Irish diocesan synods and assemblies – angels abound but the devil is in the detail

Inviting people to participate in a process that is really only about erecting scaffolding around old structures will further alienate even the enthusiastic, writes Garry O’Sullivan “Trying to turn the pyramid upside down,” is how …

Inviting people to participate in a process that is really only about erecting scaffolding around old structures will further alienate even the enthusiastic, writes Garry O’Sullivan
“Trying to turn the pyramid upside down,” is how Fr Brendan Hoban described what they were doing by organising a diocesan assembly in Killala, one of the smallest dioceses encompassing much of north Co. Mayo and parts of Co. Sligo. The pyramid, he explains, is the current structure of the Church with the Pope and cardinals and bishops forming a hierarchy down to the laypeople at the bottom. Some of the recommendations from the 2018 Killala assembly (‘Placing Hope in Faith’) are now being implemented, (they were partially delayed due to Covid-19). The first recommendations, to be implemented are that all parishes should have pastoral councils and that a family Mass should be held in every parish once a month. So how did the assembly come about and can we learn anything as the Church in Ireland embarks on a five-year synodal process? The clergy in Killala talked about reform from 2015 to 2017 because they felt a “very palpable decline” in Church attendance and interest in the Faith. After two years, they concluded that they did not know what to do, so they would consult the laity and so the diocesan assembly was called in 2017 and would meet in 2018.
The urgency might not be felt in their speed to act however it is revealed in the numbers. Killala has 22 parishes, and 27 priests at the moment serve those parishes. In 10-15 years, they will be down to just seven priests. There is a Catholic population of 36,000 people, which as Fr Hoban notes, is smaller than Ballyfermot parish in Dublin. It has also been speculated that Killala might be subsumed or amalgamated into a larger diocese arrangement in time, so time is limited. I don’t intend here to go into all the detail of the organisation of the Killala assembly, there is a very comprehensive account given by the coordinator Fr Hoban online on the website of the Association of Catholic Priests (ACP), of which he is a founding member. My sole intention here is to examine the process of the assembly and see if it is a suitable model for other dioceses to emulate and/or if it has failings that can be improved on or learned from especially for a national synod and from the lay perspective. One of the key challenges for the clerical organisers in Killala was to convince the people that their assembly was a serious attempt to listen (there had been a previous consultation in 1990 which was implemented by a few parishes and people had been burned by that experience) and that whatever programme of reform came out of the listening process, it would be de facto the policy of the diocese. This was, says Fr Hoban, stage one – the process had to be serious and credible, and convince people that the clergy and bishop did actually want to hear from the people. There had to be an open agenda, differences would be respected and honest engagement had. And that it would lead somewhere, that the findings would be implemented because there were reservations that the priests would actually back it. Therefore, the organisers were scrupulous that privacy and confidentiality would be absolute in the voting process in the assembly and they hired an outside company to analyse results of the survey to avoid any accusation of manipulation of the answers. In fairness to the coordinator, Fr Hoban, the lengths that he and others went to, to assuage participants that it would be an open, fair and serious process, is commendable and would act as a good template for other dioceses.
‘Hot Button’ issues
Gaining that trust depended on how they approached so-called ‘hot button’ issues such as Church teaching on LGBT+, women deacons, women priests, etc., and the organisers knew that unless Bishop John Fleming gave the assurance of an open agenda there would be no assembly. People would walk, said Fr Hoban. However, a compromise was offered by the diocese: there would be open discussions but ‘hot button’ issues that were deemed to have a global dimension and therefore deemed beyond the power of the local bishop, would be sent by the bishop to the hierarchy, and then to Rome via the Papal Nuncio. This solution was used in the Limerick synod and some of the organisers of that synod, such as Fr Eamon Fitzgibbon, were consulting with Killala on their assembly. Let’s take a ‘time-out’ here and look at this more closely, because while it’s neat and convenient for the organisers, it’s also troubling. Clearly the ‘hot button’ issues were of great importance to the delegates as ordinary practicing Catholics (and let’s be clear that the delegates, according to the organisers, were faithful Mass-going Catholics, the process was unable to get the ‘faithful departed’ to join as the reader will see later on here. So, it’s not the case of some angry, disillusioned lapsed Catholics turning up and demanding radical change). What the diocesan organisers were telling people was that they were open for discussion on any topic, but that controversial issues were a dead-end as the diocese would wash its hands of responsibility and pass them ‘up the line’. The question begs itself – up the line to whom? Does Bishop Fleming go to the Winter meeting of the bishops’ in Maynooth this December and say “here brother bishops, I have a mandate from my people from 2018 on a range of difficult issues”. And what is the bishops’ conference supposed to say? Down to a man they probably know that their own flocks would be favourable in similar numbers to those ‘hot button’ issues. Will they stand behind their people and demand change from Rome? As for sending a dossier to Rome, who in Rome? The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) which has said that the Church doesn’t have the authority to bless gay unions and has consistently slammed down any Irish priest that has dared put his head above the parapet on difficult issues? No point sending them to Pope Francis who stands behind the CDF on all these ‘hot button’ issues. In the Amazon Synod there were strong demands for female deacons and the Pope said ‘no’. Instead, he changed Canon Law to allow women to read at Mass, something they’ve been doing for decades. There is a rather idealistic view that if every diocese in the world sent in similar reports of the Sensus Fidelium then the Pope would have to act. But the Pope acted in 2016 when he set up a commission to study the female diaconate and said it was inconclusive, then set up another commission to continue the study this year. So, sending letters and reports of the what the Faithful think to Rome appears to be sending them into an ecclesiastical black hole. What seems especially depressing about this maneouver is the enthusiasm that the people brought to the questionnaire sent out by the organisers of the assembly seems betrayed. It had 1,000 adult respondents and about 500 secondary school students responded. The ordination of women “was a huge issue for adults and teenagers” says Fr Hoban. He adds: “Priests are more liberal than bishops and people are more liberal than priests. They recognise what the problems are. When the assembly met in July 2018 in a hotel in Ballina, “86% of 300 delegates voted for the teaching of the Catholic Church on LGBT+ to be revamped.” People, he says, from small little parishes all around the diocese, grandparents who had grandkids maybe who were gay, or knew a lad down the road who is gay and said ‘yes’ he should be welcome to our Church. “Mainly rural mainly elderly, I was stunned,” he says.
Some 69% of the 300 delegates voted for the ordination of women while 73% voted for ordination of women deacons. “This really opened my eyes and the change that has taken place in Irish society and the change that has taken place in people at Mass even though the numbers are smaller,” said Fr Hoban. The issues sent to the bishop were: Ordination of women as deacons; Women as priests; LGBT teaching to be looked at as a matter of urgency; Clerical celibacy; The danger with this approach in Killala and before that in Limerick is that it creates the illusion of a synodal type process. Whereas in fact it is simply getting the laity to take up the everyday bureaucratic slack caused by a dearth of priests. The hard issues are sloughed off on a vague promise that it will be referred upward…to whom? What happens to it next? Who responds? On behalf of whom? The people are sold a pup through dissembling and detouring, and it’s the Church at its worst. Where is the respect of the clamour for structural change? The laity are to be content with parish councils – one of the main recommendations of the Killala assembly – which are a 1960s Vatican II idea never properly articulated or realised and unlikely to be fit for the purpose of a reformed/reforming Church. Some in Killala seem not to understand that the priest is in charge of the pastoral council and can dismiss it at will. A lay-chairperson will not trump the local priest under Church law. As Fr Hoban has said writing in the Jesuit journal Studies in 2019 after his own diocesan assembly, “All the targeted parish programmes, all the parish councils in the world, all the experts sitting in offices with secretaries and computers, all the prayers in Christendom, won’t put the old Church back together again. Its day is done,” he said. In the same article which was reported in the national press, Fr Hoban called for “a robust commitment to a respectful re-imaging of our Church; on an honest acknowledgement that clergy in the interests of the Gospel need to divest their control and authority; and on a consensus that a robust synodality is the obvious and only way forward.” He added: “for the Irish Catholic Church, the tectonic plates really have shifted” but people were still “trying to build a scaffolding around a house that has already collapsed.” It’s hard not to see the Killala assembly as more scaffolding to use Fr Hoban’s phrase and certainly anything but robust or respectful of people’s genuine concerns of the so called ‘hot button’ issues. Sending ‘hot button’ issues such as women’s ordination to the priesthood to Rome is a nonsense, the Church will not change this and says it is now unchangeable doctrine. Killala organisers found it very difficult to reach out to people who had left the Church and many didn’t even know the assembly was happening. This is a huge challenge if the national listening process wants to hear from what one bishop rather innocently called the ‘unfaithful Catholics’. But they will be even stronger on the ‘hot button’ issues and won’t be diverted by ‘letters to Rome’.
The Limerick synod
The Killala assembly drew much organisational inspiration from the 2016 Limerick synod. Opening a webinar last May to discuss a report on the role of women in the diocese one of the central themes of the 2016 Limerick synod, Bishop Brendan Leahy described the Role of Women in Church Leadership report as “timely”. The report came five years after the synod and only concentrated on the role of women within the confines of Canon Law. Five years after 81.1% of delegates voted for it as a priority, the highest single ‘priority’ vote at the synod. However, over five years on from the Limerick synod the bishop’s most prominent move to date has been to invite men to become permanent deacons in his diocese.
This was recently criticised by Fr Roy Donovan, parish priest of Caherconlish and Inch St Laurence in Limerick, who said the move was a ‘return to the dark ages’. He said this move towards male deacons raises questions about how women in the Limerick synod have allowed this to go forward. Or have they? It also raises questions about having a meaningful synod in the Church in Ireland. “Men in every diocese in Ireland and throughout the world should join in solidarity with women and refuse the male diaconate,” Fr Donovan concluded. What both Limerick and Killala have shown in having a synod and assembly respectively is that the hot button issues are not being taken seriously and under the guise of a new openness and transparency on these issues, the Church leadership is drawing laity into increased bureaucratic functions and kicking the can of real change, so clearly demanded in both dioceses, way down the road. If bishops want more help from laypeople to keep their dioceses functioning as clerical numbers decline, ask for that help but don’t pretend that they are opening up to the ‘hot button’ issues when really the people are being duped into thinking that change is possible. The CDF and Rome have been very clear on a number of controversial subjects that they either have no authority or that it is closed and that’s a matter of doctrine. And that’s not changing. The pyramid is not shifting, and to tell people that they are contributing to turning the pyramid upside down is unfair even if honestly held. Bishop Leahy is vice-chair of the new Irish synod committee, and will have a huge influence on the shape and structure of both the forum and the synodal process. But we need to know now how that committee intends to handle the ‘hot button’ issues because if the Limerick and Killala ‘compromise’ is proposed, then the national synod will be a very small affair. Garry O’Sullivan is the Managing Director of Columba Books and Currach Books. Columba Books will be publishing a series of books on the synodal process in spring 2022.

Leave a comment

Subscribe to The Synodal Times weekly newsletter


Become a Member

Ireland’s only synodal publication is available for under €2.50 a month.

Join today to access all the latest analysis from the ongoing Irish Synod.

Members also receive a FREE eBook of The Synodal Pathway.

€25 per annum