Synod Inspires Changes in Catholic Schools

Diocese of Saginaw Catholic Schools Synod

Long before local synod data makes its way to the Vatican at the 2023 Synod of Bishops, the feedback provided can begin making an impact in the Catholic Diocese of Saginaw.

This is true not just for parishes, but also for Catholic schools, which are benefitting from data collected in 16 listening sessions in eight schools.

'The next generation of the faith'

“Our Catholic schools are treasures for faith and academics,” said Deacon Gary Patelski, who also serves as the Catholic school synod coordinator. “Our students have a lot to contribute to both the school and our Church. It is important to listen to their ideas and contributions, as they are the next generation of the faith.”

Deacon Gary visited each of the diocesan high schools and those that included an eighth grade. Our Lady of Lake Huron School Principal Michael Cavanaugh conducted the listening sessions with the eighth graders in Harbor Beach.

Discussions were based on two questions, asking for examples of what students like and what suggestions they have for their school, parish and the Catholic Church.

“Almost all of the input was positive. There were very few complaints. [Students expressed they] looked forward to making changes that would help them improve their faith and educational experience,” Deacon Gary said.

In analyzing the responses of about 500 students, clear themes emerged.

  • Students desired strong, authentic and relevant messages at school and Mass using their own language. They also like energetic, focused messages and testimonies from a variety of people. They especially liked homilies by younger priests.
  • Most youth expressed the need for the music and homilies to speak to them more personally, to be upbeat and to inspire them.
  • Students want to have practical application of faith to life situations and to understand the reasons behind Catholic teachings.
  • They also want to learn the faith with interactive, engaging, project-based activities that touch the heart. They want to grow in faith, not just knowledge.
  • Youth desire more opportunities to experience the sacraments, including multiple Masses each week and frequent confession availability and more time for private prayer in the church or chapel.
  • Youth want to be a part of the church and have an active part in liturgies.


Enthusiasm for the faith

Less common opinions voiced included a desire to see both women and men leading Church gatherings, for women to have a greater role in Church leadership, a more welcoming environment and giving voice to marginalized groups, such as the LGBTQ+ community.

“It is my hope that the input gathered will be used, first, to influence what happens at our individual schools. Our students have a lot of enthusiasm for the faith throughout our diocese. We can easily put into practice some of the input received from our schools,” Deacon Gary said.

After the listening sessions, some schools reported to Deacon Gary they were already considering implementing changes based on the feedback.

“We have been discussing [the students’] input together and have had conversations with both the students and administration, thinking about ways to respond to their insights and experiences,” said Laura Wilkowski, principal of St. Brigid of Kildare School.

Responding to students’ desire to see women in Church leadership, St. Brigid staff will ensure students experience both male and female speakers, authors and saints. They are also discussing how to balance a variety of prayer experiences and Scriptural reading with students.

Several schools are adapting the Mass music as well.

“At all grade levels polled, students said that music at our school Masses need to be more upbeat, contemporary and energetic. While students want a blend of music—some traditional and some contemporary, they want music that speaks to their lives,” said Debbie Stanolis of All Saints Central Middle and High School. “We have brought in [an advisor] to help our campus minister bring more upbeat hymns into the Mass celebration. He is working from a list of suggested hymns.”

At St. Elizabeth Area School in Reese, principal Gabriela Marguery plans to respond to students’ desires for greater unity. Students suggested a social time after Mass, similar to the coffee and donuts offered by some parishes. St. Elizabeth staff is considering doing this monthly.

Students also appreciated spiritual outings and learning about saints, but wanted more.

“As COVID-19 subsides, we can have more field trips, and they can definitely be spiritual,” Gabriela said. “We can organize trips to other shrines and have retreats [off campus].”

At Our Lady of Lake Huron in Harbor Beach, principal Michael Cavanaugh hopes to respond to student requests for more opportunities for retreats and service projects. A retreat day for the kindergarten through fourth graders, including games, Scripture reading and prayer time facilitated by the older students is also being considered, and a Christian Service Program is in the works.


Finding opportunities in data

As data continues to be analyzed, school administrators will continue to look for ways to improve what they are already doing well, and address opportunities for further improvement.

The Office of Catholic Schools is doing the same. The incoming director of Catholic identity and curriculum, Krista Willertz, will use the synod summary to address student desires at each school. 

The Office of Catholic Schools is also considering working with the Office of Liturgy to develop music recommendations that may be more appealing to students, welcoming religious sisters to lead prayer services and other ways to model women serving in the Church and coordinate school visits with young adults discerning the priesthood or religious life.

In the sessions, Deacon Gary remarked on the “sense of Catholicity” in the schools.

“We can be proud of our students,” he said.

This article was originally published in Faith Saginaw Magazine in June 2022.