Backed by an image of Our Lady of Guadalupe, Pedro Rubalcava sings during a diocesan session of Encuentro in Salem in 2018. “The Holy Spirit is at work,” Rubalcava said of Encuentro and the current synodal movement, which is similar on a global scale. “It’s not just folks making it up. It has made for a better church.” (Ed Langlois/Catholic Sentinel)
Backed by an image of Our Lady of Guadalupe, Pedro Rubalcava sings during a diocesan session of Encuentro in Salem in 2018. “The Holy Spirit is at work,” Rubalcava said of Encuentro and the current synodal movement, which is similar on a global scale. “It’s not just folks making it up. It has made for a better church.” (Ed Langlois/Catholic Sentinel)
In one of the most sweeping changes in church history, Pope Francis is asking members of the church to listen to one another more and allow more voices to weigh in on decisions. Catholics at all levels worldwide have been hearing and speaking at parish meetings. As the wisdom flows to dioceses, national bishops’ conferences and then the Vatican, synodality could well be the word of the century in Catholic circles.

But synodality is nothing new. Historians say it was the way of the early church. And Catholics in Latin America and Hispanics in the U.S. Catholic Church have been conducting synodal processes for decades.

The bishops of Latin America, including the man who would become Pope Francis, used the method to inform pastoral decisions starting in the 1950s. Listening to the faithful has long been a characteristic of the Latin American church.

In the United States, synodality took the shape of Encuentro, periodic consultations with Catholics of all kinds starting in the 1970s. The idea was to find what people need in their everyday lives so pastoral ministry can be responsive.

During the first Encuentro in 1972, a teenage Pedro Rubalcava took part in Diocese of San Diego events.

“The idea was going to the base to get information and use it to see, judge and act,” said Rubalcava, now a leader at Oregon Catholic Press, the liturgy and worship nonprofit that publishes the Sentinel. “In Encuentro, we ask ourselves, ‘What is our realty in light of the Gospel?’ and then we create a response to it in the context of evangelization.”

Rubalcava, a member of St. Peter Parish in Southeast Portland, has stayed involved as a leader in subsequent Encuentros, including the fifth that took place in 2018. His description of the process echoes what church leaders have said about the current process leading up to the Synod on Synodality planned for fall 2023.

So, what can Encuentro teach the church about synodality?

“It involves listening and facilitating conversation and recording information,” Rubalcava said, urging leaders to get comfortable with disagreement.

“The human spirit is such that we will have varying opinions,” he said, urging pastors to listen to people who might otherwise not be seen as leaders. God, Scripture shows us, chose such people, including a girl in a dusty outpost who would become the Mother of God.

“The Holy Spirit is at work,” Rubalcava said. “It’s not just folks making it up. It has made for a better church.”