Upon the end of the diocesan phase of the synod on Pentecost Sunday, June 5, the Archdiocese of Anchorage-Juneau celebrated the synod closing Mass, which brought archdiocesan parishes and their parishioners’ respective cultures together for the first time since the new archdiocese was unified in September 2020.
During the Mass, which was held at the Cathedral of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Anchorage, synod committee members also shared a summary of information gathered from the past six months of dialogue sessions that took place throughout the archdiocese.
“To know that so many have come to be with us today to represent throughout the archdiocese; I have to admit that tears were welling up in my eyes,” said Archbishop Andrew
Bellisario, C.M., at the podium as he reflected on the procession. People from different parts of Alaska participated in filling an archdiocesan map with their respective regions, showcasing the vast size of the archdiocese.
“The non-verbal action of representatives from regions across the archdiocese placing their regional pieces on the map created a sense of unity for our vast archdiocese as we came together in person for the first time,” said Jenny Michaelson, co-chair of the synod committee.
Many parishioners’ cultures were represented through their clothing and in prayer, said Barbara Dilley, a member of Our Lady of Perpetual Help Parish in Soldotna and facilitator for the synod dialogue session. The altar was also set with numerous cultural clothes to showcase the various nationalities of the archdiocese’s people, said Mary Gore, co-chair of the synod committee.
“To realize the extent of the Archdiocese of Anchorage-Juneau, which is all the way from Southeast … and all the way and out to the Aleutians, I honestly don’t think that people realize the extent of that, both in square miles and also in difficulties of travel,” Dilley said, who also noted that the archdiocese is “blessed with many nationalities.”
“I think that was very meaningful,” Dilley said. “We need to be very aware of them [cultures] of both their contributions and their needs.”
On that day, the synod committee co-chairs also gave a summary of the information which will be included in the anticipated synod report. The co-chairs said the report will compile two binders carrying 10 pounds of paper filled with the thoughts, hopes, and concerns of more than 1,200 participants from across the archdiocese.
The archbishop was handed those binders at the offertory of the Mass. The binders carry all the comments and notes parishes, small groups, and individuals provided to the synod committee within the diocesan phase.
“We look forward to the continental phase now going forward,” the archbishop said to parishioners during the Mass.
At the Mass, the co-chairs said the report was not finished, but the summary they presented will be available for people to view on the archdiocesan website. Archbishop Bellisario will submit the final archdiocesan report to the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops by June 30. As of June 27, the report had not been finished yet.
During the summary presentation, the co-chairs alternated as they spoke on various “feelings and concerns” of those who participated in the synod dialogue sessions. Although most people focused on issues they have or witnessed within the Church, Michaelson said the “loyalty to our tradition and the trust in divine salvation through Christ Jesus was mentioned repeatedly.”
“There were cries of alienation and feelings of not only being unwelcomed, but unwanted,” Michaelson said during the Mass. “Yet as each person shared their story, we were reminded that the Holy Spirit, active in the lives of each person, fans the flame of faith to seek what is good and right.”
The co-chairs also touched on topics such as feelings of isolation from rural parishes and missions, a lack of transparency, and the inclusion of all believers for the Eucharist. The co-chairs said people also want their experiences and points of view to be acknowledged for issues like Catholics wanting the return of Latin Mass, as well as listening to the LGBTQ+ community and people who have been divorced.
The co-chairs mentioned that many young people who participated “did not understand the justification of exclusion of certain groups of people.” People also spoke about wanting the Church to help people through life issues such as addiction and homelessness, according to the committee.
“I think we need to stop telling and start explaining,” said one young person during the dialogue sessions, according to the committee.
In addition to those concerns, the co-chairs said people noted there is a “lack of priestly vocations, especially with our archdiocese.” The committee heard comments stating that the Church and its people need to better support their priests so they can better care for their parishioners. The co-chairs said people offered solutions like allowing priests to be married or letting women become deacons and priests.
“For those that did participate, it is clear they are seeking transparency in what was heard and hoping that their work and energy will bear fruit,” Gore said. “There has been nothing more important to the committee than to ensure the integrity of this process by honoring each person’s comments to ensure that their feelings and hopes are valued and understood.”
The co-chairs also said they acknowledged people who did not participate in the dialogue sessions, as well as those who questioned the validity and usefulness of the synodal process.
“We heard firsthand that many who did not participate were skeptical of the process,” Gore said. She noted that she heard questions like, “‘Would their lived experience of the Church matter? Was this process going to be fruitful or harmful to the Church and its traditions and doctrine? Was this going to be yet another document for the bookshelf or archives?’”
Dilley also noted similar concerns from people in her community in Soldotna. She said numerous people questioned the use and value of the information gathered during dialogue listening sessions. However, from the few that participated, she said they “were very anxious to speak and had very good thoughts.”
Dilley served as a facilitator for her parish in the early stages of the diocesan phase. Fr. Patrick Brosamer, pastor of her parish, asked her to join, which she said was an honor.
“My worry, out of the synod process in the parishes, I’m afraid not enough people have been involved,” Dilley said. “I would like very much for us to be able to help our parishioners to see it [value], because in our parish, as I mentioned, perhaps 40 to 50 people participated, but we certainly have lots more people in the parish.”
Regarding the future of the synodal process, people who participated in dialogue sessions like Helen Vik, a parishioner of the Cathedral of Our Lady of Guadalupe, expressed some doubt despite her hopefulness for local results in the synod. She also attended the synod closing Mass.
“I would like to see results first, but I think the people that, in our archdiocese, put together a good program and a lot of effort, and I think the people will listen,” Vik said when asked about her expectations for the future. “I hope we can draw more people into our church and younger folks to participate, I guess in the activities of the church. I’d like to see that happen again.”
Following the Mass, Jansy Hansen, a parishioner of Sacred Heart Parish in Haines, expressed her thoughts about what synod committee members said at the synod closing Mass.
“I thought what they had to say about how the community felt is a good reflection of our feelings,” Hansen said, speaking for her small, rural parish community. “I know we feel disconnected here … We have families here that really want to connect with other Catholic families, but there hasn’t been a lot of communication.”
Hansen said she spoke to multiple people at the Mass about her communication concerns within the archdiocese, and through those conversations, she has hope that the synodal process will help heal the current disconnect between parishes caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We can’t just talk about it and not act on it,” she said.
Michaelson said she and fellow committee members heard the “synodal process was very positive” for people and “they would like it to continue.”