Bishop Flores: ‘carrying our people with us is a tender responsibility'
By Sr Bernadette M. Reis, fsp
Bishop Daniel Flores has been leading the synod process for the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB). Bishop Flores is the Bishop of Brownsville in Texas, which is the largest diocese in the United States, with a Catholic population of 1.2 million as of December 2021, and covers almost 4,300 square miles. Brownsville became a diocese in 1965 and consists of four counties bordering Mexico. It is, therefore, a diocese on the periphery in many ways, and a place of welcome to many migrants crossing the US border in search of a better life.
In an interview with Vatican News, Bishop Flores spoke about his experience leading the synodal process in the United States, what he thinks a more synodal Church might look like in the future, and some personal insights he has had during the synod process.
Synod process experience
“It's been a great pleasure and an honor, but it's also been kind of an adventure. I was first asked by then-President of the USCCB, Archbishop Gomez, if I, as Chairman of the Doctrine Committee for the USCCB, would also take under my care the synod processes that would be unfolding in the United States – to give resources, to be a source of communication. And so, I said, ‘Surely! Absolutely! I'll be happy to…,’ without really realizing what it would fully entail.
“It's been a great sort of eye opener because it's involved me in helping to communicate the basic message of the synod to the different dioceses, speaking to the different delegates that were appointed by their bishops to help coordinate in the local dioceses. So just getting to know the different situations.
“And it certainly impacted me as we were planning our own diocesan synodal activities in the Diocese of Brownsville. It allowed me to speak to a lot of people and to learn a lot of things about how diverse even the Church in the United States is in terms of how very creatively different dioceses were adapting to be able to gather synodal consultations, and to be able to adjust to different languages, different settings, and even the efforts made to reach those who are not easily in contact with the Church.
What a synodal Church might look like in the future
“I think this is a very important question. My mind goes through the experiences that I've had. On the local level, I've been very touched and impressed by how sincerely local parishes, and local-level apostolic movements, and local dioceses have really tried to establish settings in the local community where people could feel free to speak and to have a prayerful spiritual conversation about issues that are of great importance to us as Catholics, both the challenges and also the joys, and that whole opening up of a space that I think the Holy Father has been asking us to do more intentionally – spaces where people can pray together, discern together, listen and think.
“This is the biggest impact that I see. If we can keep that as a style that continues to work its way through the structure of the Church. The Church in the United States is very well structured – we’re not the only ones – but I think it's very important that we kind of breathe some air into it that creates more space for more participation in the conversation. It is a stylistic thing – style in a very heavy sense, a theological sense – even of allowing the Holy Spirit to manifest in the hearts of the faithful that perspective without which it's very difficult for any of us to understand what the challenges are and how to face them.
“So, to me certainly, we should never lose sight of the importance of the local initiative of synodality, which certainly in my diocese, and I've been encouraging other bishops to continue that, that opening up. We learned a lot of things along the way. There are certain things we could have done a lot better. Inasmuch as we did the best we could, we also can learn some things.
“And then as it moves up into the national, and then the continental phase, and then the global stage, I think it is very important that, as a Church, we understand that our particular issues on a local level that we're trying to deal with pastorally are not necessarily identical to or the sum total of all the challenges in the Church. I was very moved when reading the Continental Document that came back to us about some of the experiences of some of the newer Churches, the missionary Churches, the very poor Churches. I think that's very important for us in the United States to be aware of some of the challenges that are hard for us to imagine, and some of the circumstances that are affecting the survival of families and peoples in very, very difficult situations – places of war, places of terrorism, places of drought, places of great conflict – and yet trying to give a Christian witness.
“Inasmuch as we can open that up and that we are more aware of the life of the Church around the world, and all of its diversity, and all of its richness, but also in its struggles, I think we are living more deeply our communion. And to me, that's what the heart of this is – to make our communion more real and effective, because certainly I would say that we have been lacking in an ability to encourage people to listen. Especially in the modern media culture, it's just a fact. We tend to talk at each other and across each other, instead of to each other, and listen to each other. And that to me would be a long-lasting, significant contribution."
Personal synodal implications
“Well, to a large degree, it's made me much more aware of a couple of things. One is I'm very grateful for what of the synodal style was already present in my diocese. Every bishop, I think has that sense, and we have had spaces. It's [Brownsville] a fairly poor diocese and our parishes are fairly poor. And yet there's a great deal of dynamism. The laity are very involved, and I try to keep myself accessible. What I have learned is that I need to be much more intentional and active in being in places where I can hear what people’s experiences are, and what they're struggling with in their local communities. As a bishop that's enriched me, and I think it always has. I've always taken to heart what the Holy Father says – you have to walk sometimes behind the sheep, sometimes in the midst of them, and sometimes at the head of them. And that's a thing that I have taken to heart. And I think the synodal process has made that much more lively in terms of walking amongst the People of God.
“It has also deepened my awareness that when a bishop is asked to participate on the national level in the synodal process, or in the continental stage, that we are really carrying our people with us. And it's a tender responsibility to remember those voices and to carry them into the wider dialogue of the communion of the Church. There's faces, and there's voices, and there’s suffering, and there’s also joy, there's also zeal, there's also great creativity. No one person can carry all of that. But you do try by the help of the Holy Spirit to carry it, the principal elements of it, and always go back to your people to hear more from them. There's always a movement from the particular to the universal. There's a movement to the universal that looks at the bigger picture and tries to synthesize it in the sense of the communion of the Church, but there's always a return back to the lived reality of the people.
“That is a great expression of faith. I have great confidence and it's deepened my confidence that the People of God have a deep reverence for the mystery of Christ and that we need to listen to how that reverence manifests itself. And sometimes we have to adjust our ears because it's not that it's not being expressed. It's that sometimes our ears aren't attuned to how it's expressing itself. I see it in some of the popular devotion with young people I appreciate so much. For example, in my diocese on Good Friday, it's the young people who do the living Stations of the Cross. They have so much joy in participating in this and giving it as a gift to the parish. That is a great gift as part of the faith of the Church expressing itself. And they speak also, and we need to listen.”
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