Framing the synodal process is taking away opportunities to sit and listen first, and let people talk, writes Garry O’Sullivan
Speaking at the beginning of the diocesan phase of the worldwide synod, Bishop Brendan Leahy of Limerick said that the synod is taking place at a critical time for the Church and must not be a ‘talk shop’. Bishop Donal McKeown has also spoken about the risk of an Irish synod becoming a “curious talking shop”. Other prelates have used similar language.
Action is all well and good, but the Church in Ireland is in retreat: it’s not a time for action but reflection and discernment”
The definition of a ‘talk shop’ is a place or group regarded as a centre for unproductive talk rather than action.
Firstly, I fail to see why a Church that has in the main studiously avoided consultation with laity until now is warning people about talking too much – surely this is the point of a synodal process, to talk as well as to listen? Secondly why are bishops warning of ‘unproductive talk’? After what we’ve been through in the Church in Ireland, surely finding quick fix solutions is the last thing we should be doing. There is listening, but there is also the deeper act of hearing what is said and, sometimes, the message has to be repeated for the penny to drop. Action is all well and good, but the Church in Ireland is in retreat: it’s not a time for action but reflection and discernment.
For those of a certain vintage, who can fail to remember the famous British Telecom (BT) slogan ‘It’s good to talk’ from the 1990’s television campaign with the advertisements fronted by hardman actor Bob Hoskins. That campaign turned around the fortunes of BT, and could be instructive for the Church here. BT was told that it was not so much in the telephone business as the business of ‘reciprocated confidences’. What this meant was the exchange of ‘confidences’ between human beings leads to better communications, and eventually better relationships. To use the phone, therefore, was a way to build relationships and trust, not just exchange information.
The challenge for BT was to change the attitudes of men: research showed that they paid the bills, but didn’t use the phone to build relationships like women were more naturally disposed to do.
This was where macho actor Bob Hoskins was brought in. Suddenly a male ‘hardman’ was saying talking is okay, ‘It’s good to talk’. Four words that helped ‘Britain’s most hated company’ lose that tag. Decades later, we are still encouraging people – especially men – to talk about their mental health etc.
Our Pope (a former bouncer) is our ‘hardman’ from macho South America and he’s saying ‘It’s good to talk’. Talking enables listening and the building of a rapport, and later relationship and finally then trust. This insistence by bishops on framing the synodal process – and what it is not – is taking away opportunities to sit and listen first, and let people talk.
These are serious Catholics and respected members of the community, and frankly the last hope of that diocese to engage laity”
There is a mountain of hurt, anger and distrust. It is the laity who have been asked to take part in listening processes in the past only to discover that nothing came of them. It is the hierarchy who are out of touch with the synodal process and what is required of the hierarchy: stop controlling, formulating, processing, work-shopping…gather people and let them have their say.
Take for example two lay leaders from the Killala Diocese who have been tasked with leading the implementation of the diocesan assembly’s recommendations (‘Placing Hope in Faith’ action committee) in partnership with the clergy. These are serious Catholics and respected members of the community, and frankly the last hope of that diocese to engage laity. Here’s what they told the recent meeting of the Association of Catholic Priests (ACP):
Patricia Melvin, a retired schoolteacher, told the gathering of mainly clergy that clericalism is very much alive and she raised a number of concerns about the relationship between laypeople and the clerical Church. She especially singled out concern over how the answers from laypeople for the worldwide bishops’ synod listening process would be ‘synthesised’ by the bishops.
“We are concerned about the manner in which diocesan findings will be communicated up the line. It is essential that what is said at local level is what is actually forwarded in any ‘synthesising’ that is carried out. The best way to ensure this we would suggest is to return finalised documents to the people for ratification”.
The people of each diocese should ‘ratify’ the bishops’ reports to Rome! Not so much ‘nothing about us without us’ but ‘If we said it, we want to see it’.
Peter McLoughlin, also a senior lay leader in Killala Diocese, expressed concern at the decision that bishops were to prepare ‘a synthesis’ of the views of Catholics in each diocese, before submitting this to Rome. “Will bishops report what people are saying?” he asked.
In other words, they were saying ‘we don’t trust you bishops to accurately report what we laity are saying’. And these are two senior lay leaders chosen to lead the implementation of the Killala assembly together with the bishop and clergy.
Houston, we’ve had a problem!
Jesuit Fr Gerry O’Hanlon writing in his book The Quiet Revolution of Pope Francis says that the listening process “should not be disparaged as more ‘talking shops’, as if the process of inclusive talking and listening were somehow a distraction, a poor second to proclamation of the Word. What is a synod, a synodal Church, but ‘a talking shop’, one where all together journey, listening, talking and then acting, an acting that will include a richer proclamation of the Word on the basis of the listening and speaking that have gone before? And is this not what Pope Francis has asked the Church to embark on? Is it not the desire of Francis that the Faithful at local level share the inspiring experience of Irish bishops at the universal level?”
Limerick Diocese pastoral implementation manager Rose O’Connor said that there are many issues to be addressed by the synod but for all those issues, the message remains the same. “For a lot of people, they have become disconnected with Church. And I would also have to say the Church has become disconnected with them. And there’s a whole host of reasons for that. People have very busy lives, there is a lot going on, there’s a lot of competing commitments, but also there’s been a lot of hurt. We all know about the crisis in the Church. So, I think there’s a real need for healing.”
As Catholics, we all have the right to discuss change and reform, because the Church herself is always in need of change and reform – it evolves as humanity evolves”
Healing isn’t mentioned much, but it should be. Reaching out to those who have left is mentioned with no real idea how to achieve that, but healing for all is probably a better way to describe what is needed. The anger, disillusionment and so on have not come from the outside, they are internal. And that’s not to hang blame around the bishops, or the clergy, but it is an institutional problem and we need institutional level healing. And talking is a first step.
Another area for real conversation and listening is among those seeking change and those who are wary of it. One of the concerns expressed by Patricia Melvin was the labelling of those who want change as ‘not Catholic’. This is all too common and as Ms Melvin has said, if you are baptised, then you are Catholic. It’s so easy for people uncomfortable with change to say to those discussing change ‘well if you don’t like it you can leave’. As Catholics, we all have the right to discuss change and reform, because the Church herself is always in need of change and reform – it evolves as humanity evolves. It is understandable that many are afraid of change or extreme change but fear is not the answer either. Make your voice heard and engage the discussion.
Writing in his blog, Fr O’Hanlon appeals for tolerance of each other: “Pope Francis has opened up a space of discernment and of open and honest debate in the Church. I think we need to keep faith with this synodal process, with courage and constancy. In doing so we cannot shirk the mutual listening and engagement between those who understand the ban on the ordination of women to be based on dubious scriptural foundations and an unpersuasive theological tradition, and those who sincerely object to what they perceive as a betrayal of tradition for the sake of a faddish accommodation to modernity. This ‘not shirking’ can be wearisome: most of us don’t enjoy conflict and this can feel like nagging, especially when the episcopal custodians of the current status quo are often palpably decent and kind men. But, as Pope Francis himself noted inimitably in a recent interview on the complex issues involved for all of us in discernment (La Croix International, COPE, September 1, 2021), ‘The devil runs around everywhere, but I’m most afraid of the polite devils — those who ring your door bell and ask permission to come into your home…they are the worst ones and one is very deceived’.
“It is the hierarchy who are out of touch with the synodal process and what is required of the hierarchy: stop controlling, formulating, processing, work-shopping…gather people and let them have their say”
“Peace is a Christian gift, but so too is holy lamentation, and the subversive memory of Jesus that constantly disturbs our peace.”
Following Vatican II, Pope Francis has insisted that any “proposal of goals without an adequate communal search for the means of achieving them will inevitably prove illusory”.
So as Bob used to say, it’s good to talk. Let’s talk.