Can good news still be of interest?!
In a statement after their March 2021 spring meeting, the Irish Catholic bishops formally announced that they had “decided to embark on a synodal pathway for the Catholic Church in Ireland leading to the holding of a National Synodal Assembly within the next five years.” The bishops are clearly inspired by the teaching and practice of Pope Francis, and they explicitly acknowledge the assistance of Cardinal Mario Grech and Sr. Natalie Becquart of the General Secretariat for the Synod of Bishops in Rome. Their outlook is missionary rather than self-referential, and they acknowledge the challenging context within which the Church in Ireland is embedded.
This context includes the rapid secularization of Irish society, with a major decline in religious practice and a sharp reduction in the number of vocations to priesthood and religious life; the shocking revelations around clerical and institutional abuse that have severely damaged the moral credibility of the Church; the need to promote peace-making and a culture of welcome (in the context of the unfinished peace process in Northern Ireland and the influx of immigrants to the island of Ireland); the cries for transparency, greater participation and accountability in the Church; the discovery, due to the COVID pandemic, of the family as the ‘domestic Church’; the need to connect with young people (who have exited the Church in their droves) and to honor the contribution of women, not least by listening to ‘their deep concerns.’ All this, following Pope Francis in Evangelii Gaudium, Laudato Si and Fratelli Tutti, is seen within the call to solidarity with the poor, the earth, the excluded and those ‘on the peripheries’, including ‘initiatives of social friendship in favor of our sisters and brothers in other continents.’
The rhetoric, as Francis himself often acknowledges, is the easy part. The transfer into concrete action, stemming from real renewal and reform, is more difficult. And yet this is a good start, an almost unique example of the kind of leadership the Irish Church has been crying out for, after several demoralizing decades.
The bishops propose to proceed by means of a two-year ‘national conversation’ or consultation process, structured around the leading and open question of ‘what does God want from the Church in Ireland today?’ This is envisaged as a period of prayer, listening and discernment, allowing groups and individuals to share their insights, with related information sessions and educational programs on the meaning and processes of syondality, all under the direction and supervision of a ‘task group made up of lay women and men, including young people, religious, priests and bishops’ to be established next June. In the meantime, the Bishops have opened up a facility on their website for short submissions on how best to conduct the consultation – in addition, by the way, to the invitation for submissions around the vexed issued of the best English translation for the Lectionary to be used at Masses, another earnest of their good intentions. This two-year consultation process will also serve as the Irish contribution to the 2022 Synod on Synodality in Rome, and afterwards the exact shape of the National Synod/Assembly will become clearer.
All kinds of questions arise – will the participants be ‘the usual suspects,’ or will the bishops find a way to honor their observation that ‘we are also aware that many people have left Church behind and in some cases feel ignored, excluded or forgotten – we need to hear their voice also’? How will their assertion that synods are not instruments for changing church teaching sit with the clear non-reception in Ireland of teaching on sexuality and gender? Will we find a way to negotiate the delicate balance between the lay perception that priests want to cling on to power and the corresponding perception by priests that laity are often good at offering suggestions for change but slow to assume responsibility for implementation? In short, as Massimo Faggioli has put it, ‘is synodaltiy a way to renew the pastoral style of the Church in the existing institutional and theological system’ or can it be a moment of ‘opening the Church to the possibility of institutional and theological developments?’
But for now, it’s good to give thanks for blessings, to acknowledge that in Ireland (as in Germany, Australia, Latin America, Liverpool, perhaps soon Italy itself) the crucial first step has been taken to realize the Pope’s dream of a synodal church for the third millennium. The Irish bishops, understandably, seem to have had last-minute jitters just before the final decision to proceed on this route (after all, as MyroslawTataryn himself noted recently here 04/22/2021, ‘a synodal church is a messy church, more committed to dialogue than judgment’ – this lack of control is outside the default comfort zone of most bishops). But they were reassured by Cardinal Grech: ‘that the people of God (and here I am referring to all the baptized, bishops and clergy included) are still not spiritually and theologically equipped to engage in a synodal process should not dishearten you.’ In other words, do not be afraid!
Gerry O’Hanlon is an Irish Jesuit theologian and author.