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Archdiocese of Detroit aims to become ‘more missionary’

Mark Hicks
The Detroit News

This weekend, for the first time since 1969, the Archdiocese of Detroit embarks on a mission to transform the local Catholic Church.

Clergy, religious leaders and laity will gather for Synod 2016 in an effort that is “nothing less than a radical overhaul,” archdiocese officials say.

The synod, or religious gathering, is expected to outline ways to follow fundamental teachings while revamping how worshipers across southeast Michigan pray, share their faith as well as address spiritual needs for years to come.

“For over 200 years here in our area, we’ve relied on institutional means to pass on the faith and share it with others,” Archbishop Allen Vigneron said. “We’re in a period where that’s not working very well anymore. We need to become a more missionary church where everybody takes his or her responsibility to let people know about the good news of Jesus Christ.”

That’s why many of the more than 400 attendees gather in downtown Detroit on Friday through Sunday. They’ll explore four themes — personal, family and parish life as well as central services — identified through 240 parish meetings since April to form a framework.

“The synod is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to make a change,” said Jonathan Sanders, an expert adviser at the event who grew up in Detroit and attends the city’s Presentation Our Lady of Victory. “It doesn’t happen often and when it does it’s something very important. And in our case we want to become an archdiocese that is more focused on missionary work, evangelization. I want to be a part of that.”

Developed over more than a year, the synod dovetails with the archdiocese’s “Unleash the Gospel” initiative and focuses on evangelization: how Catholics spread the Gospel. It was convened in response to an “unnatural deterioration of the Church,” archdiocese officials said, including declining participation in religious vocations, worship services as well as baptisms and other sacraments.

Vigneron likened the situation now facing the six-county archdiocese — which includes some 222 parishes, 50 fewer than 2011, and an estimated 1.3 million self-identifying Catholics — to shifts in the auto industry.

Leaders “needed to go back and look at the fundamental mission and in light of that, what do we have to change,” he said. And for the archdiocese, “it means a renovation as we get back on the basis of the core teachings and the core mission.”

This is the 11th synod since the archdiocese was launched in 1833, leaders said.

“These are called to really address major themes of high significance,” said Mike Fullam, a consultant at the Pennsylvania-based Catholic Leadership Institute, which helps organize synods across the country. “It’s an opportunity to kind of get everyone on the same page.”

Detroit participants, who were chosen through a process under church law, represent a range of clergy, lay members and others from throughout the district, said Monsignor Ron Browne, the appointed synod secretary. “We’re trying to get as diverse a group that would mirror the image of the diversity of the people we have.”

Throughout the weekend at the Westin Book Cadillac hotel, participants are slated to break into groups to discuss individual elements, “come to a consensus concerning the propositions they feel are most important that needed to be addressed, then come back to the larger group,” Browne said.

Walt Romano, who attends National Shrine of the Little Flower Basilica in Royal Oak with his wife, Cindy, anticipates parsing family-related issues.

Among the most pressing questions he has: “What does it mean to be mom and dad and husband and wife and have these kids and be intimidated by all these activities? Finding a way to put the church, our faith first before all that — how can the church help us do that? What does the family need from the church? How do you incorporate faith more deeply in the lives of the family? I think families need practical wisdom on how to make that really happen.”

Other guests are like Vickie Figueroa, a longtime member at Corpus Christi on Detroit’s northwest side, which she says has grown to about 1,000 attendees largely through outreach in the surrounding neighborhood. For her, the synod is way to help spiritually evolve in a modern world.

“We want to come out of there as changed people to … become missionary disciplines that have that outreach aspect to everything we do,” the Southfield resident said. “How do we infuse that missionary spirit in everything we do so that what we touch turns to something useful to help other people? We’ve got to find a way to turn that switch on, to light that spark, to keep things going forward.”

After reviewing the recommendations, Vigneron expects to announce steps to tackle changes on Pentecost Sunday in June. “We have a challenge and we are the ones who have to meet it,” he said. “We can’t let that intimate or scare us. The church is like the other communities and institutions in Michigan. We’re all adjusting to a new reality.”

Synod adviser Sanders, 35, who works for General Motors Co. and has a 16-month-old baby with his wife, hopes the result leaves a lasting, significant impact.

“I want the Catholic Church and the Archdiocese of Detroit to be that missionary diocese ... because I want a place my son to grow up in so he can grow in his faith,” he said.