“A Listening Church in a Divided Nation” facilitates intergenerational dialogue by Michael Centore

Stating that “every generation inherits the problems and possibilities that belong to a given age,” Cardinal Wilton Gregory expressed “a great deal of hope that our young people will be able to guide us” through our current historical moment during a dialogue with young Catholics on Wednesday evening.

The event, “A Listening Church in a Divided Nation,” was cosponsored by Leadership Roundtable, the Jesuitical podcast from America Media, and the Initiative on Catholic Thought and Public Life at Georgetown University. It was held at the Crystal Gateway Marriott in Arlington, Virginia, where Leadership Roundtable is currently hosting the 2024 Catholic Partnership Summit, “Expanding the Tent: Young Adult Leadership and Co-Responsibility in the Catholic Church,” and also available via livestream.

In the first part of the dialogue, Jesuitical hosts Zac Davis and Ashley McKinless interviewed Gregory, who has served as archbishop of the Archdiocese of Washington since 2019, for a live recording of their podcast.

The cardinal began by recounting his upbringing in Chicago in the late 1950s and early ’60s, where he said “the Catholic community was undergoing a rapid racial change.”

Though he was not raised Catholic, Gregory attended a Catholic grammar school where he was “mesmerized” by the influence of his Adrian Dominican teachers as well as pastors like Monsignor John Hayes and Father Gerard Weber. The election of Pope John XXIII in 1958 further inspired him, and he began to discern a vocation to the priesthood.

Asked by Davis about an instance when he felt he needed to “recommit” to his faith, Gregory pointed to the challenges of the sexual abuse crisis, particularly during his time as the bishop of the Diocese of Bellville in Illinois in the 1990s and early 2000s.

The diocese was “rocked” by the abuse crisis, Gregory said. He remembered mentors like Weber and Hayes, who “were such wonderful men in my life,” and vowed not to let their memory “die with that shadow [of abuse].”

“I was committed to try and do the right thing,” he said. His well-documented efforts to confront the abuse crisis earned him plaudits from places like Time magazine, though he faced skepticism from members of the Roman Curia.

In communicating with Pope John Paul II about the crisis, he said, “I told him everything that I knew. If I die, I can die saying I told him the truth.”  

The conversation pivoted to the ongoing Synod on Synodality, currently in an “interim phase” between the October 2023 and October 2024 gatherings in Rome.

“Wherever the church gathers where everyone feels respected and has an opportunity to open their hearts, that’s synodality,” Gregory said. He described last October’s gathering as “the entire church in microcosm.”

“We sat at those tables, and we got to know each other and speak to each other about things that were important to us as Catholics,” he said.

Asked about the synodal experience in his own archdiocese, Gregory observed, “What happened was the people saw their bishops in a different moment.”

“There was a desire that came from those meetings to have a greater affinity between the people of God and their bishops, and to talk about tough things,” he continued. “We talked about the church’s attitude toward marriage, gender identity, the traditional Mass. Folks put it out on the table. They listened, sometimes they cried.”

Gregory said that though the archdiocese has no trouble recruiting young adults to work with Catholic Charities, it can be difficult getting them to come to Mass.

“Catholicism needs both lungs,” he said, repurposing Pope John Paul II’s famous image for the unity of the Eastern and Western churches. “Social justice and faith doctrine have to be wedded.”

He stressed that Catholicism is “a physical experience,” saying, “We have to be Catholics next to each other. I’ve got to break bread with you.”

Anna Gordon, program director for the Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life and organizer of the Initiative’s Salt and Light Gatherings, and Fatima Vasquez-Molina, service coordinator at Elizabeth Seton High School in Bladensburg, Maryland, and recent graduate of the Catholic University of America, joined the others onstage for the second part of the dialogue.

Vasquez-Molina said that “the way to a listening church is through immersion and encounter.” She explained how she models this practice with her students, engaging with them based on their interests and cultural backgrounds.

“In order to immerse yourself, you have to come up with innovative ways to catch [students’] attention,” she said.

This practice can help overcome polarization in other areas of our lives, she said. “The point of immersing yourself is an opportunity to connect with people who maybe don’t see eye to eye or maybe don’t agree with you.”

Gordon acknowledged that “each one of us has felt misunderstood at some point” and cited three practices employed at Salt and Light Gatherings to facilitate fair and genuine exchanges: ensure a diversity of racial, gender, age, economic, and career representation in dialogues; try not to set up “binary conversations” where two viewpoints are diametrically opposed but rather include a range of perspectives; and create alternate spaces to build effective relationships, such as hosting receptions after events.

Davis and McKinless concluded by asking the dialogue participants about their hopes for the future as young people in the church.

“My hope is for more seats to be created at the table,” Vasquez-Molina said. “That’s my biggest hope and my prayer.”

She added that as a Latina Catholic, “it’s not always easy to navigate the church,” but “with a lot of effort, you can make it and have your voice heard.”

Gordon spoke about the principles of Catholic Social Teaching (CST), which she called “the most exciting part of my faith.” CST “calls us to participation” and helps fulfill the hope for “a better kind of politics” that Pope Francis expressed in his encyclical Fratelli Tutti, she said.

“CST has been doing the synodal work all along,” she added. “It’s all been synodal before we had the word for it.”

Gordon also praised the way that synodality has “institutionalized” methods for having difficult conversations, which “will benefit our public life and our church.”

Gregory picked up on this theme in his parting comments to the audience: “Don’t enter the conversation with the conclusion.”

“Let me hear what you find difficult,” he continued. “Before I condemn you, let me try to understand you.”

He framed this process in terms of the call of discipleship: “The price of belonging to Jesus is willingness to become a servant.” ♦

Michael Centore is the editor of Today’s American Catholic.

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1 reply
  1. Sarita Melkon Maldjian
    Sarita Melkon Maldjian says:

    Thank you for covering this event in a perfectly concise article for those of us who could not attend.


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