DULUTH — Emma Johnson joined other students on the College of St. Scholastica campus to hear about each other’s experiences with the Catholic Church.
Johnson, 18, said growing up with traditions and practices gave her life meaning, and communities of Catholics and Christians working together for social justice uplifted the common good.
“In terms of the more negative side, the things that could be cured, the clergy sex abuse scandal has been a really big deal for the last two decades,” Johnson said. “Personally, I wasn’t affected by it, but I know a lot of people have been.
“It’s an area that needs a lot of healing and confidence building.”
The Diocese of Duluth launched the “Let’s Listen” initiative as a way to discern the next step in the church’s mission with input from people in northeastern Minnesota. Listening sessions were held in Brainerd, Hibbing, Hinckley and more. Catholics and non-Catholics are invited to share during an in-person session, or by completing a postal or online form at
“It’s the first time in the history of the Catholic Church that they’ve asked the laity what they think in a formal synod process that usually only bishops participate in,” said Johnson, a freshman at the CSS. “It shows that the church is trying to adapt to the modern world and listen to the spiritual needs of the faithful in the 21st century.”
Efforts are in conjunction with Pope Francis”
Synod 2021-2023: For a Synodal Church
After sessions ending this month in 71 parishes, from Cloquet to Grand Portage, the
will streamline the data collected which, with contributions from around the world, will be presented in Rome in 2023.
The Holy Father wanted this process to begin at the most local level and for inputs to flow through to the time church leaders, said Andrew Jarocki, Diocese of Duluth contact person for the synodal process. “Whether in Bangladesh or Duluth, every diocese in the Catholic Church is undertaking this process,” Jarocki added.
A lifelong Catholic, Jarocki stepped into this volunteer role in the fall; Bishop Daniel Felton felt that this process called for the participation of the lay grassroots, not the clergy of the Catholic Church, to help shape the process, Jarocki said.
So the diocese, which is made up of five deaneries – similar to counties in a secular state – chose a lay person per deanery to lead the charge with a steering committee.
The idea is for the whole church to be there to hear each other and share what hurts or heals, but not to engage in debate or answers to each other. Trained facilitators and note takers are assigned to each in-person session to follow a format and handout.
“The church needs to take a more humble attitude sometimes,” Jarocki said. “It’s very overdue locally, and there’s a grassroots desire to take stock.”
The past two years have been very eventful for the Diocese of Duluth: the bankruptcy crisis caused by a list of credibly accused priests and the cultural and financial ramifications that followed.
The abuse crisis is very healing, Jarocki said, and the church is trying to take responsibility.
He has been present for several sessions. People are very vulnerable and what is shared is sometimes very raw. This granted Jarocki a broader perspective. “I feel like I benefit from being exposed to people’s hurts and hopes about the church,” he said.
For Mark Hakes of Duluth, this initiative is a game-changer.
“I am a developing, practicing Catholic and also a queer person, and sometimes I have to ask for space in my own church. It is a powerful experience to hear the Holy Father say he wants to hear specifically from people who have felt excluded from the church,” Hakes said.
Hakes entered the Catholic faith in 2012. They enjoy the liturgy and ritual of Catholicism, which has also spoken to them on a practical level. “It was a way to stay connected to the Christian experience of the divine without the traumatic experiences I had as a queer person growing up in an evangelical family,” Hakes said.
Rather than an in-person session, Hakes shared his comments directly with Bishop Felton about their experience within the church.
“The pain I have when people talk about queer people, not just by the hierarchy at large, even by some of our pastors within the Diocese of Duluth,” Hakes explained. “My queer identity was given by God.”
Hakes now works as the associate director of campus ministry at St. Scholastica and feels energized working with students who seek a sense of the divine. For Hakes, their meaning lies in Catholic teachings.
“I find a lot of hope in the work I do; it is important that I continue to show myself.
Emma Johnson is also looking forward to what will come of these efforts to put people first.
“I hope some of the changes include increased participation and roles for people who have traditionally been left out or unheard in the church,” Johnson said. “It’s cool to be living through this time and being able to be a part of it.”