At our Spring General Meeting the Irish Bishops’ Conference 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.
Since the 2018 Ordinary General Assembly of Bishops in Rome on the theme of young people, the faith and vocational discernment, we have been giving active consideration to calling a National Synodal Assembly for the Church in Ireland. Conversations at local, regional and national level have informed the work of a subgroup of the Episcopal Conference which was established to explore the idea further. During the 2020 Winter General Meeting of the Bishops’ Conference we decided to proceed along a synodal pathway, and, since then, we have been assisted and greatly encouraged by Cardinal Grech and Sr. Natalie Becquart, of the General Secretariat for the Synod of Bishops, who addressed us on 3 February last, see https://www.catholicbishops.ie/2021/03/04/address-of-cardinal-mario-grech-to-the-bishops-of-ireland-on-synodality-2/
Context: Challenges and Hopes
We are mindful of the challenges and opportunities that provide a context for a synodal pathway leading to a National Synod at this pivotal time for the Church.
Solidarity, Outreach to the Peripheries and the Promise of a New Pentecost
Pope Francis’ Apostolic Exhortation The Joy of the Gospel (Evangelii Gaudium), together with his encyclicals, Laudato Si’ and Fratelli Tutti offer a challenging framework for the Church of today and tomorrow – calling us in particular to solidarity with the poor, the excluded and those “on the peripheries”, who yearn for the Good News. This calling also includes initiatives of social friendship in favour of our sisters and brothers in other continents.
Speaking at the end of the World Meeting of Families in Phoenix Park, Dublin 2018, Pope Francis encouraged the people of Ireland to be open to the work of the Holy Spirit:
“who constantly breathes new life into our world, into our hearts, into our families, into our homes and parishes. Each new day in the life of our families, and each new generation, brings the promise of a new Pentecost, a domestic Pentecost, a fresh outpouring of the Spirit, the Paraclete, whom Jesus sends as our Advocate, our Consoler and indeed our Encourager. How much our world needs this encouragement that is God’s gift and promise!”
Listening to what the Holy Spirit is saying to the Church in an Ireland faced with rapid transformation
Secularisation of Society. A synodal pathway leading to a National Synod is inviting us to journey together in discernment of what the Holy Spirit is saying to the Church in Ireland at this time. We are acutely aware of the huge challenges to the faith over the past fifty years from the rapid transformation and secularisation of society in Ireland bringing with it a major decline in practice of the faith and in the number of vocations to the priesthood and the religious life.
Shocking Revelations. Like so many others we are appalled by the findings in published Reports into institutional and clerical abuse; the recent shocking revelations about Mother and Baby homes in Ireland – north and south – have further reminded us of the deep trauma felt by so many in the Body of Christ and the need for inner healing and hope.
The need to promote peace-making and a culture of welcome. One hundred years on from the partition of Ireland we also recognise the need for ongoing peace-making, the building of trust and reconciliation, and for a culture of welcome and integration for migrants and the many newcomers who have arrived to live on this island.
Listening to the Cry for Transparency. We hear a cry for transparency, greater participation and accountability in the Church.
Discovering the Family as “Domestic Church”. We see the tremendous potential for the support and renewal of faith within the family. The restrictions imposed by the Covid-19 pandemic prompted a new discovery of the family as the “domestic Church”.
Connecting with Young People. We are alert to the need to connect with the energy and gifts of our young people, forming and enabling them to be missionaries to each other and inviting them to spread the Good News not only in Ireland but around the world that Christ is Alive!
Honouring the Contribution of Women. While many women are very engaged in Church life in Ireland, we acknowledge the critical need to honour the contribution of women, to hear their deep concerns, to formally recognise their roles and articulate new models of co-responsibility and leadership involving all lay people – women and men. 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 voices also.
The Initial Phase – Prayer, Listening, Consultation, Discernment
The initial two-year phase of embarking on the synodal pathway and leading, in time, to a National Synod, helpfully coincides with preparation for the 2022 Ordinary General Assembly of Bishops in Rome entitled, For a synodal Church: communion, participation and mission.
We envisage the next two years as a period of prayer, listening and discernment, involving a nationwide consultative conversation on this theme. This will allow individuals and parishes, religious orders and associations as well as groups, movements and organisations both within the Church and in Irish society at large, to share their insights into the Church in Ireland – past, present and future. It will also include discussion and debate via related information sessions and educational programmes on the meaning and processes of synodality. We will research best practice in listening and synodal processes and assemblies at home and around the world.
The Planning Phase – Preparation for a National Synodal Asembly
The planning and preparation phase for a National Synodal Assembly will bring together and seek to implement the fruits and recommendations from the Initial Phase. It will, in particular, take account of the conclusions of the General Assembly in Rome in 2022, together with any Apostolic Exhortation by the Holy Father emerging from the General Assembly. The aim of this phase will be to design the particular form of our National Synod and prepare directly at local, regional and national level for the holding of the Synod.
What is a Synod?
The word “synod” evokes the image of “walking together on the way”. For the Church it is a time-honoured way of working out together the “navigation map” for the Church at particular times. Synodality is about the whole People of God helping each other listen to what the Holy Spirit is saying to the Church. Pope Francis emphasises that this is not simply a matter of discussion as in a parliamentary debate. Rather it is primarily a prayerful spiritual time of communitarian discernment. It is about finding the best ways for every baptized person to fulfil the Church’s mission of proclaiming to the world, God’s love and salvation in Jesus Christ.
Pope Francis has emphasised that “it is precisely this path of synodality which God expects of the Church of the third millennium”. Synodality is at the heart of the pastoral conversion that Pope Francis emphasises in the Joy of the Gospel (Evangelii Gaudium).
Next June, at the Summer General Meeting, bishops intend to establish a task group to plan and oversee the first steps along the synodal pathway. This task group will be made up of lay women and men, including young people, religious, priests and bishops.
We encourage reflection, study and research on the theme of synodality at parish, diocesan, regional and national level and we invite writers, theologians and lecturers to prepare papers for sharing and discussion in the initial two-year phase.
From 6 April next, an online page will be available on the Bishops’ Conference website for the submission of ideas and suggestions.
As we embark on the synodal pathway, we ask for prayers that this may be a time of renewal, reform and new hope for all the People of God in Ireland.