Discussion, debate and, most importantly, discernment: Intently illuminating the signs of the times in Ireland

The Synodal Times was at the Living Synodality Now symposium to chart some of the intriguing insights highlighted during the useful event where both laity and clergy reflected on the fruits of synodality in Ireland and ambitions for the future.

Dr Paul Clogher – Religious Studies & Theology in SETU Waterford

The idea that synodality taps into, is that the Christian imagination is not just an isolated ideal or an ideal that speaks to an alien or alienated culture. But it’s a dynamic member of the human family to which it contributes and from which it is nourished.

This symposium is, in part, an attempt to chart worldly connections and see what they might mean and where they might go. In one sense, the very idea of synodality is the realisation that you cannot return to an early iteration or idea of Christianity.

There is in one sense, no going back. And not unlike the first garden story of Eden, where the first human beings communed, the search for home is a slow realisation that it often lies ahead as much as behind and that it comes upon horizons that are yet to come rather than in the thinking of the past or of its implications.

In another sense, synodality is very much part of the Christian story, from its very inception. So today is about looking forward and toward the different horizons through which and within which synodality happens.

In a world that is perhaps dominated by absolutes or difficult discussions of one type or another, synodality offers a different path – a different way of thinking about human connections and the beyond.

Julieann Moran – General Secretary of the Synodal Pathway in Ireland

All of the submissions that we received from the dioceses in Ireland and other groups, as well as the national synthesis, will continue to be used as tools and stimuli for further outreach – to keep drawing more people into the conversations and to keep bringing in voices yet to be heard.

It’s not time to suggest answers nor to decide what the pastoral actions of the Catholic Church in Ireland might be. We have to wait for the official working document of the Synod to be published so we can reflect further on what’s coming through from that; discern deeper, gain greater insights.


We’ll also have to consider how we’ll bring together, reflect and seek to implement whatever fruits come out and the recommendations that come from the universal Synod. And of course we do know that the Pontiff will produce an apostolic exhortation following the Synod, so we’ll have to also take into consideration what fruits and insights might be there that will influence the Irish synodal pathway.

Preparing ourselves to think and act synodally will not happen overnight. There is a growing realisation that the synodal pathway is a long-haul journey that is going to take time. We’re talking about the very nature of the Church itself – we have to recognise that this is going to be a perpetual and permanent process.

Yes, there is a now element and there are things we need to be doing to ignite this way of being Church but the synodal journey will not come to an end when the Synod on Synodality comes to a close in 2024.

We will be walking together for a very long time The next steps in Ireland include further engagement with clergy, religious and laity as they reflect upon their own experiences to date of modelling and practicing synodality in every aspect of our day to-day mission and ministry.

The local and national syntheses must be promoted as tools for dialogue and further outreach – especially to those who are considered hard-to reach in the first rounds.


The processes that we are participating in have lots to overcome: Apathy, resistance, fear, ideologies, egos, clericalism, self-referential agendas, etc. We don’t have to wait for another document from Rome, the Holy Father or the bishops’ conference to live as modern synodality.

We can already implement synodal processes in our parish pastoral councils, our presbyteral and diocesan councils, boards of management, finance committees, parishes, schools, hospitals and even in our own homes. We have to start to experience Church where difference finds room to have diverging opinions but we stay on the journey together.

Rev Prof Michael A Conway – Professor in Faith and Culture at St Patrick’s Pontifical University, Maynooth

The expression, the form, the way that the life of Faith was lived out in our culture, particularly as we inherited from the past, is now dying. That is true and it is a fact. If that is so, we must seek a new expression.

We must seek a new way and a life-giving response that can be alive and nurturing in the kind of culture that we live in now. I’m wondering why we are not taking this up more earnestly, why we’re not more engaged and why we’re not more faithful to what we’re being asked to do.

For the sake of the life of Faith in our culture, now and in the future, it is imperative that those who block, inhibit and are fearful or seek to replicate the past are respected, but they cannot be permitted to determine the Faith among us.


The hope is that our communities, parishes, dioceses and our Church here in Ireland take up this journey towards a synodal Church more seriously and towards a viable future for Faith in our culture.

The key insight, what is common for all such journeys, is that you must face the fear of the unknown. You must be prepared to go somewhere and make a journey despite the insecurity, the anxiety and the distress that you might experience. Yes, it requires a degree of courage, of letting go. But above all, it requires trusting in God’s spirit at work among us.

Faith and culture are always embedded in one another and one must be very careful about trying to characterise either one as independent of the other. The form that Christian life takes changes throughout history and in culture. What was perfectly adequate in one age, may become inadequate and even destructive of the life of Faith in another age.

When the ambient culture changes, it means necessarily that Faith life must change too. Heretofore dimensions of Christian Faith that were unknown, undiscovered and unlived, come to light precisely because of the changes in the culture.

We now need to seek out more appropriate structures, instigate new forms of ministry and speak a language that can be understood and lived out in our culture. The task is undoubtedly enormous and we will get there only if we set out on the journey. Synodality is less a theology or a matter of doctrine or belief. It is much more about how we relate to one another as equal members of the body of Christ.

This is necessarily the path in which Christianity will go along. I have no idea to what degree we will take it up. I have no idea when it will be visibly the dynamics of ecclesial communities. But it is the direction.

One way to think of synodality is to see it as a validation of a movement away from the centre; outwards, to the local, particular and person. This is where it must be nurtured and generated.

The centre

You could say that it is a complementary movement to the one that draws everything to the centre. It moves from the centre to the peripheral, from the Pope to the bishops, from the bishops to the priests, from the priests to the people and from the people to the person.

The Church life was dominated by centralisation – that certainly was the case up to the Second Vatican Council. This dynamic was repressive of local initiative. It disempowered the multiplicity of voices in the community and it also paid scant attention to the personal appropriation of Faith.

The aim of synodality is not that of achieving uniformity of purpose, structure and life across the Church; but rather to achieve unity of life and love that is lived out in freedom and in mission. This unity is not built on suppressing difference, but on appreciating otherness and drawing us together to create a symphony of human cooperation and human life. Synodality is about a participative Church in the fullest sense.

This is not a Church where some are active while others remain passive. Not one where some speak and others listen. Not one where some decree and others obey. Not one where some are preferred and others marginalised. Not one where some act as responsible adults and others infantilised. It is one of shared responsibility and mutual appreciation. The key insight is recognising that healthy decentralisation and participation go hand-in-hand.

To me, synodal decision-making requires a number of elements that must work in harmony and that must not be elided or suppressed. These distinct moments at play cannot be reduced into one. An ecclesial body is a body, to use St Paul’s language, where everyone has a vital role to play and where Christ is the head. Ecclesial office holders are in service of this body and cannot ever appropriate to themselves a unilateral power of discernment. That is false when that happens.


When it comes to decision-making, the voices of those who are impacted by the decision must be heard, taken seriously and integrated appropriately into the decision-making process in a way that should be recognisable in the final decision. In a healthy ecclesial dynamic, you do not seek to have your vision realised.

That’s a form of ecclesial egoism and that is not what ecclesial discernment is. This is not a matter of achieving a high consensus in statistical terms; it is not a politics. Which in any case would lead most often to the lowest common denominator and that would reflect poor leadership.

The posture of listening is a mark of respect and a sign of service that we owe to others in recognition of their equal dignity.

Paula McKeown – Deputy Chair of the Synodal Pathway in Ireland

I know of people in Ireland who lead parish pastoral councils, who go out and do all of the safeguarding training in dioceses and yet their own and perhaps our own spiritual growth is stunted. So even those who are embedded in the ministry and life of the Church are still seeking to be fed and to be formed.

I think we’ve all heard that phrase of how we need to awaken the sleeping giant of the laity. So perhaps we need to think of Christ’s words of ‘my child, get up’. I can’t help but wonder if every now and again we try to shake the laity, stir them up a little bit, but then we don’t follow through in the actions that Jesus has asked in terms of giving them something to eat.


You can stir us up, you can arouse our interest but if you don’t feed us, if you don’t form us, if you don’t nurture us, we’ll fall back to sleep again. I think that’s what is happening time and time again. We had our energy stirred up by the World Meeting of Families – a great event for many people – and then we fell back to sleep again.

I think that’s what is happening time and time again. We had our energy stirred up by the World Meeting of Families – a great event for many people – and then we fell back to sleep again. How do we actually ensure that we feed and nurture people for the journey? We want to be that child that gets up and lives and breathes and we need to make sure that we can sustain that.

I believe that synodality is needed to pursue a path of healing, renewal and reparation. Synodality is a way of realising the gifts of the whole body of Christ through the service of mission. But it is also a way of healing the wounds of the Church itself. The more completely the Church can live a synodal life, the more it can be a sign to all the peoples of the grace, fraternity and solidarity that is the ultimate reality of humanity.

I think in my own reading of the 26 diocesan submissions and all of the submissions that came in from the lay movements and associations, the healing of the Church was what came about most strongly for me. I think that’s why it really came out as the first theme in that national synthesis. We are a Church in great need of healing.

 In the synodal session last year in Athlone, a survivor of abuse spoke really powerfully and she said ‘it is not me who needs healing, it is the whole Church. We have all been hurt by this and we all have to heal together’. It was very brave of her to focus on the hurt of the Church and not solely her own hurt and I think there’s something in that for us in how we actually bind up those wounds that we talk about and hear of.

Dialogue, discernment, decision-taking/making and delivery are all ways we can inspire present and future generations to treasure the gift of our common Faith. Not everybody has taken part in the Irish synodal pathway but we have started some conversations. But, I’m not sure that we’ve moved really to the level of discernment just yet. I think we’re far off from that sense of reaching consensus of our way forward and making decisions.


There are also decisions that need to be taken and delivered. I think that sometimes, particularly in my own frustrations within the Church in Ireland, that we can end up in dialogue and go around in circles and we go to conferences and we think ‘here we go again’ and what we’re missing is that we need to be in a spiral that moves down.

We need to move from the dialogue into the discernment and that discernment ought to have us taking decisions. The decision must be made in consensus and needs to be taken by those in leadership in the Church and we ought to see something delivered and change and something happening. But the dialogue ends up coming back again.

Do not let me come across as saying what to discuss or what not to discuss in the Irish Synod, but I think that what we do need to think about is that when we develop that pathway, we have to be attentive to the issues on our shores.

We need to have some very serious reading of the signs of the times – for the Irish society, culture and Church. There are many universal issues that challenge us, but we have to be attentive to our specific needs, discern our response and gain credibility as an Irish Church. We must ensure that the people of God are nourished and sustained for our synodal journey.

The word of God needs to be central in the synodal pathway. In my experience working in the Living Church group, we’re doing an awful lot of work and really helping people to understand scripture, to know scripture, to practise Lectio Divina and all of those things. It’s interesting when we start new groups. People will say: ‘No one ever taught me how to read the Bible’.

We even hear really unusual comments like one comment I heard one time where a lady said that she wasn’t really sure about coming to the Bible course: ‘I just like listening to the letters’. I said ‘what letter is that?’ and she responded ‘the letter to the Corinthians – I think I like learning about that better than the Bible’.

There is an awful lot of work that we need to do in terms of helping people to understand the word of God. Nobody had taught that woman – it’s nothing disparaging on her it’s just a sense that nobody had taught her that.

We also need to have a really good pastoral approach with people; good governance and good teaching and in particular, this is where the bishops ought to be feeding us. Bishops have a three-fold role in terms of pastoral governance and teaching and they need to exercise all three of those well.

I’m not sure that I’ve heard many bishops teaching us on synodality and they’ve got to do more of that. We cannot be a Church that’s discerning unless we get into the practise and lived reality of it. We also need to have that lived experience of Communion and most essentially, we need to carry the theological virtues of Faith, hope and love.

What the participants said

For synodality to work it has to be bigger than Pope Francis – it has to outlive him. Vast numbers of people are barely hanging on in their parishes, communities and faith groups. I’m concerned at how long it will take before any real difference is made because we can’t expect them to stay.

  • You say that the reflections of the Synod results came out in October 2022. I doubt if 5% of the ordinary parishioners have seen those results. Is it time now to give the ordinary parishioner these results and how do we get it? Downloading it from the internet I don’t think will be possible for a lot of us.
  • We don’t have to wait for documents; change can happen now on the ground. I think what should be happening now is change on the ground in each parish. This is something that we can encourage at any time.
  • Renewal is going to have to come from the laity and not the hierarchy. There has been opposition to this process. I know of at least one parish in this Diocese where discussion on the Synod was completely killed off. Therefore, that parish never submitted their results. How many more didn’t either?
  • Those that seem to be studying for the priesthood are really pre-Vatican II, most of them. What is the Holy Spirit at?
  • In our own parish we’ve had discussions, but we’ve had no action out of those discussions yet. I’d like to see if there are any practical deliverables from any parish and if there are, could they be fed back to the leadership?
  • I’m extremely lucky because I live in a parish that has already embraced all of these things. We have huge participation from young and old people and have many programmes in place. For me, Faith is about my participation in community, you can bring changes to it. This is where the whole thing springs from – it’s about the work on the ground and not rules and regulations. That’s a corporate entity rather than a Church.
  • You hear so often about people saying that the Church is dead. People have never realised generally that they are the Church and the less priests there are the more that they’ll have to realise we are the Church.
  • I grew up believing that I was the Church and I learned very recently that I’m not the Church. I am not actually wanted. The reality is that the structures are not inclusive to everyone and I know this has come up in the document. It’s very, very real to the point where it’s a moral dilemma for me now whether I bear witness to the falsehood that God respects or values one person more than another because I know God loves me fully and completely as he created me. There are definite lines in the Church that precluded me from taking paths that I might’ve liked to go. If I go to Mass, and I love hearing the word of God and it’s always been a massive part of my life, am I witnessing to that which is not true? It’s not the loving God that I believe in. It’s an institution whose rules do not respect people. I’m here to know whether I should stay.
  • (Local Church of Ireland minister) It is very prophetic today to see what’s happening in our sister Church. I wish you every blessing and I think that the Holy Spirit is moving in Christianity in the Body of Christ. It’s very interesting to see what’s happening in your Church and I’m delighted for you all.

Some speeches were edited for the purposes of space but stay true to their original nature.

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