A portal to past pain and current panic: Ireland’s all-encompassing synodal journey

Co-Chair of the National Steering Committee, Fr Declan Hurley, discusses the immersive impact synodality had on a small parish in Meath in December.

To casual observers, the ensuing months after the momentous National Pre-Synodal Assembly in Athlone and the subsequent publication of the National Synthesis Document may seem somewhat subdued and unproductive – but this doesn’t necessarily mean that our synodal excursion has come to a shuddering halt.

Although many would be forgiven for thinking that the pinnacle of our journey came in June or perhaps August – with the furnishing of a document that signified Irish Catholics were hungry for reform, or at the very least revisions in its pastoral approach to topics that have historically evoked fractious responses – we are, in fact, still in the embryonic stages of our synodal pathway, which is to be decided in October 2024 and is still very much a presence in the life of the Church in Ireland.

By its very nature, the entirety of our synodal process has been one encapsulated by a quiet constancy. This description becomes particularly apt when juxtaposed with the latest developments involving our European counterparts … The seemingly unending disquiet in Germany, industrious Belgian bishops producing a unique liturgy to accompany LGBTQ+ blessings and other more public, boisterous displays of synodality.

Speaking exclusively to ViceChairperson of the National Steering Committee in Ireland, Fr Declan Hurley, The Synodal Times learned of a group in Meath who, galvanised by the ripening fruits of synodality, are using their discretion to create what is for Irish Catholics a novel culture of communal dialogue and discernment; the need for synodality to succeed amid certain frictions and snags and Ireland’s role in the process and ambitions for the future.


Discussing the origins of the December local synodal meeting in Dunshaughlin, Co. Meath, Fr Hurley explained that the gathering was convened in accordance with the stipulations of the Continental Stage of the Church’s Synod. “The meeting at the parish centre in Dunshaughlin came about because the Continental Stage requires that the local churches, so the dioceses, would consider the working document,” he said.

“The working document is the fruit of the reflection by an international group on the various diocesan syntheses and the other syntheses from the religious orders that were received at the end of the Diocesan Phase of the Synod.

“The meeting is the first of two scheduled – there will be a second step in every diocese in the new year so that already we can begin to action certain aspects at local level. We’ll link in with the diocesan pastoral council and other organs of the Diocese to begin to function and bring forward some of the findings of the synodal process to date.”

The next consideration Fr Hurley and the delegates had to make involved the preparatory work for the meeting – namely the variables around who to invite and deciding on the format of the meeting. Here they employed an all-inclusive approach – inviting both lay and ordained in a collaborative effort. “Here in the Diocese of Meath, there were three diocesan delegates: Pat Seery, Jane Brady and myself,” Fr Hurley said.

“We discussed how best could we get a working group together to work on this. We decided that we’d go with a working meeting on a Saturday afternoon and that we would first of all invite the key people who were involved in the Diocesan Phase – so the facilitators of the different synodal conversations which took place around the Diocese of Meath back in Lent.

“We also decided that we would specifically invite the priests as well. There has been some concern that maybe priests haven’t engaged fully as would be desired so we felt that it was important to offer this opportunity to priests.

“Then we decided to throw the net even wider and we put out a notice through parish bulletins and invitations to anybody who might be interested but we made it very clear that this would be a working meeting and that those participating would be required to do some preparatory reading in advance of the meeting.”

Public invitation

After the public invitation was issued, a small but firm group of people reached out and embraced the opportunity to dialogue with their fellow diocesan counterparts, both lay and ordained, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit – a mutuality that Fr Hurley recounted as being “fruitful”.

“On that basis, about 40 people registered for the meeting,” Fr Hurley reflected. “The meeting then followed the template which was given by the task group for the Synod in Ireland and the template of the questions contained in the working document itself. So, in the first instance, we had to talk about what resonated in the document – did we hear our own voice in the working document? Then we also had to reflect on where there were tensions. Was there something in the working document that is very different to our experience and why is that the case?”

Efforts were made to ensure that participants were taken out of their preferred comfort zones and introduced to others who they were not previously acquainted with to maximise the openness and transparency of the discussions: “We tried to arrange that people sat at tables with others who they might not know at the meeting. So there was a mixture of those from different parts of the Diocese and religious life. This created a lovely atmosphere of a fruitful chat in the room.

“Finally we reflected on what needs to be addressed by the Universal Church at the Synod in Rome. There were very interesting conversations and it was a very synodal moment in the way that we were all listening to each other. We held our conversations on the model of the spiritual conversation where everybody speaks and everybody listens and it’s very fruitful.”


Impressed with the thoroughness of the advance reading undertaken by the groups and their acquired knowledge on synodality, Fr Hurley said that it became noticeably evident over time that the groups present in Dunshaughlin had wholly invested their time carefully immersing themselves in a culture of encountering, listening and discerning the sign of the times.

This consequently bolstered their ability to express their opinions, while still referring back to the National Synthesis as the foundational stone which informed their insights.

“Some people came with a great sense of excitement and anticipation having read the working document and having also read the national and diocesan syntheses,” Fr Hurley expressed. “They came with questions and a desire to make comments and to have their voice heard. Conversely, you might say that there was a pleasant surprise that the spiritual conversation model worked so well – that people could speak and be heard and listen.”

“Certainly something that resonated very strongly with the group in Dunshaughlin was the sense of joy that came from the Working Document – the sense of a joyful confidence in the Church. This was perhaps missing from our own synthesis. We wondered about this because we don’t seem to have the same joy that is evident in other parts of the world. One quote was mentioned at the meeting that I think is very powerful: ‘The synodal process in Ireland seems to be a voice to past pain and current panic.'”

After the meeting in Dunshaughlin had concluded and its themes recorded, a document outlining the primary themes from the meeting was submitted to the National Steering Committee later on in the month, where its material was meditated on by the members.

From there, the Steering Committee divided the most recurring themes into three categories: The experience of the churches; challenges to address and calls for action in all departments of the Church.

“The report from the meeting in Dunshaughlin that we had to return to the Steering Committee in December featured three headings. The first was the experience of the churches and what came through there was the fact that the participants at the meeting in Dunshaughlin really appreciated the image of the tent from the Prophet Isiah. They felt it was a very rich image.

“One of our participants also noted that the word for tent in Irish is ‘puball’ which is very close to the word for people. We found that this was very evocative and that the tent becomes the place of meeting of the people.

“The concern around the role of women in the Church, that came through strongly in the Working Document as an issue that is of concern for the Church around the world. The place of young people in the Church and the participation of young people in the life of the Church is also of concern.

“The next heading was challenges to address. We understood that to mean challenges around the whole synodal process itself. There’s a challenge around explaining synodality and understanding what synodality is – that it’s much more than a listening process but actually a process of spiritual discernment – where we discern what God wants of the Church at this time.”


Lastly, the Steering Committee expanded on the immediate priorities for the Church in Ireland and the implications of a Church where ministry is almost explicitly characterised by the capacities of the ordained.

“We had to respond to priorities and calls for action on a local level, on a national level and on a universal level in the last part of the report. Many of these coincide around greater catechesis, greater formation of adults, the need for co-responsible leadership in parishes, greater preparation of the sacraments, more effective evangelisation of families, etc. Many people think that the current model is too priest-dependent and that needs to be revised so there can be a better co-responsible model of leadership in the Church.”

Although Fr Hurley reported that the conversations provided a renewed sense of joy and shared communion amongst the participants, the meeting was not without reservations about the Synod not presently being the unifying force some had envisaged and other perceived frictions between the Church’s hierarchy (both lay and ordained) and ordinary members of the Church.

Some also voiced concern at the level of discord currently afflicting the Church with one of the most prevalent apprehensions being the challenging reconciliation of Catholic teaching with contemporary social trends.

“There was also a fear that there might be tension between leadership – laity and ordained – and how this needs to be carefully managed,” Fr Hurley stressed. “It was also felt that the synodal conversations have actually raised the very fundamental question: What is the Church? When you talk about the Church, it’s very obvious that the people talking have different images, expectations and understandings of the Church. So we felt that the synodal process needs an ecclesiology that is capable of maintaining communion in this synodal process.

“The synodal process doesn’t seem to have united the Church yet and it hasn’t helped to bridge the polarisation in the Church – especially in western countries. There were also concerns around different cultures throughout the world – such as the place of women in different cultures. The whole LGBTQ+ issue in different cultures – we felt that too is a challenge for the synodal process.”

As heartening as the meetings and the willingness of Catholics to advance their synodal education in dynamic environments like Dunshaughlin are and bode for Catholicism in this country, Fr Hurley lamented that there were still gaping holes in our understanding of synodality from a national context and particular misapprehensions that could inhibit growth if the project is not viewed as a long-term one.

“I think that anyone who’s been involved in the Synod up to now has become quite articulate in what a synodal Church is. People who have participated and read the documents are getting a real sense of what it means to be a synodal Church. But I think the vast majority of Catholics in Ireland have a long way to go in terms of forming them and explaining synodality.

“Even priests have their own concerns about synodality and we have to address that as a body. This is going to be a long-term game. If you think about it, men who are currently in formation in the priesthood are going to have to be formed in synodality as well. The people who are engaging at this stage are becoming quite articulate, hopeful and energised by this.”

Fr Hurley senses that after historically remaining somewhat of an passive bystander at past councils and conferences, he’s seen enough evidence to justify the claim that an ideological shift – spurred by our rich Catholic pedigree and a society whose beliefs are now at variance with those of the Church – is slowly forcing us to stand-up and be accounted for in this process.

“I think historically, Ireland hasn’t really punched its own weight at these Universal Church gatherings. The Vatican Council largely passed the Irish bishops by – except for one or two personalities that rose to the occasion as the Council went on. But overall, it just appeared that they weren’t at the measure of it. They didn’t know what it was or what it was for and they didn’t see the relevance for Ireland.

“For that reason, Ireland has probably missed the boat a few times. I feel that there’s something different happening at the moment. I think that Ireland is participating really well in this process and do feel that the Church, universally, is in some way looking at us. We are a perfect storm in so many ways. We have that enormous heritage; we have that wonderful missionary outreach that so many countries credit us as being the evangelisers of their lands; we’re also English speaking; we are seen to be at the forefront of the new secularist culture and we are almost ground zero for the abuse crisis.

“I know from speaking to some international friends that are involved in the Synod and two of whom were involved in that meeting in Frascati, that they really appreciate the Irish voice in this process. I really hope that as a Church here in Ireland that we can rise to this because it’s not just what we have to gain from this but what we can contribute to it internationally.”

Reflecting on the synodal forecast for the upcoming year, Fr Hurley confirmed that the events planned would probably not match the magnitude of last year’s, while clarifying that there would still be ongoing tools and resources for people to engage with at a local level that adhere to the framework set in Rome.

“The Synod-related events in Ireland planned for the upcoming year won’t be on the same scale as last year, but certainly there are events that will take place across the country. What we, The Steering Committee, is focusing on between now and the summertime is the rolling out of a formation programme. So we really hope that some of the key actors in the synodal conversations at the Diocesan Stage last year will sign up for training and formation which will hopefully mean then that in every diocese there are people who are being skilled in synodal leadership. That’s going to be an important focus for us.

“The National Steering Committee is mindful that the first stage of the Universal Synod will be held in Rome in October and things are moving towards that. We’re very hopeful that we as a country can keep our synodal pathway embedded in the universal synodal pathway and who knows what will come then from the Synod in October.”

Fr Declan Hurley, writing in his capacity as Vice-Chairperson of the National Steering Committee, is Vicar General of the Diocese of Meath and parish priest of Navan Parish.

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