional life of the Church as well as on social justice as evidenced by the corporal and spiritual works of mercy. This process should take into account the limited availability of priests and recognize that the presence of priests for more than just the celebration of weekend Mass is essential.
10. Foster vocations to the diocesan priesthood, emphasize the importance of all vocations and support the work of parish vocations committees.
11. Investigate new forms of lay and diaconal parish leadership, helping to free priests to focus more on pastoral ministry and less on administration and facilitating greater lay participation in the spiritual and pastoral works of the parish.
“Communication is part of God’s plan for us and an essential way to experience fellowship.” — Pope Francis
The work of building vibrant parishes and evangelization relies on effective communication within parish communities, the Diocese and the broader Church. The goal of effective communication is the triumph of truth over falsehood. To this end, synod delegates stated that Catholics must be intentional in their communication efforts both within the Diocese and outside it.
Diocesan communication efforts — including the website, magazine and social media — have been recognized nationally, and now this success can be used to enhance communication at the parish level. Standardization, where appropriate, is a worthy goal, so that people can more easily find and share information across a variety of media platforms. While standard formats for websites, bulletins and advertising would be optimal, room for parishes to tailor communications to their own needs is essential.
Communication beyond the Diocese must emphasize ongoing corporal works of mercy throughout Vermont. An effective communications strategy must seek to tell the story of the Diocese of Burlington to a society that often harbors many misconceptions about the Church. Thus, the synod delegates concluded it is imperative to make the truth about the Church in Vermont as well known as the misleading secular narratives about it.
Understanding that “the best antidotes to falsehoods are not strategies, but people,” diocesan communication strategies should empower the faithful to experience the fellowship of Christ. Any communication plan must encourage fellowship among the faithful, and while virtual means of communication are important, they are a supplement to and not a replacement for a vibrant parish life.
Communication must be reciprocal so communications structures must not only inform the intended audience but also must encourage listening. Communications should strive to encourage open and transparent dialogue.
Enlisting the help of the laity, especially the youth, in parishes will be a key objective. In this way, a culture of two-way communication structures that allow all to seek the truth in fellowship with one another, Christ and His Church, can be fostered.
Synod delegates acknowledged a special effort should be made to reach out to those groups who feel that they are on the periphery of the Church. Fallen-away Catholics, those who are estranged from the Church and young people present particular challenges for communications efforts. Reaching out with love and compassion to them is part of the mission to seek out lost sheep and bring them into the fold. This will require new methods to reach groups who may not be receptive to traditional communications approaches.
Communication is also evangelization. Oftentimes, the most important method of communication is one-on-one communication in which the believing Catholics communicate the joy of their faith to another by their words, their actions and their life. In all of this the method of delivery is important, but so too is the content of the message — essentials of the faith.
It is important that pastors, parish employees and parishioners create, recognize and communicate the joys of parish life so that others may seek to be part of it.
12. Enter into a planning process to strengthen the Office of Communications for the Diocese.
13. Establish a communications plan to further the work of evangelization and good communications with those both inside and outside the Church, identifying and addressing existing challenges and obstacles that might impair communications.
14. Create a means by which communication can flow back and forth between the bishop, administrative offices, deaneries, parishes and people.
15. Create communications uniformity within the Diocese, for example by common email (@vermontcatholic.org), website and bulletin formats.
16. Continue to maintain traditional forms of communication while exploring new ways of communicating.
With the publication of this Declaration and its letter of promulgation, the official work of the Diocesan Synod draws to a close. We give thanks to God for the blessings of discernment, respectful dialogue and a concern for the future of the Church in Vermont that were evidenced during the synod process. The gifts of the Holy Spirit were truly evident: wisdom, understanding, counsel, fortitude, knowledge, piety and fear of the Lord.
During the course of the work of the Synod — the first in Vermont in more than fifty years — the delegates offered many profound and moving testimonies of faith. Their love for the Church was inspiring; their willingness to serve and to be disciples of Jesus Christ was energizing.
The work that lies ahead for all members of the Catholic Church in Vermont is to share joyfully by word and deed our love of God and the Church with all those we encounter. This must be done on a personal level as well as on parish and diocesan levels with a special focus on evangelization, vibrant parishes and communication.
These are the three key areas identified by the Diocesan Synod as of paramount importance in building up our Church in Vermont now and into the future. Still, there are certainly other areas that must not escape our concern and attention: fostering vocations, supporting Catholic education, ministering to families and caring for the poor and sick — to name a few. Our work must be all-encompassing.
As we move forward with the recommendations of the Diocesan Synod to evangelize, build vibrant parishes and communicate the Good News, let us all honestly consider what gifts and talents we have to offer the Church here in Vermont. Use those gifts and talents for the common good. Cultivate those gifts through prayer, education and discernment.
In good times and in challenging times, we need to be committed to our parishes to provide stability as structures, personnel and society change. Consistent Mass attendance, regular prayer for the parish and priests, joyful participation in parish and diocesan events and ministries, open minds and hearts and positive attitudes go a long way in fostering a vibrant parish and in evangelizing and communicating the Good News of the Church.
Above all, we must love God with our whole hearts and souls and our neighbors as ourselves, for without love, none of our work of evangelization, building vibrant parishes and of communicating the message of salvation will succeed. May we embrace God’s love, and may He grant us His grace — His life within us — as we now commence the work directed by the Diocesan Synod.
Mary, Mother of the Church, pray for us.
Given at the Cathedral of St. Joseph in Burlington, Vermont, this 16th day of April, in the year of Our Lord 2019.