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Doing Theology from the Existential Peripheries: Listening in North America

On October 12, the Migrant and Refugee Section of the Dicastery for the Promotion of Integral Human Development held a public seminar to publicly launch the fruits of its “Doing Theology from the Existential Peripheries” project. Seeking to model in practice, going out as Pope Francis has called for the Church and theology to do, “The project is built on the belief that those who have been marginalised, whether socioeconomically, socially, or in other ways, hold a wisdom capable of reopening discourse, especially where there are tensions.”[1] Six regional working groups (Africa, Asia, Europe, Latin America, North America, and Oceania) consisting of six to eight theologians, pastoral communications experts, and consultants conducted listening exercises with individuals and groups in forty different cities. Over the last year, with outreach to more than five hundred persons, “women, youth, migrants, people, refugees, prisoners, members of ethnic and cultural minorities, the sick and differently abled, victims of abuse, and people who have left the Church, the M&R project team together with their collaborators gathered testimonies through which they could re-examine ten key themes of Pope Francis’ magisterium.”[2] Many of the ethicists involved are active members of CTEWC.[3] In this month’s North American Forum, I seek to briefly share a little of the work that we did, our process, and experience of collaborating with the Dicastery on this synodal and ecclesial project.

The North American Working Group, led by Stan Chu Ilo as regional coordinator and me serving as assistant coordinator, included Bradford Hinze (Fordham), Darren Dias, OP (St. Michaels), Jennifer Owens-Jofré (SLU, formerly USD), Jaime Waters (BC, formerly Depaul), Fr. Tom Lynch (Peterborough, Canada), William Cavanaugh (Depaul), Tom Landy (Holy Cross, methodological consultant), and Fr. Boniface Anusiem (pastoral communication expert). All regional working groups were presented with the impossible challenge in seeking to capture and spotlight communities on “the existential peripheries” of their region while only being able to visit a handful of cities. North America presented a unique challenge of scope having the fewest number countries. We sought to provide foci, not a survey of the entire continental reality. Thus, Chicago, New York, Toronto, San Diego, El Paso and Juarez were selected with the individual theologians engaging in outreach to community partners and individuals in each locale. Ecclesially, Mexico is considered part of Latin America and Mexico City is one of the cities that working group included as we believed it was essential to include La Frontera/Borderlands  as a particular “periphery.” Given the limits of our small working group, Stan Chu Ilo and I partnered with Hope Border Institute to facilitate four days of listening sessions in El Paso and Juarez.

In a famous homily, St. Oscar Romero called for all Christians to be “microphones for Christ” in their daily lives, noting “God’s best microphone is Christ, and Christ’s best microphone is the Church, and the Church is all of you. Let each one of you, in your own job, in your own vocation – nun, married person, bishop, priest, high school or university student, day labourer, wage earner, market woman – one in your own place … live the faith intensely and feel that in your surroundings you are a true microphone of God our Lord.”[4] In our report, we tried to lift up the stories shared with us demonstrating the ways that communities experiencing marginalization are themselves “microphones for Christ” in their daily lives. “What we have seen and heard,” the North American regional report, lays out the methodology we followed and focuses the bulk of our text on the words interviewed. Each of these individual reports concludes with a brief “Lifting up the Sensus Fidei” paragraph of theological reflection.[5]

In Fratelli Tutti, Pope Francis reminds us that “each of us can learn something from others. No one is useless and no one is expendable reiterating that this includes “those on the peripheries of life” (215). This project emphasized for me the deep desire by those on the margins of the Church to be seen and heard. All too often “going out” is presented as if it speaks of those who are somehow outside the Church, rather than addressing the invisibility of the persons a few pews over. One powerful interview moment came when interviewing Ken, a gay Catholic in his late twenties in a committed relationship, who described his faith experience as, “God already loves me. And this idea that the church is learning to love people like me.” Similarly, Christine, a transgender Catholic who serves as a Eucharistic minister in her parish, noted the desire for recognition that she exists within the faithful. Despite often being framed by others as rebellious, the community organizers at Mujer Obrera in El Paso, emphatically proclaimed, “The work we are doing is not separate from our faith. It is a practice of the faith,” noting they feel affirmation of this from Pope Francis. One parishioner at St. Sabina’s in Chicago noted “we see the whole community as our congregation.” Even many who are not active or current members of local parishes expressed a deep desire to be heard, gratitude in their belief that Pope Francis does care about their experience of God.

While pastoral theology has long engaged in community based theological reflection and many theologians have been embracing fieldwork in their academic projects, this project represented a unique one in its systematic, global, and ecclesial nature. This project as a synodal experience also represented a space for us as theologians to do theology specifically for the Church and for those we interviewed. I asked my fellow working group members to share their thoughts on the vocation of the theologian and the project. Ecclesiologist Bradford Hinze notes, “This endeavor pioneers a way of thinking and a dynamic praxis that needs to be cultivated at every level of the church, especially every three to five years in parishes, dioceses, and in the communities involved in special apostolic missions.” For practical theologian Jennifer Owens-Jofré, “Participating in this project in this way affirms my vocation as a theologian who is called to bear witness to the lived experiences of those on the margins who have much to teach the rest of the church.  I’m certainly not unique in this–I’m part of a community of contextual and liberation theologians who share similar calls.  But sitting with these folks, watching some of them light up when they heard more about what the Dicastery is and the intention of the project is, listening to their stories, amplifying their perspectives—it has been an honor and a privilege to do these things.” In his final theological reflection in the report, Stan Chu Ilo highlighted the need for silence and humility in theology and the practice of the Church, “One is challenged again and again to return to something that has always been an essential dimension of theology, the mystical moment of silence and the liberality of the spirit that is nourished by faith to seek wisdom in the unfamiliar places and the unseemly sites.”

On behalf of the North American working group, I invite my fellow CTEWC members to explore the project website which is full not only of the reports, but also multimedia resources (videos and guidebooks). We also invite anyone who wishes to join a virtual webinar November 2, 2022 at 7pm EST[6] and ask all CTSA members to keep a look out for our Selected Session on the project at the June 2023 convention.


Works Cited

“Doing Theology from the Existential Peripheries” project website,

Oscar Romero, Jan 27, 1980 Homily,

Edgardo Colón-Emeric. Óscar Romero’s Theological Vision: Liberation and the Transfiguration of the Poor (Notre Dame University Press, 2018

Stan Chu Ilo and Meghan Clark, “What We Have Seen and Heard,” North American Report, “Doing Theology from the Existential Peripheries,”

[1] “Doing Theology from the Existential Peripheries”

[2] “Doing Theology from the Existential Peripheries”

[3] Regional Coordinators Agnes Brazal (Asia), Toussaint Kafahire, SJ (Africa), Stan Chu Ilo (North America), all CTEWC members.

[4] Jan 27, 1980 Homily, for more on this see: Edgardo Colón-Emeric. Óscar Romero’s Theological Vision: Liberation and the Transfiguration of the Poor (Notre Dame University Press, 2018)

[5] North American Report, All of the working group continental reports can be found here on the Publications page: Readers may notice that the North American report is longer than the others. This is not due to greater work accomplished by North America but is a result of the limitations of recording/transcripts in North America based upon our IRB ethics approval. Where other regions have linked to archived transcripts, no additional transcripts from North America are available to the public thus we had permission for an expanded report.

[6] Webinar topic: Doing Theology from the Existential Peripheries: Listening in North America, Date and time: Wednesday, Nov 2, 2022 7:00 pm | (UTC-04:00) Eastern Time (US & Canada) Register link: