NEW YORK – Collected in Joe Lozano’s eighth-grade classroom are almost 30 blue and yellow sticky notes with student wishes for the Catholic Church, including:

  • “I wish the Church would voice support for the LGBTQ community.”
  • “I wish the Church would help more mental health victims.”
  • “I wish the Church would help build more community.”

The sticky notes (and other wishes written on index cards) were the culmination of a three-month synod process Lozano led with the 18 eighth-grade students he teaches at St. Peter Martyr School in the Diocese of Oakland, as well as 20 students, grades six to eight, in the student council.

Leading a Synod on Synodality process – complete with listening sessions and a report to the diocese – wasn’t something Lozano was asked to do. He chose to do it, feeling that it fit the way he leads his classroom and the values he was taught when he attended St. Peter Martyr as a student.

“We were always taught to be kind and accepting, to be an active member of the church, and to present yourself in a way that best embodies Catholic social teaching. That’s been one of the school’s staples since I was a child there, and so that’s something that we teach and promote in every class and it’s something that we hope to see in all of our students,” Lozano told Crux.

After Lozano graduated from eighth grade at the Pittsburg, California school, he stayed connected as a coach and eventually began to work as a substitute. In 2015, he decided to get a one-way ticket out of the U.S. and travel the world for 10 months. Upon his return, he accepted a role as a long-term sub at St. Peter Martyr and never looked back. He’s now in his seventh year and has taught grades five, six, and eight.

A frequent part of his classes has always been time where the students get to “ask questions” and “look deeper into the church.” Therefore, when Lozano learned about the ongoing synod from the National Catholic Educational Association late last year, he decided it was something to try.

“It’s something that I feel like my class and our school has been doing for a while, but I was able to, now with the structure and the guidance, form it into something that was presentable material instead of a Socratic seminar in the classroom,” he said.

The first step for Lozano was taking an NCEA synod PowerPoint presentation and making it his own. By January, he introduced it to the students, describing it as “an opportunity for us to speak out, listen, and then share what we talk about with the diocese.” Then he shared with them Pope Francis’s synod prayer and laid out the ground rules.

From there, they broke the ice with preliminary questions about how they’ve grown together as a class, school, and community; how “journeying together” is happening in the school; and how they listen to each other and speak up about important topics.

Over the three months, Lozano’s eighth-grade class and student council held discussions once or twice a week guided by questions under the themes “companions on the journey, listening, speaking out, and celebration.” Under each theme the students asked questions and discussed certain topics and used those topics to guide them through each theme.

One topic was the LGBTQ community and the church. Lozano said students questioned why LGBTQ families were looked at differently than, say, divorced families, or Pope Francis calling Catholics to love all people, but others leaving the LGBTQ community out of that equation.

Another topic was mental health, and what the church was doing to help young people.

“I was honest with them that growing up my parents didn’t believe that mental health was an issue,” Lozano said. He suggested that many families may feel the same and asked the students how the church could help with that.

“Maybe the church can say that they believe the issues that these kids are having,” Lozano continued. “I think a lot of kids, when they go to Mass, they don’t hear about mental health, so to them it’s where do we get those answers?”

A smaller “lingering” topic that Lozano said “stabbed him in the gut every time” was the financial burden of Catholic education, and concerns from the students that they wouldn’t be able to further their Catholic education in high school because of the price tag.

These discussions were put together in a feedback form for the diocese, and the sticky notes/note cards of what they hope to see from the church. The process concluded for the students in April. Lozano was blown away by the student’s openness and knowledge.

“One of the things that really impressed me is how much these kids, if you put them in the right space, have so much to say,” Lozano said. “My little discussion that I’m having with my students might not be the most fruitful thing for the diocese or for the entire Catholic faith, but to build a set of kids who are willing to have these conversations and who can have these conversations – I’m looking forward to that future piece.”

He added that now these students can carry that ability to dialogue into high school and beyond.

“I tell my students all of the time that I’m changing the world by helping you guys become better people, and you all becoming better people will help change the world,” Lozano said. “It’s creating those people who are going to be the ones to have those conversations.”

Follow John Lavenburg on Twitter: @johnlavenburg