Priests and lay delegates from around the county took part in the San Diego snyod. Photo by Chris Stone
Priests and lay delegates from around the county took part in the San Diego synod. Photo by Chris Stone

Updated at 9:40 p.m. Oct. 31, 2016

Saying the Roman Catholic Church should have “no stigmas,” Bishop Robert McElroy reached out to divorced people and gays at the end of the San Diego diocese’s first synod in 40 years.

Groups met on five different issues in the first San Diego synod since 1976. Photo by Chris Stone

“That’s just not what we should be about,” McElroy said Sunday of the marginalization that has been felt by some of the county’s 1.4 million Catholics.

He said the two-day meeting of 125 parish delegates — priests and lay people — was the first in the nation aimed at translating Pope Francis’ pronouncements about family and marriage issues into action.

Carol Gamara of St. John the Evangelist in University Heights found hope in the change in attitudes expressed at the diocesan headquarters in Bay Ho.

As a divorced Catholic, she says, she’s felt deprived of full participation in the church.

“The church should embrace people where they are at,” she said. “There’s no opportunity for growth if we as a society shun people or don’t acknowledge them for where they are in their lives. There’s more to an individual than what they see.”

But the pope’s call for outreach to the LGBT community and permission for divorced people to receive Communion remain controversial here. Elsewhere in America, some parishes are balking at putting it into action.

In contrast, delegates to the San Diego synod have shown “overwhelming” support for outreach to divorced Catholics and “significant” agreement with new relationships with gay people, the bishop said.

Delegates were broken up into five groups to study and develop plans of action for five ideas outlined in Pope Francis’s Apostolic Exhortation on “The Joy of Love.”

San Diego Bishop Robert McElroy locked eyes with a baby at the synod. Photo by Chris Stone

McElroy promised to carry forward the group’s 15 proposals, a process that may take one to two years. The top three proposals from each group have priority.

It’s not only the proposals, but also the process that pleased McElroy, who likes a system rooted in local parishes that involves religious leaders and parishioners.

“The most positive thing that I hope comes out of this is that this becomes a way of decision making,” McElroy told Times of San Diego. Every couple of years, parishioners and religious leaders could meet on different topics, he said.

The Very Rev. John Dolan, diocese vicar for clergy, called McElroy “courageous” for creating the local dialogue, instead of just filing away the pope’s proclamations as some have done in the past.

Marriage and family life issues have gotten a kick-the-can-down-the-road treatment with promises to deal with it later, he said.

“Well, we’re dealing with it now,” Dolan said, adding that the church is used to an “older idea on how to approach marriage and family life while not really looking at the reality.”

In the spirit of dialogue, “even if we hold up this dogmatic truth, which we still do, it’s how you present that…. We say: OK, here’s an icon, but we’re not going to toss it down your throat,” he said.

Delegates from around the county contributed to the synod. Photo by Chris Stone

Michael Chadwick of Guardian Angels Church in Santee appreciated the discussion.

“I think it’s positive that the church even wants to address some of these issues,” said Chadwick, a parishioner. “They see that there is a problem and want to try to correct them. Even just the fact that we are having this discussion I think is positive.”

Members of his parish expressed interest in speaking to mentors, “someone to talk to about the different struggles in their lives.”

Among the goals were creation of a diocesan Office for Family Spirituality, resources that educate and evangelize children and families in faith, a parish environment that nurtures and celebrates marriage, mentors to welcome young people into full participation in church life, and culture of support for those in all stages of separation and divorce.

Agreeing on concepts and the wording of the proposals created some heated discussions and didn’t always lead to consensus, but top priorities were selected for presentation to the bishop.

In an effort to address what one delegate called “thousands of families in turmoil in a given year,” delegates suggested greater support for people in all phases in their lives through retreats, mentors, handbooks, social events, education, networking, counseling and welcome practices.

Parishioners and delegates pray during Mass at the San Diego synod. Photo by Chris Stone

Specific methods included finding ambassador couples, starting small group faith formation sessions and a divorce ministry, launching parish celebrations of anniversaries and other major life events, ministering to military families, coordinating religious education programs with the Mass schedule and making Mass more family oriented.

McElroy was surprised about two issues emphasized in the groups.

Delegates tailored the pope’s message to include populations central to San Diego: those in danger of being deported, those deployed in the military, multicultural groups, LGBT members, immigrants, addicts and extended families.

“Family is everybody,” he said. “Our notion of family is an inclusive notion.”

Gamara of St. John the Evangelist said her own priority was more openness for herself and her parish.

“I know … sometimes my own prejudices have maybe stopped me from welcoming people,” she said, “and I think this has really opened my eyes to embrace and learn from the cultural diversities as well as generational diversities” in the church.

Parishioners and delegates pray during Mass at the San Diego synod. Photo by Chris Stone

But that same issue brought consternation to another delegate.

Grace Williams of St. Anne in Logan Heights said people have become confused about the teachings of the church, suggesting a lack of clarity exists.

“In regards to the LGBT community, I think the concern is having a false compassion,” she said.

She said she believes that gay people should be loved and welcomed, but the church needs to make clear that their lifestyle shouldn’t be condoned.

While gay people carry the “heavy cross” of being attracted to people of the same sex, they shouldn’t act on that desire, she said.

“If we do something against nature, it’s detrimental to our own happiness,” Williams said.

In contrast, McElroy thinks the church has moved from tolerance and acceptance of the LGBT community to embrace — while not condoning such lifestyles.

“There’s a recognition that we are all sinners. That is the starting point,” McElroy said, speaking of parishioners who have come to him about the difficulties of their lives during his priesthood.

San Diego Bishop Robert McElroy in a light moment at the synod. Photo by Chris Stone

“My job is not to look at the person and say: Where is he or she failing? My job is to support everyone around me in terms of helping them live the best lives that they can.”

McElroy said a second surprise of the synod was the embrace of the role of conscience in making moral decisions. Parishioners felt that others should be educated about this, delegates said.

“Many Catholics tend to think of our moral life as being rule-oriented,” McElroy said. “Rules are important primarily as a check on rationalization. The real core of Catholic teaching is and always was a decision of conscience.”

The Catholic Church long has taught that you must follow your conscience, even if it is contrary to church teachings, McElroy said.

McElroy said: “Our rules are not universalized in that they are meant to be guides in a great majority of circumstances.”

Conscience takes into account a person’s circumstances and their belief that “God is asking me to do the opposite” of church teachings, he said. “It’s in major decisions in our lives that conscience can be helpful.”

The danger in conscience-based decisions is that it’s too easy to rationalize what someone wanted to do from the beginning, McElroy said.

Catholics who divorced and didn’t remarry were always allowed to receive Communion, and those who received annulments were also. Those who didn’t receive annulment but felt in their hearts that their marriage didn’t contain the essential ingredients of a good marriage could use their conscience to decide whether to receive Communion.

What’s new is that the pope said that even those who had a valid marriage and got divorced could through an examination of conscience decide to receive the Eucharist.

Delegates choose priorities at the San Diego snyod at diocesan headquarters. Photo by Chris Stone

But this issue also raises concerns.

Williams said: “There’s absolutely no question that people who have gotten a divorce need to have compassion, need to be welcomed into the community. That’s a no-brainer.

“It’s just the question of causing scandal if we allow the divorced to receive Holy Communion.

“The scandal means that people no longer understand what marriage as a sacrament is. That’s where the concern is from people in my community in particular and myself included.”

Chadwick also was troubled initially.

“We had it explained to us,” he said. “I like when Jesus said something. That’s black and white, but the reality in life is there are areas that are a little more gray than that.”

McElroy said therein lay the controversy.

“What people are concerned about is: Can you change the latter without undermining the first?”

It’s like telling a child not to talk to strangers but later saying it’s OK to seek a stranger’s help when they are in trouble, he said.

“We’re teaching something that has two different dimensions,” McElroy said.

Dolan the vicar said, “It is confusing because each person is different. There’s no cookie-cutter way to approach a person’s theological development or moral development. Everyone is coming to the Lord from a different perspective.”

Therefore, priests are called not to be a shepherd to a flock but to individual sheep, he said.

A young woman led a prayer during Mass at the San Diego synod. Photo by Chris Stone

Regardless of how the synod proposals are written, Dolan said, there will always be Catholics who say the ideas don’t go far enough, while others will say that even discussing the issues of divorced Catholics and relations with LGBT members is going to far.

Not all proposals will be handled uniformly in each parish because of demographic, financial and cultural differences in individual communities, he said.

The church has always changed, and has seen strife throughout history, Dolan said.

Gamara of St. John the Evangelist said, “We can’t stay stagnant in our faith; we are always meant to grow whether it’s in our spirituality or our education or formation.”

Indeed, some group discussion got a little heated.

Heidi Chokeir of Santa Sophia in Spring Valley said it was interesting to see how different people felt so strongly about different words used and the language used in the working groups’ goals.

Parishioners come from a lot of different places, she said.

“People here feel strongly that they have love for the church, and they have a strong desire to reach out and share God’s love with others, and so I think that is probably bigger than and more important than any differences you see in how people are approaching this process.”

In his sermon at the Sunday Mass, McElroy spoke about the life of Joseph Merrick, known as the Elephant Man, and how love transformed his later life.

It is the reaching out to others in love that is the heart of the synod and can transform the lives of others and the church, McElroy said.