A report from Bishop David M. O’Connell, C.M.
The Vatican Office of the Synod continued its historic initiative of conducting a world-wide consultation of Catholics prior to last year’s Extraordinary Synod of Bishops by distributing a second such questionnaire to dioceses and eparchies throughout the world in preparation for this year’s Ordinary Synod of Bishops (information on synods can be obtained on the United States Catholic Conference of Bishops’ website: www.usccb.org under the link to “synods 2014-2015”).
This current Vatican survey along with the final document from last year’s Extraordinary Synod of Bishops were made widely available throughout the Diocese of Trenton by way of its social media in two forms: one, the actual Vatican text of questions; two, a simplified format, created and shared by the Diocese of Wilmington. Clergy and faithful of the Diocese of Trenton were free to choose either format, the responses to which were due at the Chancery by midnight, March 4, 2015.
With the assistance of the diocesan Office of Communications, I was able to gather all results submitted and read them. The task then fell to me, as Diocesan Bishop, to produce a report based upon survey results and send it to the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) in Washington, D.C. by March 9, 2015. The USCCB now will produce a summary report of all 195 dioceses and eparchies in the United States and forward it to the Vatican Office of the Synod for use in preparing for October’s Ordinary Synod of Bishops. How it will actually be used, I do not know.
Since the “simplified format” was derived from the actual Vatican text, I combined responses under the appropriate “official” questions/topics released by the Vatican and distributed by the Diocese in the summary report I prepared and sent on to the USCCB.
While a great deal of work is involved in this process, especially here at the diocesan level, I consider the effort somewhat useful for me, as Diocesan Bishop, although the response from the Diocese was not overwhelming. Consequently, I reviewed responses to both formats to the Vatican survey submitted. I found it almost impossible, however, to present a summary that included and represented every single response or opinion presented. I attempted to combine the responses as best I could. I did not include vulgar responses (of which there were several) or sarcastic responses (of which there were several) or responses that did not answer the questions posed.
At last count, from a demographic point of view, there are: approximately 850,000 baptized Catholics in the four counties of Mercer, Monmouth, Burlington and Ocean that comprise the Diocese of Trenton; 107 parishes; 267,592 registered families; an average of 139,636 parishioners (roughly 17 percent attending Mass weekly according to the October 2014 count.
347 individuals (0.040%) responded to the actual Vatican text and 244 individuals (0.028%) responded to the simplified text, by March 4, 2015, the deadline for submission. Since every diocese was asked to conduct its own consultation, only those responses from the Diocese of Trenton and its four counties were considered in my report.
Of the respondents:
41.16% were male and 57.97% were female (0.87 did not answer the question on gender);
1.19% were priests (including 1 Diocesan Bishop); 70.84% were lay persons; 50.60% were parents; 4.17% were deacons; 1.19% were consecrated religious; 14.29% were teachers/catechists; 1.49% were pastoral associates; 0.30% were seminarians; 0.30% were chaplains; 2.38% were members of an ecclesial movement;
69.39% were married in the Catholic Church; 7.87% were married outside the Catholic Church; 4.66% were divorced; 0.29% were separated; 1.17% were in convalidated marriages; 0.87% were in marriages not recognized by the Catholic Church; 4.66% were widowed (1.17% did not answer).
It should be noted that the overwhelming majority of responders to both forms of the survey did not answer every question posed. The reasons included, among others: “?;” “I do not understand the question;” “the question makes no sense;” “I do not know;” “the language is difficult to understand” or “is geared to clergy or to those working in the Church, not to lay people;” etc.
Throughout the responses to the survey, certain themes emerged for consideration by the Synod: the need to be open, welcoming and more accepting of people, especially those who are hurting or feel alienated; the importance of good preaching and careful, clear, consistent teaching but without harsh judgment; the contribution made by the witness of good role models in marriage and family life; emphasis on personal responsibility in matters related to marriage and family life; the need for more discussion in parishes among married couples. The value of celibacy is questionable in the contemporary Church; more family oriented activities should be planned at home and in the parish. These were the most common, repeated responses.
It became clear to me that many respondents who attempted to answer the survey had difficulty with the questions as they were posed. Respondents considered the questions too theological, too technical and somewhat inaccessible to most ordinary people. The survey instrument, in my opinion, was far too long and did use language unfamiliar to those asked to respond. I found it difficult myself. It might be wise or advisable, if this kind of survey is going to become a normative practice, that the questions be submitted to regional Episcopal conferences for “translation” into understandable vernacular and limited in number. It is not clear to me how a world-wide consultation is really useful or how it can be used effectively. It was incredibly difficult to summarize responses for a single diocese. I cannot imagine the task for an entire country, let alone the whole Church. Episcopal conferences might be asked or tasked to find a better way to take the pulse of the Church in their countries. Perhaps that’s the question that should be investigated in the dioceses.