Have there been synods in Ireland in the past?

07 Apr 2021

Have there been synods in Ireland in the past?

Although there were earlier synods held in Ireland, perhaps the most well-known of the medieval synods were those of Cashel (1101), Ráith Bressail (1111) and Kells-Mellifont (1152). These laid the foundations for both the reform of the Church in Ireland – asserting papal and episcopal authority and tackling issues such as simony, hereditary clerical dynasties and clerical concubinage – and the establishment of the diocesan system. There were, in fact, at least twelve national or provincial synods held between the years 1101 to 1179, many of which we know little about.

The legislation which diocesan synods enacted often provides a good snapshot of what were regarded as the most pressing contemporary issues concerning priests, people and parishes. For instance, the provincial synod of Cashel in 1453 stipulated that every parish church was expected to possess a statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary, a crucifix and a statue of the patron saint of the church, suggesting that many churches had not already fulfilled this minimum requirement. It also strongly stated that priests should, under pain of excommunication, abstain from thefts, plunder and violence. Proper procedure regarding the administration of the sacraments was also to be observed: when carrying the Eucharist to the sick, priests were to wear an alb and be preceded by a bell ‘in order to stimulate the piety of the faithful’. Likewise, the sacred vessels in churches were to be of fitting quality and the churches themselves kept neat and clean.

In the wake of the decrees of the Council of Trent (1545-63) and decades of war and turmoil in Ireland, the provincial synods of the early seventeenth century demonstrate an effort to implement the reforms of Trent in an Irish setting, while also allowing for the turbulent nature of the times. In this period, simply legislating for the celebration of the sacraments in a parish church was not always practical. Therefore, the synod of Dublin in 1614 admits that ‘because the awful circumstances of the times oblige us frequently to celebrate the divine mysteries under the open air’ only the most suitable locations are to be selected and the altar should, in so far as possible, be sheltered ‘from the inclemency of the weather’. It also allowed for a scarcity of priests when it stated that prisoners who desired the Eucharist could have it brought to them by a layman; however, if the prisoner himself was a priest, he should handle the host himself. At this synod, too, the number of godparents permissible at baptism was reduced to two (in line with Trent). Before this, multiple godparents were routinely chosen by the Irish who sometimes saw Baptism as a means to establish key social and political alliances, often with quite unhappy results, as christenings could often turn violent – and, indeed, fatal.

Synods at this time made every effort to promote a more spiritual approach to the sacraments. The Synod of Dublin (1614) recognised, however, that baptism was not always possible in a church and, therefore, legislated that a font should be provided at the house where the priest usually resided. It also ruled that priests who charged the poor for the performance of baptism would be fined four times the amount by his bishop. The synod also encouraged priests to catechise wherever they went and, even when on a quick visit to a parishioner, to make sure to teach them the Creed, the Lord’s Prayer or a point of doctrine. This was crucial, for it also laid down knowledge of the articles of faith and basic prayers such as the Our Father and Hail Mary as prerequisites for the reception of the Sacrament of Penance.

Many synods of the early modern period also attempted to address aspects of popular piety or, indeed, popular ritual, that they considered to be superstitious, injurious to the faith, or unfitting in a Christian. The synod of Dublin in 1614 condemned as superstition the practice of lay people carrying relics and dipping them into water or sprinkling them over humans and animals for protection. The provincial synod of Armagh in 1632, in a broadside against sorcery, magic, demonic pacts and fortune telling, also mentions the practice of ‘superstitious prayers’. Likewise, it condemned inappropriate behaviour at holy wells and stated that such devotional visits are no excuse for not attending mass on Sundays. A synod of Ossory in 1676 legislated that inappropriate ‘images or statues with unpleasant or disfigured appearance’ be destroyed.

Rituals surrounding the dead – especially customs at wakes – also came in for censure. In 1676 a synod of Waterford and Lismore condemned ‘drinking and silly stories’ at funerals; a synod of Dublin in 1686 likewise ordered that parish priests punish those who sing ‘disgusting songs’ on these occasions and warned that they must not ‘allow buffoonery to advance and the memory of the dead to be made light of’. Levels of alcohol consumption had become so high that a provincial synod of Armagh in 1670 prohibited the attendance of anyone but family and close friends at funerals to reduce the levels of disorder (how eerily familiar numerical restrictions – albeit for different reasons – has become in more recent times). However, some synodal legislation could be remarkably even-handed. For instance, an earlier synod of Armagh, held in 1642, some months after the outbreak of the 1641 rebellion, declared ‘all murderers, thieves, unjust plunderers, robbers and extorters … and their patrons, harbourers and … assistants’ excommunicated and, in addition, ‘all usurpers of either Catholic or Protestant land’.

But if synods held the laity to account, they expected even higher standards of the clergy. Priests were expected to be model pastors and teachers in line with the norms of the Council of Trent. A diocesan synod of Waterford and Lismore in 1677 stated that they should abstain from ‘alcohol, taverns, gambling … and secular pursuits’, administering the sacraments with ‘an intelligible voice and distinct pronunciation’. The diocesan synod of Meath of 1686 legislated that priests who failed to catechise their parishioners on Sundays and feast-days would be fined five shillings for a first offence, would be suspended if this occurred three weeks in a row, and if he failed to exercise his duty over six weeks, he would forfeit his parish. It also stated that regular catechesis was necessary in order ‘that the sheep may not hunger’. Priests were expected to remain in their parishes and not to leave them for more than three days without the permission of their bishop.

Ultimately, for all the synodal legislation that was passed over the centuries, much of it was too difficult to enforce, and some of it fell on deaf ears. The proof of this, of course, is seen in how often the same or similar issues appear in subsequent legislation through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

One of the most significant synodal markers of the nineteenth century is, of course, the Synod of Thurles in 1850, at which Archbishop Paul Cullen, the architect of so much religious change in Ireland, presided. This was the first national synod in several centuries and the immediate cause of its meeting was to decide on a uniform approach to Catholic education, especially in the wake of the government’s primary school scheme (Education Act of 1831) and the establishment of the Queen’s Colleges. Among other things, the Synod of Thurles ruled that the administration of the sacraments should take place in churches and not in private houses, as had become the practice for many of the sacraments in the eighteenth and early-nineteenth centuries – especially baptism, penance and matrimony – except in case of great necessity. But there was widespread resistance to this measure, even from the then Archbishop of Cashel, and the provincial synods that followed in 1853-4 also found cause to re-state the ban. One of the great concerns was the hearing of confessions at ‘station masses’ in people’s homes – without the use of the confessional. It also concerned itself with instances of financial abuses where clergy sought large amounts of money for marriages conducted in private houses. The synod emphasised that the sacraments were never to be denied to people, even if they were not in a position to make a customary offering.

The Synod of Thurles also concerned itself with the issue of mixed marriages, stating that in the future a dispensation from the Holy See was needed for these to occur, that guarantees had to be given that the Catholic party could continue to practise the faith, and that the children would be brought up in the Catholic faith. In practice, though, the legislation passed at Thurles was regularly ignored and it was, indeed, customary for boys to be brought up in the faith of their fathers and girls in the faith of their mothers.

Once again, the conduct of priests came under this synod’s spotlight. It was decreed that priests should avoid secular company, intemperance, public dances, race-meetings, card-playing, and public theatres; and that they should preserve their chastity with greater care. 

Three ‘Maynooth Synods’ followed in 1875, 1900 and 1927. Among other things, these synods highlighted a lack of ecclesiastical spirit among Irish clergy, encouraged the holding of Sunday schools for children in churches throughout the year (at which the ‘Maynooth Catechism’ would be taught), imposed penalties on priests who failed to visit schools for four consecutive weeks, and set aside in all National Schools the half hour before midday break for the teaching of Christian doctrine. Meanwhile, one of the main tasks of the Maynooth Synod of 1927 was to bring local customs and practices in line with the new Code of Canon Law which was published in 1917. Interestingly, as early as 1927, it was suggested that boys and girls be brought together on Sundays for a mass (called the ‘Children’s mass’) in which an instruction, accommodated to their capacity to understand, should be given, some prayers in common and a suitable song. 

When we look at the broad sweep of synodal legislation over the centuries in Ireland, it is easy to see similar issues arising again and again: the challenge of catechizing; the need to preserve the dignity of the sacraments and to eliminate sacrilegious customs and abuses; the conduct (or more often, mis-conduct) of the clergy; the regulation of popular piety, and so on. Synodal legislation repeatedly condemns malpractice and introduces measures to encourage what is considered to be the ideal. There is then usually a period of time in which these various prescriptions are supposed to be implemented and embedded in actual practice. However, time and again, it is this period of follow-up that proves to be the most challenging. A synod can be a wonderful event and can inject new energy into the People of God. However, without paying due consideration to its implementation in the long-term, it remains precisely that: a nice event, but little else. History tells us as much. If we are to plan a National Synod in the next few years, what can we learn from the experience of the past?