A Synod or an Assembly? That is the Question

Think synods are representative of a new Church? They’re older than you think writes Fr Eugene Duffy. The practice of holding synods at a diocesan level has deep roots in the history of the Church The …

Think synods are representative of a new Church? They’re older than you think writes Fr Eugene Duffy.

The practice of holding synods at a diocesan level has deep roots in the history of the Church The first documented diocesan synod, in the sense of establishing legislation or issuing disciplinary decrees, was held in Auxerre in 585. Documents regarding the diocesan synods that were held in the sixth century indicate that for the most part they were concerned with the transmission of the decisions of provincial councils. By the time of the Gregorian Reform (mid-eleventh – early twelfth centuries), the synodal structure was one of the main ways that papal reform was implemented across Europe.  


The first time that diocesan synods are mandated is at Lateran IV (1215). In this context, it is quite clear that the reforms of the Council itself are to be transmitted to the whole Church through provincial synods and their decrees in turn promulgated through diocesan synods. The provincial councils are to ‘recite the canonical rules, especially those which have been laid down by this general council, so as to secure their observance, inflicting on transgressors the punishment due’ Then each bishop is to hold a synod annually in his diocese: ‘Whoever neglects to carry out this salutary statute is to be suspended from his benefices and from the execution of his office, until his superior decides to release him’.

Following Lateran IV there was a flourishing of diocesan synods throughout the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. A significant development occurred in 1374 when Pope Gregory XI proposed that synods discuss the problems and issues arising in the local churches and not just confine themselves to promulgating the decrees of superior councils. Now diocesan synods could bring matters to the provincial council for their attention and not just act as the conduits for those above them. Trent reiterated the obligation to hold diocesan synods annually with a view to maintaining ecclesiastical discipline, settling disputes and implementing the reforms of the Council itself. Following Trent, reform-minded bishops were diligent in implementing the reforms of the Council by means of diocesan synods.  

In the latter part of the seventeenth century and throughout the eighteenth century, there was a decline in diocesan synodal activity. This was due to the aloofness of the bishops, the ineffectiveness of the synodal processes and interference by the secular powers. Towards the end of the eighteenth century, attempts were made to make the diocesan synod more democratic in its decision-making processes. Tensions persisted about the respective rights of the bishop and his clergy in confirming the decrees of these synods.

Thus, it can be seen that internal and external factors diminished the enthusiasm for diocesan synods until well into the nineteenth century. Vatican I intended to discuss their importance, particularly because annual diocesan synods were not being held regularly. The Council’s preparatory documents indicate that the proposal was to mandate diocesan synods to be held every three years. However, due to the premature conclusion to the Council the matter was not decided.  

The 1917 Code of Canon Law (CC 356-362) legislated significantly for diocesan synods, mandating that they be held every ten years to deal with those things necessary and useful for the clergy of the diocese. While the synods envisaged by the Code did not exclude the laity participating, they were essentially clerical affairs.  

When John XXIII announced the summoning of an ecumenical council in 1959, he simultaneously announced the summoning of a diocesan synod for the diocese of Rome. Obviously, the Pope wanted to show that the renewal of the Church and the renewal of the diocese of Rome were all of a piece. Yet, the contrast between the two could not be more stark. The Roman synod was a disappointment, since it was a clerical gathering and juridical in nature, following the lines of the prevailing ecclesiology and the existing Code. It was then completely superseded by the reforms of Vatican II. 

Vatican II as a Basis for Diocesan Synods 

The question of diocesan synods did not figure significantly in the work of Vatican II. It has been convincingly argued by Joseph Galea-Curmi that there is no reference to diocesan synods in Vatican II, despite the fact that the use of the word ‘synods’ in Christus Dominus no. 36 is often interpreted as referring to diocesan synods. He shows that this term refers to synods in the context of the communion ecclesiarum, not to synodal activity in the particular Churches.5 

The question may be asked then: if the Council did not speak explicitly about diocesan synods, on what basis may its work be seen to support their revitalisation?  

The Council itself was a meeting of the global Church, with a representation of cultures and traditions not previously experienced on such a grand scale. The experience of the conciliar bishops in encountering such a richness of diversity in the Church liberated them to appreciate the importance of local customs and traditions. It facilitated the recognition of the need to accommodate ecclesial structures and methodologies to this global diversity, as can be seen in the recommendation to implant the gospel with sensitivity to ‘the particular social and cultural conditions’ of those with whom it works. The Council affirms in very clear language the value of the insights of the faithful in the Church. 

Post Vatican II Synodality in Ireland 

Since the Council, synodality has found many expressions in the life of the local Church, apart from the formal convocation of a diocesan synod. Limerick is the only Irish diocese to have had a diocesan synod since Vatican II. However, various convocations of clergy or of clergy and laity have taken place in most Irish dioceses with a view to exploring ways to renew the life of faith in the local Church. The first of those convocations occurred in the 1980s and were generally of clergy only. Yet, despite their almost exclusively clerical membership, they produced significant and useful pastoral plans for their respective dioceses.  


A sample of the final documents from other dioceses show a similarly creative and energetic agenda being set for the renewal of ecclesial life.  

The Berger Method, as it was called, was the process used in most of the diocesan assemblies that took place in the 1980s. It involved naming the issues that needed to be addressed, analysing them and then creatively imagining a future better than the past or current situation.  

Over the past decade or so, another round of diocesan assemblies has been taking place. These more recent assemblies have included all the members of the People of God in a diocese, not just the clergy. The formats that these have taken and the processes used have varied considerably. Many of them have been labelled as a ‘listening process’ with a view to providing a basis for a diocesan pastoral plan. Although the social, economic and religious landscape in Ireland had changed greatly since the 1980s the issues being addressed were remarkably similar to those identified then.  


The most high profile synodal process undertaken in Ireland in recent times has been the Limerick Diocesan Synod, the first to be held in Ireland for eighty years.  

The Limerick Synod was a most comprehensive effort in terms of preparation, the integrity of the processes involved, the representative nature of the delegates, the range of issues that was presented for discussion and ultimately for voting. It is obvious, too, that it was a very costly undertaking, given the professionalism with which the whole process was conducted. One hundred proposals were eventually voted on, of which 97 were approved. These then formed the basis of the diocesan plan for the following ten years: ‘Moving Forward Together in Hope’. Again, the themes are not dissimilar to those that have been emerging in other dioceses over the past forty years. The Limerick plan is detailed in terms of the way the stages for implementation are set out. The fact that the resolutions of the Synod have a canonically binding force gives the plan greater weight than the less formal assemblies and listening processes that have been held elsewhere in Ireland.

The real test of the Synod’s success is in the implementation. The Limerick diocesan website provides a ‘progress report’ for the following year, but nothing since then. Obviously, the pandemic has impacted progress, but the questions may legitimately be posed: did the enormous effort expended and expenses incurred prove more fruitful than the less formal and less costly processes elsewhere? Did the process itself generate a greater commitment on the part of the faithful in the diocese, including the clergy, to a genuine renewal of faith and practice? Have the obstacles that inhibited the efforts at renewal forty years ago been addressed and removed? Did the force of canonically binding resolutions eventually strengthen the Bishop’s ability to affect the desired renewal? Is there a sufficiently robust evaluation process in place to identify progress being made and the identification of the blockages that occur? Is there a strategy in place to address the blockages once they have been identified? While some of these questions are specific to the Limerick synodal process, they are questions that will have to be faced by all of those who are engaging in any form of synodal process. 

The outcome of all of the post-conciliar assemblies and synod seem to be very similar. There is no shortage of ideas and idealism, but there seems to be a dearth of commitment to following through on the proposals. It is a real cause for concern that the same issues have been presented for about forty years, and little of any great significance has been done to move the agendas forward and to deliver concrete pastoral actions that would respond to the needs which were identified. This surely raises questions about the accountability of leadership in dioceses. Another very serious shortcoming is that is also a great lack of evaluation of all of these undertakings. Perhaps the time has come to explore what it is that is blocking our lack of delivery when it comes to ecclesial renewal in Ireland.  

Eugene Duffy is a priest of the diocese of Achonry where he serves as Episcopal Vicar for Pastoral Renewal.  

Until his recent retirement, Dr Duffy was a fulltime member of staff of the Department of Theology & Religious Studies at Mary Immaculate  College – University of Limerick – where he co-ordinated post graduate programmes in Christian Leadership in Education.  



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