John Paul Shimek (photo by Adam Ryan Morris) The Milwaukee Archdiocese met for a synod this weekend, something that hasn’t happened since 1987, when about 1,900 delegates from area parishes met at the MECCA Arena (now the U.S. Cellular Arena) and another 2,000-3,000 Catholics turned out for the closing liturgy, according to the Catholic […]


John Paul Shimek (photo by Adam Ryan Morris)

The Milwaukee Archdiocese met for a synod this weekend, something that hasn’t happened since 1987, when about 1,900 delegates from area parishes met at the MECCA Arena (now the U.S. Cellular Arena) and another 2,000-3,000 Catholics turned out for the closing liturgy, according to the Catholic Herald. The convention was humbler this time around but not minuscule in its goal of setting the Archdiocese’s course for the next 10-20 years, and there could hardly have been a more relevant time for local Catholics to sit down and hash out issues such as same-sex marriage and poverty. A court ruling on Friday – certainly not something that Archbishop Jerome Listecki could have foreseen – overturned the state’s ban on gay marriage, at least temporarily.

About 500 delegates cast votes on priorities under a number of headings, results that leadership in the Archdiocese began to release on Sunday morning, after initially stating that the totals would be kept secret. Reflecting a larger theme in the synod, the delegates voted to create “a ‘Building Catholic Families’ campaign” over “an inspiring evangelization initiative that promotes the Catholic view of marriage” or “initiatives that affirm and defend the traditional definition of marriage as the permanent, faithful and fruitful covenant between one man and one woman.” This last effort’s call to action would have been something like, “Preach it. Proclaim it. Witness it,” according to the results.

The quote of the weekend came from Kathleen Cepelka, superintendent of the Archdiocese’s schools. “We are in a sense socially sinful people,” the Journal Sentinel quoted her as telling a small group. “There is a real distinction between where the Gospel calls us to be and where we are in our 10-county areas.” One of the broadest themes at the synod was that before criticizing others’ families or marrying habits – parishioners should look at their own.

“There was a pulling back from wanting to oppose” directions in society, such as gay marriage, says John Paul Shimek, Milwaukee’s “Pilgrim Journalist.” These days, he’s teaching at Silver Lake College in Manitowoc, having finished degrees in philosophy and theology from the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., where he spent time in the Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family, sort of a high-profile think tank for the Church to “do her thinking,” he says, on social issues.

This magazine interviewed Shimek by Skype in early 2013, as he was sitting in a busy Roman café. A theology student and blogger at the time, he’d gotten press credentials to cover the papal conclave that elected Pope Francis and found himself assigned to a desk in a press room crowded with heavyweight reporters. “The Vatican opened two additional media centers for the 5,600-plus journalists who are here,” he said, “but only a very small number, maybe 30 journalists in all, were allowed in that room that was sort of the hub. All of the information passes through there first.” The press office of the Holy See, the administrative body that extends down from the Pope, had plucked Shimek out of the journalistic sea because of his avowedly Catholic position, and perhaps because of his youth.

According to Shimek, delegates at the Milwaukee synod were saying that “we need to clean up our own house before we can speak to the issues of same-sex marriage,” which isn’t to imply that all of the representatives opposed same-sex marriage. Shimek says he listened in on a debate between a young priest (in his late-20s) and the retired principal of an inner city school, a progressive Catholic who Listecki later asked to meet him for coffee. Elsewhere, complaints arose that suburban parishes remained “distant or aloof” from the needs of inner city ones, and the delegates called on the Archdiocese to speak out more on local issues.

Voters called on Milwaukee-area bishops to “transcend the political divide,” the Pilgrim Journalist says, and … well, the wording is complex. For one, delegates voted to “demonstrate our Archdiocese’s concern for issues impacting wide segments of our society … especially on issues like poverty, immigration and gun violence.” Additionally, Catholic leaders should “develop a comprehensive process to pair diverse/less diverse parishes and guide them” in developing these “sharing parish” relationships.

Shimek feels that Listecki, like many Catholics, has begun to model himself after Francis, more of a populist than his predecessor. Shimek and the Milwaukee archbishop met recently for a little more than an hour, and the former says he left the meeting with the feeling that the latter “wants to send a message that priests and people are co-responsible for the welfare of the church. He really wants to see a grassroots effort awakening in the Archdiocese.” Francis has called for Catholics to continue the decentralizing process that began with Vatican II and spend less time focusing on the Church’s inner workings.

In releasing 27 years of pent up demand, the synod was both elated and sometimes fretting about what the “next steps” would be in implementing ideas. Shimek says Listecki’s decision to call a synod with the Archdiocese still fighting a bankruptcy case was met with some skepticism, but higher-than-expected turnout suggested that the timing was right.

“If I had to say what was missing,” he says, “there wasn’t a group or community of LGBT Catholics” that was present.

Formulating the gathering’s final “declaration” will come down to Listecki, who has until September to finish the document. Shimek, first hired by Archbishop Timothy Dolan as a theological researcher and assistant, later helped Listecki prepare a letter intended to set the stage for a coming synod. Written well before Francis’ election, the document includes a lengthy citation (in quotes below) from then Pope Benedict.

A subtle shift has begun to take place: Whereas modernism subjugated the individual to the collective, the post-modern condition, disillusioned and having lost its bearings, exalts the individual at the expense of the community. That hyper-individuality, and the corresponding sense of isolation and alienation, is the hallmark of the post-modern condition. “The growth of our possibilities has not been matched by a comparable development of our moral energy. Moral strength has not grown together with the development of science; rather, it has diminished because the technical mentality relegates morality to the subjective realm, while we have need, precisely, of a public morality, a morality that is able to respond to the threats that weigh down on the existence of us all. The real and gravest danger in these times lies, precisely, in this imbalance between technical possibilities and moral energy.”

We don’t have very many institutions attempting to tackle or even formulate issues of this scope. The post-modern condition? Hyper-individuality? “The digital revolution and the global village are simultaneously spreading and contracting,” Listecki writes, “and it somehow seems more difficult to make real, human, intimate connections with other people.”

During the 2013 interview, Shimek described waiting for the momentous puff of white smoke, in St. Peter’s square (St. Peter was, of course, the first pope), and finding himself surrounded by a surprisingly large number of young, orthodox Catholics.

“I was speaking with young Catholics from India, Africa, and Asia,” he said, “and we were conversing in English and Italian.”

And conjecturing that the new pope would be non-European, European, North American or Italian. No one guessed that an Argentinian would be selected, but elevating the South American archbishop reflected the Church’s growth in the southern hemisphere.

“Statistically speaking, I believe that by the year 2030, 80 percent of Catholics will live in Africa, Asia or Latin America,” Shimek said. “There will be more Catholics in Africa than there are in Europe.”

One of the videos produced by the Archdiocese to promote the synod.

Also see our survey of religion in Milwaukee, “The New Faith.”