By Beth Ford McNamee
October 4, 2023 — How does a Polish student studying at a Jesuit university in Philadelphia find herself missioned to the Synod on Synodality? Julia Osęka may be uniquely positioned as a voting delegate in the XVI Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops this October, but her journey to Rome is one rooted in community.
Julia is a junior at Saint Joseph’s University (SJU) double majoring in physics and theology. She can be spotted in sweatshirts that feature Joan of Arc and women in science. When she showed up for a synod listening session on SJU’s campus last year, she was already familiar with Pope Francis’ call to synodality. She’d listened to Sister Nathalie Becquart’s interview on the AMDG podcast, “Synodality Starts with Coffee,” and was already deep into the kinds of conversations Sr. Nathalie encouraged: She and her friends often stayed up late talking about the church.
Julia is still ready for a cup of coffee and an impromptu discussion about all things church; she’s even bringing a coffee mug to Rome adorned with the signatures of her supportive peers. What makes Julia such a compelling conversation partner? She is both thoughtful and passionate, drawing from a deep well of personal, communal, international and ecumenical experiences of prayer. She embraces Ignatian spirituality in finding God in everyday life.
But Julia’s historic invitation to serve as a voting participant at the upcoming synod — the first time in history that non-bishops, particularly women and young people, will join such a rank — only makes sense in the context of her community.
Synodality in Catholic Higher Education in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia (SCHEAP) is a unique organization, representing 14 different Philadelphia-area Catholic higher education institutions. We began with prayer, listening and conversation. Our prayer was often virtual, as we began exploring synodality in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic. But we persisted via Zoom and in masks. In the spring semester of 2022, we held 48 student listening sessions on our respective campuses. Pope Francis encourages us to go to the peripheries, and we did, seeking to engage students on the margins of church life. The tools we used for the journey were familiar to an Ignatian way of proceeding: deep, spiritual listening; relationship-building; and an expansive spiritual imagination aided by the arts.
We invited a Jesuit university alumni and artist, Becky McIntyre, to create art from our synodal process. At a cross-campus listening session with Archbishop Nelzon Pérez and more than 100 students, faculty and staff in April of 2022, Becky invited students to write both the joys and sorrows of their journey with the church on multicolored paper footprints. They then filled in a rendering of the synod logo that Becky had painted on one of the floor-to-ceiling windows in the meeting space, creating a stained-glass effect. This visual display, “A Window into the Future Church,” framed our sacred synodal time together. As we prayed together, students offered reflections, and we gathered in listening groups. Students’ voices were prioritized; faculty and staff listened.
Julia was one of the students who offered a reflection. She described being enamored by Sr. Nathalie Becquart’s invitation to see synod as starting with coffee; these were the types of conversations she was already having with her friends. She expressed joy at being able to serve as a sacristan and eucharistic minister in the United States (at home in Poland, those roles were not open to women). She lamented the exclusion felt by friends because of their LGBTQ+ and gender identities. After this reflection, Archbishop Pérez invited Julia to have coffee, and she took him up on the invitation. The result: the continuation of synodal listening between a bishop and a college student sharing her own experiences and those of her peers.
Faculty and staff encouraged emerging student leaders in the synodal process. We invited students to serve as leaders for their peers in ongoing synodal work: Julia Osęka (SJU, ’25) Alyssa Van Allen (Gwynedd Mercy University, ‘23), Cathy Nguyen (Villanova University, ‘23), and others. In reflecting on the synodal process, student leaders noted the hard work and fruits of relationship building. Alyssa described the listening sessions as “very intimate” and was “amazed at how open and honest each person was.” Cathy noted the challenges of “hearing perspectives on a church that was different from what I had in my mind.” Her joy came from “seeing people willing to have these difficult conversations.” From her conversations, she could “see the deep spirit-led desire for a more equitable and inclusive church.” Students appreciated spaces of listening where different perspectives could be shared in an environment of mutual respect.
When calls went out for delegates to Continental Assemblies in November of 2022, Archbishop Pérez invited SCHEAP leaders to nominate a student to be among the delegates from the Archdiocese of Philadelphia to the North American Continental Assembly. Though campus leaders were ready with several student leaders’ names, there was limited space. We prayerfully discerned that Julia Osęka would be our nominee, partially because of the commitment with which she had followed through on Archbishop Perez’s invitation for coffee.
To help the archbishop and Julia prepare to participate in the Continental stage, more than 100 faculty, staff and students met for a cross-campus discernment session with Archbishop Pérez in January 2023. We used Becky’s images to prompt communal discernment and discussion. Participants were asked: What do you notice? What resonates for you? What causes resistance? What is the Holy Spirit calling us to do together? We commissioned Julia to represent her peers in the Continental Stage of the Synod.
The North American Final Document captures what Julia and her peers have discerned together noting, “We are often perceived as the future, but we are also the ‘now’ of the church.” This statement is echoed in Instrumentum Laboris for the General Assembly in Rome. Among many questions, delegates will discuss this one: “How can a ‘preferential option for young people’ be at the center of our pastoral strategies and synodal life?” Julia’s selection and the representation of other young people in the General Assembly are steps toward centering young people in the life of the church.
This past September, we commissioned Julia during a retreat. We also commissioned a group of five SCHEAP pilgrims (students and alumni) who will journey to Rome for opening events of the General Assembly, the ecumenical Taizé prayer service and conference for young people, and the opening Mass.
Julia will hold and share college students’ prayers and dreams for the church. As her peer, Cathy Nguyen, observed, “Julia being selected to the General Assembly is a sign that the church is truly listening. That is the church that I truly believe in.”
Beth Ford McNamee is associate director of Saint Joseph’s University (SJU) Campus Ministry, where she oversees community service and social justice programs. She is a triple graduate of SJU (B.S., M.S., Ed.D.). She also served as a Jesuit Volunteer in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, and earned a master’s in pastoral studies at Washington Theological Union. Her dissertation research explored influences of Ignatian formation for Jesuit higher education social justice leadership.