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In making a point of emphasis for the current Synod on Synodality, Pope Francis has famously said “the periphery is the center.”

The Synod invites the Church to walk together, to dialogue and to listen to the stories of others with an open mind and heart. Pope Francis, in declaring the Synod, has spoken and written repeatedly on the importance of listening to marginalized communities – Catholics who have either become estranged from the Church and no longer practice the faith, or those who are not typically seen in parish life.

The Diocese of San Bernardino has not missed this element of the Synodal consultations as it holds listening sessions with the developmentally disabled, the deaf, African American Catholics and LGBTQ Catholics, among other groups.

“These groups are on the peripheries, they’re trying to reach out to us,” said Teresa Rocha, High Desert and San Bernardino Vicariate Coordinator in the Office of Catechetical Ministry. Rocha has coordinated listening sessions with members of the deaf community at Our Lady of the Rosary Cathedral, San Bernardino; St. Catherine of Siena, Rialto; and St. Joseph, Fontana.

“If you want to do mission you don’t have to go far from your parish,” Rocha said.

Deacon Abel Zamora and lay minister Gloria Austin have incorporated Synod listening sessions into the regular meetings of the Diocesan Ministry to Families of Gay and Lesbian Catholics. A healthy and frank discussion was held via Zoom on March 3 that included several members of the LGBTQ community who identify as Catholic, Austin says.

“They are grateful that someone is asking them,” said Austin. “Sometimes they don’t feel a part of the overall Church.”

Indeed, some members of the gay community who participated in the listening session said they felt that some speakers and programs offered by their parish were “homophobic,” and some shared painful stories about the response of clergy to their families when they came out as gay. Some shared that being able to receive Holy Communion and be involved in ministry at their parish helped them to feel connected to the Church. Austin said many expressed hopes that their feedback would be heard by Church leadership, specifically Bishop Alberto Rojas.

“I am so happy that we did this,” she added.

The Synod listening sessions have also fueled the efforts of the Diocese’s Anti-Racism Committee. The Committee was formed in 2020 following the killing of George Floyd and the launching of the California Bishops’ campaign to name and combat racism. The Bishops held listening sessions with African American bishops and clergy that year and came to understand their experience of racism in the Church. Dioceses were encouraged to follow suit.

With the launching of the Synod, the diocesan committee held a listening session on March 31 with a group of African American community members who make up the advisory board for the Ministry to Catholics of African Descent.

Some participants in the listening session shared their own painful stories of being the target of discriminatory and racist language when they attended Catholic schools decades ago. Bernadette Pinchback, who is a member of the Diocese’s Education and Welfare Board, shared that she and her sister were the first two African American children to integrate a Catholic school on the east coast. Her experience with the nuns and other school staff was generally positive, Pinchback said, but racist attacks from white students at the school happened to her daily. “Going into the schoolyard at lunchtime was traumatic,” she recalled.

Pinchback and others in the listening session with the African-American group said that, sadly, they have witnessed that racist behavior among students still occurs in the some of the parishes and Catholic schools of the Diocese.

“When children share 40 years later the same things that happened to me when I was in Catholic school are happening to them, then that’s a concern,” Pinchback said.

On March 16 Rocha conducted another listening session with those who are involved in ministry to those with special needs. One participant, Deacon Anthony Brenes-Rios, asserted that deaf individuals are often not fully served in the Church.

“I think we need volunteers in the parishes to have an interpreter ... we need to have an interpreter at every Mass because you never know who needs it,” he said.

Deacon Brenes-Rios also shared that at his parish, Our Lady of Guadalupe in Chino, there is an altar server with Down Syndrome who has experienced unfair treatment while doing his ministry.

“Just because they’re there with special needs doesn’t mean they don’t know [what to do]. The one we have, he knows everything, he could be a master of ceremonies if he needed to, said Dcn. Brenes Rios. “There was an occasion where he was left out by a master of ceremonies.”