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‘We don’t just speak for ourselves’ - Priest prepares for Vatican synod session

The USCCB announced last month that five U.S. parish priests will participate in a global gathering of parish priests to take place in Rome at the end of April, as part of the synod on synodality.

Fr. Donald J. Planty Jr., J.C.D.Pastorpastor@stcharleschurch.orgBiography
Fr. Donald Planty. Courtesy photo.

The Vatican meeting was announced amid concern that few pastors were included in the global synod on synodality meeting held in Rome last October.

Among the U.S. priests appointed to the meeting of pastors was Fr. Donald Planty, a pastor in the Diocese of Arlington, Virginia.

For a parish pastor, Planty has an unusual biography: The priest grew up in a family of diplomats, living in Latin America and Europe, and then spent years in the Vatican’s own diplomatic corps, working for the Holy See in the Vatican, in Egypt, in Ethiopia, and in Eritrea, before becoming chaplain at Christendom College, and a pastor.

Planty talked with The Pillar about his expectations for the meeting of priests, and the synod on synodality.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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Father, the gathering of priests you’ll attend was scheduled amid concerns expressed that the 2023 Vatican phase of the synod didn’t include parish priests.

So with that in mind, what do you expect your brother priests from around the world might offer in Rome?

I am open, and I am curious to find out what everyone has to say, and I don't know what to expect. 

In fact, I don't know if expecting anything in particular is possible. 

As you know, I've been privileged to live and serve as a priest overseas, and to [live overseas] before I was a priest. 

I’ve experienced many different cultures: Latin America, Western Europe, Africa. And I know the Church's experience is very different in different places, so I'm curious to see how 300 priests from all over the world share their thoughts about the Synthesis Report, which I think is going to be the focus of our conversations and prayers. 

And a lot depends on the priests, too: what background and experience the priests bring.

You have lived as a priest in different places around the world.

The saying is always that ‘if you’ve seen one presbyterate, you’ve seen exactly one presbyterate’ — that from diocese to diocese, presbyterates can be very different from each other. 

But I suspect you’ve also seen common themes in the presbyterates you’ve worked with around the world, and then in your own Diocese of Arlington. What are they?

I think your point is well taken, because the Church is incarnate in real situations in different places. A missionary priest in the mountains of Ethiopia is going to have a different experience than in the urban Arlington diocese, across the river from the nation's capital. 

So every diocese is different, and every parish is different. 

Even in our diocese here, there are different personalities or different demographics and different parishes. 

But what's common to everyone of course, is what's common to the priesthood: We're all there for the threefold missions of being prophets of Jesus Christ, of proclaiming and teaching the truth of the faith, celebrating the sacraments for our people, the priestly mission and the shepherding mission of drawing people together in charity. 

And that's where you find the commonality in the brotherhood of the priesthood everywhere.

One thing that’s constant, no matter where you go in the Church, even though given the different cultures and experiences, you walk into any Catholic parish in the world, no matter where you're from or what language you speak, you're at home and people will welcome you. 

And I’ve found the same thing with priesthood around the world — even between Catholic and Orthodox priests, in my experience in Ethiopia, there is a great welcome and sense of fraternity.

How were you chosen for this synod task?

Well, what I know is that the bishop called me and asked me if I'd be willing to serve as his liaison for the synodal process, and of course I was happy to serve. 

Pope St. John XXIII, had a motto, a way to really be obedient as a priest: “Never seek, refuse, or resign an office.”

Did you participate much in the diocesan phase of the synodal process in the Diocese of Arlington? And how did things look in your own parish?

Well, certainly I helped plan things in the diocese. And I attended the 12 sessions the bishop himself attended along with him, and we also were happy to host one of the [diocesan] sessions in our parish, which was also attended by the bishop, and it was well received. 

We had quite a bit of attendance and active participation here, like we did in all of the parish sessions. 

In our diocese, we have 70 parishes and each one had their own sessions. Some had several sessions. Altogether, our diocese had 127 parish sessions, in English, Spanish, Vietnamese, Korean. 

It was awesome.

What themes emerged in your diocesan synodal process?

Well, they're certainly laid out in our synodal report.

 But I can tell you some themes: The first one, in terms of the number of people who spoke of the theme, was welcome and community — the need to really welcome and invite people into community and fellowship with charity in the Church. To invite people into community and fellowship with charity. As Pope Francis would put it, to really foster a culture of encounter.

But then — bringing people into community — to really provide them with gospel formation and clarity. 

So it’s the charity of bringing people in, and then the clarity of providing serious Gospel formation.

As you prepare for this Vatican meeting, do you perceive that you're going to Rome to speak on your own behalf, or is the sense that you’re attending with some obligation to speak — along with the other Americans who are picked — for the American presbyterate? 

In other words, do you carry a sense of representing your brother priests in this process?

I definitely think that the five of us were chosen in some way to be representative of the Church in general and the priesthood in particular in the United States. 

So I think we have to be mindful of that, that we don't just speak for ourselves. 

With that said, each of us has our own experience that we can also speak from. And as you mentioned, my experience is also somewhat global, so I appreciate situations of the Church and the priesthood in other places as well.

Have you heard from brother priests who have suggestions or ideas? Do you think you'll reach out to brother priests to get their sense of things? How will you prepare?

Well, [after the USCCB announcement], I definitely got a lot of texts from brother priests here in the diocese congratulating me, and I'll definitely be asking them what they would like me to take there to Rome. 

As a matter of fact, one thing I know is that on the last day, all the priests will have an audience with the Holy Father, and we'll be able to ask him questions. I've actually kind of jokingly, or half-jokingly, told my brother priests that: "Well, we can ask questions, too. Do you have any questions for the Holy Father?" 

And when the names of the American priests attending were announced, I sent an email to the other four saying that I’m looking forward to getting to know them and having this experience with them.  So I'm looking forward to that fraternity in Rome and among the five Americans. 

But perhaps ahead of the meeting, it would be good to have a kind of listening session with my brother priests here [in Arlington] before I go. I hadn't thought about it, and it’s something I could discuss with the bishop — to reach out to my brothers and ask if they have anything they'd like me to share in particular. 

With that said, in the first round of diocesan synodal consultations, we did have one listening session dedicated just to all the priests, and then one dedicated to all the priests who had been ordained in the previous five years — the newly ordained priests. 

So there were sessions dedicated just to the priests.

I know that in some parts of the U.S., there are groups which have periodically suggested concern that they haven’t been heard in the synod, or that their perspective hasn’t been taken into perspective — and among them are Catholics who worship in the Extraordinary Form, and have concerns about Traditionis custodes. 

What would you say to them about this?

Speaking about this generally, I would say that the attachment to the Traditional Latin Mass is greater in certain places than others — in certain nations than others, and certain dioceses than others. So, for example, there is more interest in France and the United States. And then even in the United States, there is more interest in certain dioceses, the Diocese of Arlington, for example.

The desires of those who are devoted to the Traditional Latin Mass were definitely heard in our synodal listening sessions, they were included in our synodal report the last time around, and I suspect it'll be mentioned in our synodal report again this time around, for the second set of listening sessions dioceses are conducting. 

Our report is one of 196, from the 196 dioceses in the nation, and the USCCB’s got to come up with a summary and then send that on. The same thing will happen in France and in every other country. 

But [the Traditional Latin Mass] is definitely something that has been spoken of here, and we have passed that along. I don't know whether that’s going to make its way to the final report that's sent from the United States, for example.

I can tell you through my experience that it’s a concern in the Diocese of Arlington, and it’s a concern in many places in the United States. I know it also is in France. But in some other countries and other places, it simply is not.

I have some parishioners from Uruguay, and they are traditional and conservative Catholics. Their families are affiliated with Opus Dei. But on this Latin Mass question, they had no idea what this was all about, and so they had to ask me. It's not on their radar, and it's not part of their experience. 

That doesn't mean it doesn't need to be brought forward as part of the experience of a number of people. But even in this diocese, if you look at the percentages of people who attend the Traditional Latin Mass compared to the rest of the diocese, it's a small percentage.

Here in the United States there has been a lot of skepticism about the effectiveness of the synodality process, and questions about the purpose of the synodality process.

Now that you’re participating at this level of the synod, what would you want to say to Catholics who wonder if this is really driving at an agenda, rather than being about process, as synod organizers say?

I do think it’s a lot about the medium, and really more about the medium than the message. 

I think there's no doubt that synodality — sharing communal discernment and pastoral action — has always been part of the Church's tradition. 

I think there’s a renewed pastoral emphasis by Pope Francis on this, which he says is about being missionary disciples together. 

I don't know what the whole fruit of the process in Rome will be. 

But I can tell you that having been intimately involved in this on the diocesan level, people were really grateful to be able just to have the chance to get up and speak and to share. Everything was done with charity, and with patience, and with mutual respect.

The bishop would tell you, as I would tell you, and I think our brother priests would say, that it was a great experience for the faithful being able to share their thoughts on the Church's mission, what we're doing, how we're doing things well, and how we can improve what we're doing. 

I would also add that this is something which the United States has more experience on, because of our culture, more than perhaps other countries, because we're really assiduous about synodality in our dioceses. 

We have our diocesan pastoral councils and finance councils. In our parishes, we are assiduous about our pastoral councils and our finance councils. In our diocese for example, a pastoral council is required [in each parish]. 

And this kind of thing is something we do regularly, Americans, coming from a democratic background. 

Americans make their opinions known. They write letters, they send emails to their pastors. This is something which happens regularly in our Church. I think it's important that it be learned in other places and other cultures. 

I think it's something that we do already relatively well in our country, but I do think the main purpose  — and it's clear even from the documents — the main purpose of the synod is to invite the Church to discover at every level this renewed emphasis on mutual and communal discernment and mission, which is really ultimately always been part of the church's mission and modus operandi.

Father, you're a polyglot. Have you been given any indication whether you'll be in the English language groups or whether you'll be with another language group at the Vatican meeting?

I haven't received anything from Rome or anything, but I assume as an American I'll be in the English language group, or maybe they will ask us what languages we speak.

Certainly during the coffee breaks, which I hope will be frequent and fruitful. I assume we'll have name tags and languages, and I'll be able to chat with the French speakers and the Spanish speakers and the Italian speakers.

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