DAVENPORT, Iowa — An idea began brewing in Patrick Schmadeke’s head as he listened to an interview with Xavière Missionary Sister Nathalie Becquart on the Synod of Bishops in 2023 and the process leading up to it.
“Synodality starts with coffee,” said the French nun, who serves as undersecretary of the Synod of Bishops.
“That just rang true to me. I wrote it down on my notepad,” said Schmadeke, director of evangelization for the Diocese of Davenport. “Conversations over coffee are places that listening humbly about people’s experience of church can take place.”
Meanwhile, he and members of the diocesan Evangelization Commission were trying to figure out how to reach the disaffiliated.
“They don’t just show up at church for an event, and are unlikely to show up for a formal listening session,” he said. “Most, if not all of us, have friends and family who are disaffiliated. So, how do we leverage people’s personal relationships?”
Then Schmadeke began to smell the coffee. The diocese had just compiled its 2021 diocesan Mass attendance count, which totaled 19,399, about 60% of the pre-pandemic count. If each of those 19,399 Massgoers had a conversation with three different people, that would total around 58,000 cups of coffee!
So put the coffee pot on. The 58,000 Cups of Coffee Initiative of one-on-one synod conversations has begun in the Davenport Diocese.
“This is a clever way for Catholics in the diocese to engage other people on the topic of the Catholic faith,” Davenport Bishop Thomas R. Zinkula said. “A lot of folks don’t know how to broach the subject; they don’t know what to say; they think they don’t know enough about the faith; they won’t have answers to questions.
“The synod and this initiative give them an excuse, an opportunity, to talk to others about the faith, and all they have to do is listen.”
Here is how it works:
Massgoers are invited to have a synodal conversation with three different people: someone already in the pews; someone who used to be in the pews but hasn’t been since the pandemic; and someone who has never been a part of a faith community or stopped practicing long ago.
The conversation focuses on the essential question of the synod in the Davenport Diocese: Based on your personal experience, what fills your heart and what breaks your heart about the Catholic Church (e.g., in your parish and beyond your parish)?
“This is about listening to the experience of your conversation partner. It’s not about debate or listening in order to respond, it is about a deep and thorough listening in order to understand,” Schmadeke told The Catholic Messenger, Davenport’s diocesan newspaper. “We want to learn from their experience.”
No one is limited to three conversations. “Grab coffee with as many people as you can! This is an opportunity to generate enthusiasm for the faith in our communities,” Schmadeke said. The diocese provides a form on its website — davenportdiocese.org — for the person who initiated the conversation to share thoughts about the experience.
Deacon candidate Ryan Burchett, who serves on the Evangelization Commission, reached out to a Catholic friend who has been away from the church for some time.
“It led to a really interesting conversation for us,” Burchett said. “He told me where he stood and I told him where I stood. We both left the conversation in tears. It was heartfelt and meaningful.”
“So seldom, in this day and age, are we afforded the opportunity to be heard without being subjected to advice, judgment, counterpoints,” Burchett said. “It was a time to stop and listen.”
He admitted to feeling a bit anxious inviting his friend to talk about their faith. “I felt like I was throwing the dice a little bit.” The question, ‘What fills your heart and what breaks your heart,’ moves past the superficial stuff. It cuts to the core. My advice — don’t be afraid to go there and give it a shot.”
Burchett is grateful that he did.
Responses submitted to the diocesan website have been equally compelling. “People are baring their hearts,” Schmadeke said. “People need the space and conversations to allow this stuff to come to the surface.” Among the comments:
— “This man is my son, and while he deeply appreciates the faith life we gave him growing up, and he is still drawn to the rituals, the church has deeply disappointed him.”
— “She is aching for spiritual fulfillment and connection to community. She has been a faithful Catholic but sees the faith as needing to be actions for the wider good (rather) than a rote Mass attendance faith. I felt her pain and seeking.”
The 58,000 Cups of Coffee initiative is one of two prongs of the diocesan synod process. The other prong focuses on organized listening sessions that leverage the structures of the Church, such as parishes, schools and other diocesan entities to connect to the greater community.
Responses from the listening sessions and conversations will provide the content for a 10-page summary the diocese will submit to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. The USCCB will synthesize summaries from throughout the nation to send to the Vatican for the world Synod of Bishops that will convene in 2023.
The insights gathered in the diocese will also be” very helpful in our efforts to evangelize the people in our diocese,” Bishop Zinkula said.
“Hopefully, once they get a taste of this, people will be more inclined to continue to have one-on-one conversations about the Catholic faith with others,” he said. “Hopefully, it will become more natural and normal.”
Keep the coffee pot on.
– – –
Arland-Fye is editor of The Catholic Messenger, newspaper of the Diocese of Davenport.