Paul Biegansky makes a point March 3 during a discernment session at St. Mary Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception. (Ed Langlois/Catholic Sentinel)
Paul Biegansky makes a point March 3 during a discernment session at St. Mary Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception. (Ed Langlois/Catholic Sentinel)
In Catholic parishes around western Oregon, Catholics have gathered over the past six weeks to pray, speak up, listen and dream about the future of their worldwide church.

Information from parish discernment meetings will feed into regional writeups then move on to an Archdiocese of Portland report that will help shape documents at the national and Vatican levels. Launched by Pope Francis, the process is the largest consultation with believers in the history of Christianity. It will reach a culmination at the Vatican’s Synod on Synodality in 2023.

As expected, sessions at western Oregon parishes covered a lot of varied ground.

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The Feb. 23 discernment session at Holy Redeemer Parish in North Portland attracted nearly 100 participants, triple the number expected by organizers. Following adoration in the church, parishioners convened in the parish hall, dividing into almost equal groupings of English speakers and Spanish-speakers.

Discussions were prompted by Scripture readings, and each group reported its talks to the full body, with summary statements translated in both languages. Common themes included the centrality of the Eucharist in the lives of Catholics, a desire to attract more young people to the church, and a yearning for healing and inclusiveness within the church.

Holy Cross Father Pat Neary, Holy Redeemer pastor, said the event exceeded his expectations. “This was the first time in my four years as pastor that I have seen so many of our Hispanic and English-speaking members in one place together,” he said by email. “I felt deeply connected to everyone who was there. I realized that we truly are a family in Christ.”

Father Neary sees value in further discussions within his congregation on key issues raised by participants. Those included concerns about the loss of faith and sparse church attendance among young people, an increased sense of separation and loneliness for many that was heightened by the pandemic, and a need for the church to become more inclusive.

“I will be excited to see the final report when the Synod on Synodality reaches its conclusion,” Father Neary said. “I remain positive that it will be a watershed moment for the church and will lead to some very positive growth and renewal. “

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At Visitation Parish in Verboort, about 20 parishioners gathered at two tables in the parish hall Feb. 25 to participate in their parish synod discernment session. Discussion was lively with participants including laity and clergy. Visitation parishioners also could participate in writing.

Donna Heesacker of Visitation spoke for many in the archdiocese when she said the Eucharist and seeing fellow parishioners fills her with life, a reality tested by the pandemic. Others lauded daily Mass and their pastor’s homilies. Lorrina Tunnell said she loved music at Mass “that I can sing along with.”

In response to a question about what experiences in the church have brought joy or revealed wounds, Mike Vanoudenhaegen also hit aa theme frequent in the archdiocese when he brought up the sex abuse scandals. “Equally bad to me is the hierarchy that didn’t act or tell the truth,” Vanoudenhaegen said. He argued against putting priests on a pedestal.

Others felt there was an overemphasis on fundraising and that Catholics are no longer obedient or reverent.

Sandy Vanoudenhaegen criticized Catholics who post ugly and unkind comments on social media. “That’s not love,” she said. “Jesus loves everyone.”

The third question, “How do we invite others into the life-giving relationship with Jesus Christ?” elicited many ideas in Verboort.

Parishioners suggested forms of adult education that would give them better tools to evangelize. “Instead of reinvesting in the rules we should look at who Jesus was,” said Vandehey.

Most agreed that striving for a Christlike love of others was important.

“Jesus drew people in by loving them,” said Mike Vanoudenhaegen. “We can drive people away or draw people in.”

A concrete suggestion was to assign new families at the parish a parish family. “And give the priest a vacation,” one parishioner offered to general laughter and agreement.

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Members of St. Pius X Parish in the Cedar Mill district of Northwest Portland were called upon to speak up at their Feb. 23 discernment meeting. But they also were called upon to listen — to the Holy Spirit and to each other.

After a Holy Hour in the church spent in silent devotion and contemplation before the Eucharist, about 30 people walked over to the parish hall to answer the three questions presented throughout the archdiocese. Gathered around five round tables, they spent about a half hour on each question.

While some voiced sadness about clergy sex abuse and others felt the growing use of the Latin Mass was divisive, most conversations steered elsewhere. Following pandemic-related gathering restrictions John Jendrzejewski valued getting back to Mass. “We don’t appreciate the sacrament enough until you don’t have it.”

Some at St. Pius X had ideas on how to make the church more welcoming. Ken Neisz recalled going to a non-Catholic service with his son in Idaho. “As we left someone was there to ask us how we liked it and what they could do better… That’s the kind of thing we need to do too.”

John Fitzpatrick told his table he thinks evangelization should happen within the parish. “We need to invite people who are only going to church on Sundays to help out.”

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At St. Rose of Lima in Northeast Portland, 16 people attended.

They explained that Mass, other sacraments and fellow parishioners fill them with life. Others mentioned the presence of the Holy Spirit Sisters of Tanzania on the campus as energizing. “Church provides a sense of community and deep connection as family,” one participant said.

Church music especially brings life to several St. Rose parishioners.

The group noted clergy sex abuse as a wound in need of healing, but said the church helps heal many of the world’s other wounds.

When it comes to evangelization, several St. Rose parishioners recommended action instead of teaching. “Charity, empathy, extending yourself to others attract strangers to the Church,” one said.

Like Catholics in many parishes, the St. Rose participants said they wish there were more opportunities for youths.

All the groups agreed that it’s a good idea to develop listening and dialogue in the church. Father Matt Libra, pastor of St. Rose, said he hopes that way of being church continues.

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“Very collaborative, candid and open,” is how Father Cary Reniva, the pastor of St. Cecilia Parish in Beaverton, described his parish’s first discernment meeting. About 40 people came to listen and share their ideas during the two-hour morning session on March 5.

Praying together as a community, the sacrament of confession, and sharing the liturgical seasons and sacraments were among the joys parishioners experienced in the church. However, wounds also emerged. Pedophile priests and the secrecy surrounding the abuse was the number one issue cited in the responses.

Promoting church unity was another hot topic. Many comments stressed the importance of keeping the doors of the church open to all, welcoming newcomers as well as reaching out to marginalized groups within the church.

Bishops who contradict Pope Francis, as well as those who advocate denying Communion to churchgoers based on politics, were also cited as obstacles to unity within the Church.

To make sure everyone got a chance to participate, four synod sessions were held at St. Cecilia, two for English-speaking congregants and two for the parish’s Spanish-speaking population.

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Discernment started with a bilingual Mass Feb. 22 at St. Paul Parish in Silverton. Father Aniceto Guiriba, vicar forane of the Marion County Vicariate, presided with Father Jossey Kuriakose, administrator of St. Paul, as concelebrant. To symbolize the start of the local participation in the Synod, Father Guiriba lit a candle during the Mass and prayed for the Holy Spirit's guidance. Discernment sessions at the parish were held Feb. 23 and Feb. 26.

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At St. Mary Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Northwest Portland, flagship church of the archdiocese, a group of 14 reached consensus that the church’s evangelizing enterprise would benefit from focusing on how people can develop a personal relationship with Jesus. Parishioner Anne Marie Wise said it would help if Catholic churches would do better at organizing small groups.

At the March 3 session, held after a day of adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, Wise said she has been disappointed in clergy at other parishes who resist the formation of such groups or who distrust lay volunteer leaders.

Participants like Jennifer Williams said parishes could combine resources to offer a wider variety of small groups and faith formation. Wise added that Catholics should develop a habit of inviting people to prayer gatherings or courses in homes.

The cathedral group proposed orthodoxy as the best path to touching people’s hearts. “The church is my home, but something has been watered down,” said Paul Biegansky, who thinks Latin Masses everywhere would further unity and reverence.

“You hope what you do gets them thinking about Jesus,” said Paul Farrow, who suggested that church teaching on sin, Satan and hell too often gets downplayed. “Mercy and justice get out of balance. People need to know what the consequences are.”

“I think we’ve got to start getting brave,” said Msgr. Gerard O’Connor, rector at the cathedral. “I am done with trying not to make anyone angry or trying to keep collections up.”

For example, if a couple wants a child baptized, the monsignor won’t simply schedule it, but will sit down with them to assess their faith life and give encouragement.

The Sentinel will report on more parish synod meetings in the next issue.