“Two men looked out through prison bars, one saw mud, the other saw stars.” That little verse was shared with me by an old man many, many years ago. It is deceptive in its simplicity, because it holds a very important truth. We can all find ourselves in difficult and challenging situations, but what really matters is how we look at that situation. Are we positive in our outlook or negative? “Two men looked out through prison bars, one saw mud the other saw stars…” As we reflect upon the many challenges our Church faces at this time, perhaps that little verse has something to say to us. Are we positive in our outlook, knowing that the Lord walks with us and will guide us with his grace or are we burdened by a pessimistic attitude that says we are struggling and do not know the way forward? Pope Francis is very strong in holding to the fact that the Lord journeys with us in the struggles and by his grace he will give us the light to respond. One way of engaging with and responding to the current challenges we are experiencing is Synodality. It is a process that is very close to Pope Francis’ heart.
It is not a commonly used word or concept and therefore we might ask what it is? Synodality is a Greek word coming from Syn-hodus. “Syn” meaning “together” and “Hodus” meaning “the way.” Therefore, it literally means “journeying together along the way.” It is the coming together of the followers of Jesus to discern the way forward. Pope Francis is inviting the whole Church, as a community of disciples, to discern and reflect upon the life and mission of the Church today. Some people have expressed fear around this process, they see it as new territory. But is far from new! Evidence of the first “Synod” can be found in Acts 15 where the Council of Jerusalem took place. The infant Church was discussing whether Gentiles should become Jews before becoming Christians. The Church gathered, argued, discerned, a
Some have fears about the process and how it might play out. Pope Francis is very clear that the chief protagonist in synodality is the Holy Spirit. If there is no Spirit than there is no synodality! It is an ecclesial journey not a parliament. Decisions are not made by the loudest voices or majority vote but by discernment, prayer, and listening. In a very real sense, it is not an event as such, it is a way of being Church. So we might ask where is the Spirit inviting us as a People of God in this moment? What are our attitudes? How are our structures set up? Are we truly open to the call of the Gospel? Are we living the mission Jesus has entrusted to us? In order to do this, Pope Francis says we must listen to all the people of God so that we can make pastoral decisions in tune with God’s will for the Church today and for the future.
There are three areas he has asked us to focus on:
- The first is Communion. This reminds us that the model of Holy Trinity informs the Church. We are called into unity. We are united in the sacraments, most especially the Eucharist. We share in one faith, one baptism. Synodality reflects this unity and it very much reflects the vision of the Second Vatican Council, the People of God model.
- The second area of focus is Participation. It is very important toinvolve all members of the Church. We are all qualified through the gifts we received from the Spirit in Baptism and Confirmation. We are all called to listen, reflect, discern, dialogue together.
- The third area of focus is Mission. The very nature of the Church is missionary. We are sent out to be the presence of Christ in the world and to establish the reign of God in the world. Again this reflects the vision of the Second Vatican Council. Some saw it as a modernisation of the Church however, it was truly a mission-oriented Council, responding to how the mission of the Church could happen in a changing world.
These themes also bring out how Pope Francis views synodality as a response to the call of the Second Vatican Council. From a practical point of view, Synodality is happening at the level of the Universal Church which will culminate in the Synod of Bishops in Rome in October 2023. In parallel we have our own synodal journey happening in the local Irish Church which will draw on the fruits of the Synod in Rome and we will take the further step to discern how we can enrich the life of the Church here in Ireland. Our immediate challenge is to reach out to as many as possible to listen to what they want to say to the Church. Many processes are underway or are beginning in our Dioceses and parishes. I invite you to participate in these processes. Many of us have members of our families who may have drifted away from the Church for various reasons. Perhaps we now have a chance to reach out to them and ask if they would like to say something to the Church. This is Pope Francis’ invitation to us all.
In my preparation for this evening, I asked myself how this whole process of Synodality touches the reality and experience of the Irish Lieutenancy? In my reflection I realised that you are very much living the model of Synodality in your lives as Knights and Dames. At the very heart of your calling is to walk with and support Christians in the Holy Land. That model of ministry and service is at the very heart of what Synodality is all about; “walking with” and supporting. It is an outward looking ministry that supports our fellow Christians in prayerful solidarity and material support. Through your ministry you have engaged with the challenges our brothers and sisters face in the reality of their lives. You have supported various projects in education, seminary and humanitarian causes. This is Synodality in action, this is the life of the Church in action! As we embark upon the Synodal journey in the Universal Church and in our local Irish Church may we be inspired by your Christian witness.
The Synodal journey is a challenging one. It will not be easy. We need to trust in the Spirit who is at the heart of the journey. If we can do this then it offers us an exciting opportunity to listen, discern and respond to where the Spirit is calling us in the challenges the Church faces today.
“Two men looked out through prison bars, one saw mud and the other saw stars…”
- Bishop Paul Dempsey is Bishop of Achonry.
- This homily was delivered on Friday 28 January 2022, at Mass for the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem (EOHSJ) – Lieutenancy of Ireland Annual Pilgrimage to the International Eucharistic & Marian Shrine, Knock, County Mayo.