About a fortnight ago (June 18), a motley crew of 160 people gathered in the upper room of a hotel in Athlone, the centre of the island of Ireland. They were the diocesan delegates and representatives of various ecclesial organizations and reform groups of the Irish Synodal Pathway. They comprised young and old, women and men, gay and straight, laity, priests, religious and bishops. They were gathered to discern the fruits of the year-long consultation of the Irish Catholic Church in preparation for the Universal Synod in Rome in 2023. This ‘pre-Synodal National Assembly’ was being asked to listen to the summary by the National Synodal Steering Committee (of which I am a member) of the various submissions (many of which have been published on diocesan websites—see the Association of Catholics in Ireland website) and to discern whether that summary accurately reflected what each diocese and organization had said.
The mood when we gathered was expectant and somewhat apprehensive. Could this long-awaited day deliver on expectations?
From the beginning, we were invited into a space of discernment, with prayers for the Holy Spirit to be with us. A brief account was offered of the underlying experience of synodality that shone through the 10-page accounts from each diocese and group—the enormous amount of work, the initial confusion, apathy and even cynicism around the whole project, the gathering momentum as people were invigorated by being asked their views and by their encounters with other people of faith. Then there was a presentation of the 15 different themes that formed the main content of the submissions—ranging from the ‘open wound’ of abuse (with the contribution of a poem by a survivor of clerical sexual abuse), through the notion of a more generous ecclesial inclusivity and belonging (with particular reference to women and the LGBTQI+ community), the ambient cultural challenges (including COVID), the difficulties of faith transmission and adult faith formation, the need to include laity in decision making roles in church governance, the special challenges afforded by the indifference of many young people to the institutional church, the need for more vibrant liturgy, the difficulties around clericalism and an aging clerical cohort. The somewhat inward looking nature of the fruits of the consultation were adverted to—what of ecology, poverty and inequality, the housing crisis in Ireland, immigration, peace on our divided island, relationships with other churches and religious faiths?
What was remarkable throughout the day—conducted mainly through the method of ‘spiritual conversation,’ in addition to some short inputs and open forums—was the honest speaking and respectful listening. We did not always agree—far from it—but it felt like even in our disagreement we were committed to attempting some common understanding. And while there was overwhelming evidence that so-called ‘hot button’ issues like the role of women in the church and the non-reception by many of church teaching on sexuality and gender were clearly articulated, still there was also a repeated insistence coming from all sides that we needed to ‘go deeper,’ that our common faith in Jesus Christ and the encounter with his Spirit were what would in the end be crucial. A prominent member of the LGBTQI+ community summed this up well in interviews with national media afterwards when she spoke of her apprehension at the start of the day, and how she had warmed to the honesty and respect on display, and her sense of the common faith that united us.
By the end of a packed day we made our way out to the enchanted 6th century monastic site of Clonmacnoise, on the banks of the River Shannon. There, on a glorious evening coming towards the summer solstice, we participated in a special liturgy designed for the occasion, reconnecting with our ancient roots of faith by processing around the ruins of the monastery, with glorious live music, prayers led for the most part by laity, some local children and families present, and a concluding ceremony of renewal, commitment and missioning. The sense of peace, joy and hope was palpable. People spoke of a ‘milestone,’ a ‘turning point,’ a ‘watershed.’ There was no triumphalism. Neither were there any illusions that the way forward was clear or that it would be easy. But it felt like—as Cardinal Grech had told the Irish Bishops when they were launching the synodal pathway—that the hope that ‘Jesus might visit us’ had been realised.
There have sometimes been fears and some scepticism expressed in our blogs here about the path of synodality: it feels good to be able to report to you that here in Ireland we have taken our first significant step on this path and have felt our hearts burn within us. I hope and pray that it may be the same where you are.
Gerry O’Hanlon is an Irish Jesuit theologian and author.