My diocese invited 8,000 parishioners to participate in restorative circles. Here’s what happened.

In October 2021, Pope Francis convened the Synod on Syndality — a two-year process of listening and dialogue throughout the Church. 

Traditionally, a synod is for bishops to assemble in Rome to discuss issues facing the Universal Church or in some instances a specific region of the Church. The Synod on Synodality extends the scope of listening and consulting with all Catholic parishioners throughout the worldwide Church, creating a unique opportunity for participation, dialogue, and encounter.

Pope Francis has invited all Catholics into this process with the specific intention of listening especially to those who are often marginalized or excluded, and to together discern a ‘path forward toward a more synodal Church.’

As the Director for the Office for Life, Peace, and Justice for the Diocese of San Diego, I am responsible for education and advocacy for some of our most marginalized individuals and communities in our diocese to include the incarcerated, the homeless, and the newly arriving immigrants. 

Cardinal-Designate Robert McElroy, Ordinary Bishop of the Diocese of San Diego, appointed me and our diocesan Chancellor, Marioly Galvan, to lead the diocesan synod commission. Initially, my primary responsibility with guidance from Bishop McElroy was to develop a process for listening and dialoguing with parishioners and marginalized individuals throughout our diocese.

As a restorative justice advocate and practitioner, I am a certified circle process trainer with the International Institute of Restorative Practices (IIRP) as well as the Ojai Foundation. I have been practicing the circle process utilized by the Ojai Foundation known as “council” for the past seven years. 

We recommended in consultation with a team of consultants from the Ojai Foundation and the University of San Diego that we utilize “council,” also known as circle process, as the primary method for the initial listening sessions. 

Bishop McElroy and our diocesan synod commission adopted “council” as the method for consulting and listening, bringing together over ten-thousand people in more than eleven hundred small group circles (councils) throughout the diocese. 

The majority of the small group circles took place in one of the ninety-eight parishes within our diocese, and they also took place within our three state prisons and several of our homeless and immigrant shelters within our diocese.

The parish and other group council sessions had all the elements of the sacred circle practices utilized by the Ojai Foundation as well as other circle practitioners. Each small group council had a trained scribe and facilitator responsible for guiding the seventy-five-minute circle dialogue.  

A wooden comfort cross or a rosary served as the talking piece for each council, and the four council intentions were employed to guide the council sessions: (1) Listening from the heart, (2) Speaking from the heart, (3) Being lean in expression, and (4) Being spontaneous. 

Restorative practices such as this help make room for the Holy Spirit to do its transformative work in the world, which gets to the very heart of this synod. 

The council — or circle process — was very well received. Parishioners shared a desire to use council as a method of addressing various issues and facilitating dialogue at the parish level in the future. 

Throughout our diocese’s two month process of meeting in this restorative way, I was reminded time and again that circles are not reserved solely for addressing harm; circles can be a powerful method for communicating as a faith community. 

In the case of the Diocese of San Diego, circles created the ideal environment for listening and beginning the process of building a synodal Church.