What Ireland said – A window into the views of the faithful

As the Church prepares itself the second stage of the synodal process, the Continental Stage, the voices of the faithful, as presented in the respective national syntheses, are now in the hands of the Church’s bishops for the remainder of the journey. Here’s what the faithful had to say about the future of the Church in Ireland.

Ireland’s national synthesis was released on August 16. Here is a summary of the 15 key themes that emerged during the listening sessions in Ireland’s dioceses, along with some other issues that didn’t feature as prominently throughout the discussions. The document will now be forwarded to the Synod Secretariat in the Vatican as part of the global synodal process, which is due to commence in October 2022.

Abuse as part of the story of the Church

The scale of abuse within the Church has created a huge sense of loss which infused the responses in our consultation. This sense of loss coupled with continuing anger was expressed by survivors themselves and their families, lay Faithful who have become estranged from the Church because of it, and many good priests and religious who also feel betrayed. Alongside the enormous amount of good work on safeguarding, we need to continue our efforts to provide times and spaces for lamentation, to grieve this shared loss. The contributions about abuse, therefore, represent a call for penance and for atonement at a national level. There was enormous gratitude shown to survivors for their engagement was expressed by many involved in the consultation process for the synod. There was a palpable sense that despite many efforts by the Church, a ‘reckoning’ had not yet taken place, and the synodal process generated a clear imperative to place this issue at the heart of any Church renewal and reform. A submission noted: We welcome, indeed rejoice in, the synodal path as one of dialogue and journeying with others. Another submission specifically linked this insight to the legacy of abuse: We must pledge ourselves to journey with survivors, to meet with them, preferably in small groups where dialogue is possible and opens us to the presence of the Spirit.

Lay ministry

On the one hand, some respondents see that carrying out the mission of the Church is largely the responsibility of the clergy, while others recognise a call for greater participation of laypeople in the life of the Church. However, there are challenges. These include the perceived passivity of the parish community or wider Church when it comes to lay ministry. There was an overarching thread evident throughout the consultation that the gifts of lay people were under-utilised by the Church. A submission from returned missionaries who had worked overseas highlighted that much was learned from working with lay colleagues in the various communities in which they served. We had no option but to trust and train lay leaders who gladly undertook the various ministries. In retrospect, it is clear that it was the actual shortage of ordained ministers that enabled the laity to take their God-given role.”

“While many efforts have been made to enhance the role of laypeople in ministry, much remains to be done to encourage, support and provide a training dedicated to enabling lay people in their calling to spread the Good News of Jesus Christ in their faith communities.”

A call for such training was evident in much of the consultation. It was also acknowledged that while we often speak of an aging clergy we also have an aging laity.

Co-responsible leadership

Adult faith development, resources for lay ministries and collaborative decision-making was flagged as poor or non-existent. Clergy acknowledged that in many contexts they are too tired and weary to engage in these developments. However, they are aware that with education and formation, laity could and should be more involved in co-responsible leadership. Some still feel that the laity should not have a voice in the decision making of the Church/parish; that this is primarily the ‘priest’s role’. They are happy to be ‘volunteers’ and just help where needed rather than be actively involved in leadership. Others, however, are more than ready to be involved in charting the way forward, especially through the synodal process.

Sense of belonging

Some respondents were happy with the sense of belonging and companionship they felt within the Church but many more articulated the view that the Church was not as welcoming for those who may be on the margins of society or who feel excluded because of their sexual orientation. It was stressed that the Church is at its very best when it is close to people’s lives, speaking a language that people understand, and connecting with people amidst their daily struggles. Regarding language itself, some felt that the Irish language and the local customs that surround the language, were not afforded adequate attention in Church circles.

“Sadly, the view that nothing happens outside of Mass and that much more could be done to develop a sense of community through regular social events and other liturgical services, emerged repeatedly.”

Coupled to this desire for improving fraternal and communal bonds was a sense that better communication methods need to be adopted to assist this process. One diocesan submission offered a helpful caveat: Technology was very useful, yet the internet is no substitute for human contact. If the Church is to become an inclusive one where all marginalised people feel a sense of belonging, then we must take stock of who is missing and discern how they can be welcomed. As one submission noted: Personal invitation is key.


Participants expressed much appreciation for our priests. Their dedication, hard work, presence and pastoral care was frequently acknowledged…Many recognised that they are over-worked and often feel burdened by the weight of governance and administration…There is a lot of concern expressed for our ageing clergy. The role of the priest is valued and will continue to play an essential part in communities of faith. Some participants were concerned that some younger priests are very traditional and rigid in their thinking and may not have the requisite skills for co-responsible leadership. There were calls from both young and older participants for optional celibacy, married priests, female priests, and the return of those who had left the priesthood to marry. Clericalism in all its forms was frequently associated with hurt and abuse of power…Some declared that the structures of the Church are not inclusive but patriarchal, hierarchical, and feudal. There was concern expressed that many priests are resistant to change; that they feel they don’t have anything further to learn and view the local parish as ‘my parish’ not ‘our parish’. There was a sense that the permanent diaconate has been welcomed but is not always understood. A new model for the selection of bishops was also sought and a number of participants indicated that it ought to include a wider participation of the People of God.

The role of women

This was mentioned in almost every submission received. In those responses there was a call for women to be given equal treatment within the Church structures in terms of leadership and decision-making. As one submission states: Women have a special place in the Church but not an equal place.

“Many women remarked that they are not prepared to be considered second class citizens anymore and many are leaving the Church.”

They feel that even though their contribution over the years has been invaluable, it has been taken for granted. Several of the submissions called for the ordination of women to the permanent diaconate and the priesthood. Their exclusion from the diaconate is regarded as particularly hurtful. Some women felt that yet another layer was added to exclude them. Many young people cannot understand the Church’s position on women. Because of the disconnect between the Church’s view of women and the role of women in wider society today, the Church is perceived as patriarchal and by some, as misogynistic. The issue of women and gender-based violence was also raised and a call to challenge systemic gender inequalities to ensure women’s voices are heard and that they have the opportunity to be leaders and take part in decision making forums.

Adult faith formation

The synodal process highlighted the serious weaknesses in adult faith development in Ireland. Many of the submissions reported that people found it hard to engage with the questions, the concepts and the language relating to communion and mission. There is a felt need among many respondents for safe and dynamic spaces where people can come together to talk deeply about their faith and increase their knowledge of it. One submission stated: Our spiritual growth is stunted. As adult members of the Church, we are not sufficiently grounded in our faith, and do not have the confidence in speaking about our love of God. One submission outlined that there is a crisis in transmission of faith, rather than a crisis of faith and that we are unsure about how to evangelise in the modern world. This problem can only be addressed with the deployment of significant resources into programmes for those who wish to deepen their own faith, spirituality and understanding of scripture at a personal or academic level. Many of the courses available are very expensive, and therefore inaccessible to those who are on low incomes or social welfare. Some felt that if we invested half as many resources into the training and formation of people as we do into buildings, we could dramatically improve the life of the Church in Ireland today.


There was a clear, overwhelming call for the full inclusion of LGBTQI+ people in the Church, expressed by all ages and particularly by the young and by members of the LGBTQI+ community themselves. This inclusion would in the first instance involve less judgemental language in Church teaching, following the compassionate approach of Pope Francis which has been transformative and is appreciated, again, by young people in particular.

“Some called for a change in Church teaching, asking if the Church is sufficiently mindful of developments with regard to human sexuality and the lived reality of LGBTQI+ couples.”

Others expressed a concern that a change in the Church’s teaching would be simply conforming to secular standards and contemporary culture. Likewise, it was urged that we not treat the LGBTQI+ community in isolation from other marginalised groups. There were calls from an LGBTQI+ focus group for an apology from the Church. This submission suggested that even though the Church rarely condemns gay people these days, it indirectly creates an atmosphere where physical, psychological and emotional abuse of gay people is tolerated and even encouraged. Indeed, the visceral clarity of this particular focus group gave life to the rather more tentative and generalised positions on inclusion offered elsewhere, pointing to the value of hearing directly the voices of the excluded or disaffected.

Sexuality and relationships

It was evident that sexuality, sexual ethics, and relationship issues informed people’s decisions in relation to Mass attendance, reception of the Eucharist and many other aspects of Church life. There were requests for re-examinations of Church teaching and a revision of its understanding of human sexuality in light of recent scientific and sociological research. For the divorced and remarried, the Church’s ‘rules and regulations’ were seen as draconian. Some divorced and separated people believed they could not receive the Eucharist even though they had not entered second relationships. Others described their exclusion by priests from any active role in the parish because of their status. It was stated that some priests avoided the strict implementation of the teaching regarding those in second unions receiving the Eucharist, and while this was appreciated it was also seen as turning a blind eye to the reality. Another group who identified as feeling excluded from the life of the Church was single parents. It was felt that all parents who wish to bring up their children in the Church should experience welcome and support, and that greater creativity in ministry to families is needed. There are other minority, yet strong, voices that believe the Church, rooted in the Catholic Tradition, should not conform to secular standards when it comes to questions regarding gender, sexuality, and relationships.


The issue of youth and the question of how the Church might engage with them, emerged universally…Multiple dioceses and organisations noted the absence of young people in parish communities and many submissions articulated a view that other youth organisations provide a home for young people that is more welcoming than that in parishes. There was an openness and honesty in responses from young people. They identified with faith and with the Gospel message and what we are called to as Church. One response clearly conveyed the sentiments expressed by so many: the one thing we, as young people, look for is sincerity. In many instances it was felt that the Church lacked this, or indeed pastoral awareness of the significant challenges faced by young people today. One notable example given was the mental health crisis faced by many young people.

“Many young people were critical of the Church regarding the role of women, clerical celibacy and its handling of the abuse crisis.”

A significant number disagreed with the Church’s teaching on sexuality and the Church’s position on sex was considered as a barrier…On the other hand, some young people said that, for them, the Church’s teaching on sexuality is a welcome challenge. Young people feel significant pressure from their peers and wider society when they express their faith and engage with Church.

Education and catechesis

The sacraments of Baptism, Reconciliation, Eucharist and Confirmation were identified as key moments in the life of the family and the Church. There is a wide consensus in the diocesan submissions, which was also confirmed at the national pre-synodal assembly, that a more prayerful, catechetical and scriptural formation is needed at parish level in order to accompany people before, during, and after these important sacramental moments. Parishes are struggling to accompany young people and their families in their faith development. It is acknowledged that the actual faith community will need to educate and lead our children in the faith, which suggests that a strategy, with particular focus on catechetical accompaniment, is required at parish level for young people and their parents.


The Covid-19 pandemic greatly impacted religion and faith in different ways – gathering and expressing faith in physical places of worship was restricted, especially at parish level. The closure of churches and curtailment of ministry during lockdowns represented a marked shift in the life of the Church during this period. This shift generated deep feelings of isolation, abandonment, pain and hurt, especially amongst the elderly and those on their own as well as palpable sorrow to grieving families, arising from the restrictions on Church liturgies and pastoral care at this time.

“Many felt that Covid-19 accelerated an already steep decline in Church practice and general engagement.”

Others remarked that it prompted a new vision for restructuring and re-thinking what it means to be a Church. It necessitated alternative liturgical and ritual responses as liturgical life moved to digital platforms. Some Catholics engaged fully with this possibility. Online communication has generated new possibilities for formation and training. Many participants mentioned that during the pandemic they missed ‘gathering’ and ‘socialising’ when going to Mass. More positively, prayer in the home and appreciation of the family as the domestic church grew. Families slowed down and became more present to each other. A healthier work-life balance emerged as people enjoyed creation and were more aware of the need to protect the environment.


There is a sense that funerals and special occasions are celebrated extremely well, but there is a need for more creative and engaging liturgies to connect with families and young people. Some feel the Church’s liturgies are boring, monotonous, jaded and flat; that they no longer speak to people’s lives. There was a desire expressed by respondents for the full participation of the laity throughout the liturgy; and for a wider more diverse group of people, including women, to take part. A minority view seeks a return of the Latin Mass and pre-Vatican II celebrations. There was concern that the sacraments of First Holy Communion and Confirmation are seen solely through the lens of the school and a desire that those presenting for the sacraments would participate in the whole life of the Church. Homilies were frequently described as being too long, ill prepared, irrelevant, monotonous and not always connected to life. Church language in the liturgy is seen as archaic, noninclusive and hard to understand, particularly the language in the Old Testament readings and liturgical prayers. The power of prayer was very much valued, as well as the presence of music and song. Some participants felt a great sense of love for our devotional practices and others talked about the power of the Sacrament of Reconciliation.


Dramatic economic and social change was seen to have had a profound impact on the structures and processes of the Church, its place within Irish society, and thus on the perceived capacity for participation and mission. The pressures of commercialisation and consumerism, the rise of individualism, pressure on time for family and community and a secularist mindset reflected in dominant media, are all heard in the submissions. The Church increasingly finds itself pushed to the margins of popular culture which it struggles to understand or to find language with which to be understood. It was felt that the Church’s proclaimed concern to foster communion and participation is overshadowed by the wider society’s focus on inclusion, transparency and accountability.

“The submissions highlight the morale-sapping effect of negative media treatment of the Church, while recognising the invaluable service of independent media in exposing abuse and failures of accountability within the Church.”

Despite these pressures, it was felt that there are strong reasons to engage with the wider culture so that Catholics can highlight the cry of the poor and the cry of the Earth…Catholic social teaching calls the Church to highlight the cries from the margins. Many submissions recognised that this will require a fresh approach to popular culture, including a new relationship with the traditional media and the new communication channels whose power was highlighted during the Covid-19 crisis.


The Church is seen as a family of families; families are the natural framework within which faith is transmitted, nurtured and practised and from which a Christian identity emerges; and families are the appropriate framework for accompaniment and evangelisation. The Church needs to recognise the changing reality of families over the life cycle, and the challenges and burdens which they face. These burdens are often carried in silence and without external support, particularly in cases where families are coping with members who have a disability, dementia, addiction or other challenges. In recognising the diversity and validity of family types, frequent mention was also made of the importance of those who are single and whose needs and capacities are sometimes overlooked in the shaping of pastoral priorities. Accompaniment of families requires a more creative and considered response by the Church. The focus of parish life on the sacraments of initiation is too centred on children and reliant on schools. Parishes should focus more on parents, guardians and grandparents, while a shift away from the celebrations of a single day to an ongoing relationship based on invitation would be more appropriate and likely, more effective. The central role of family life requires acknowledgement of the importance of the domestic church in its own terms, an importance which was highlighted during the Covid restrictions on communal gatherings.

Notable Issues That Were Not Strongly Present from the Consultation

The wider ecumenical and inter-faith context

The deepening of ecumenical relationships in recent years on the island of Ireland has been a source of great hope to many in the Christian community, as a contribution to overcoming the legacy of our divided past. Similarly, the development of spaces for inter-faith dialogue and cooperation has helped protect the place of religious faith in an increasingly secular and multicultural Ireland…It was notable, however, that there were few references to ecumenism and inter-faith relations in the submissions from dioceses and other groups, suggesting a need for investment in this area to ensure that the very positive experience at national leadership level is replicated in the local context.


Despite the Church’s concern for the care of our common home, the main submission regarding environmental issues came from the Laudato Si’ Working Group with only nominal mention across the diocesan syntheses.

Social justice

It was recognised that the Church has a life-giving vision for the world in its social teaching and that the Church has the potential to be a force for the common good in our society…It is noteworthy that although Irish society is preoccupied with issues surrounding social justice, for example, homelessness, immigration, poverty, housing etc., the synodal conversations only occasionally drew out reflection and comment on these issues. When spoken of, there was a sense that the Church needed to re-orientate itself to the genuine hardships that people face and to be attentive to the social difficulties that exist in Northern Ireland as a result of the legacy of the troubles.

The sacramental life of the Church

Whilst there was a strong focus on participation in and renewal of the celebration of the Eucharist there was little mention of the other sacraments and their importance for Christian discipleship and a personal and communal relationship with Jesus Christ. In reading the various syntheses and submissions it seems that faith is often more implied than expressed explicitly. However, it may be that in Ireland faith is often mediated institutionally and thus, there can be a focus on structures rather than relationship.

“The question also emerges whether many Irish Catholics are ‘sacramentalised but not evangelised’.”

Missionary outreach of the Church

Over the past two centuries the Catholic Church in Ireland has played a significant part in the modern missionary movement of the universal Church. Today, there is still a strong cohort of Irish missionaries working on mission. Equally, there are laity networks throughout the country supporting today’s missionary activity…Socio-economic and cultural factors may have contributed to the silence and to the absence of those who could speak meaningfully on some of these issues. This points to the Church’s difficulty in engaging with all sectors of society. Is it possible that many people see these important issues as separate from their faith?


The dismantling of the institutions of Ireland’s Catholic superstructure in our cities and towns reflects a profound change in modern Irish identity. This change is being experienced, from a national identity overly dependent on Catholic culture, to one suspicious and often intolerant of its Catholic inheritance.

An encounter with the dominant culture requires the Church to be open to considering what is of value in society’s new norms and what is valid in its critique of the Church. That discernment requires us to be alert to the risk of assimilation and to ensure that the fruits of dialogue are shaped by the Spirit in careful and prayerful reflection on the Gospel.

Accompaniment requires the building of bridges to connect with the people of our time in all their joys and hopes, griefs and anxieties. It is an open question to what extent a secular liberal mindset is open to receiving the values it needs from engagement by the Church, or whether it possesses its own belief system that has little room for dissension. Ireland offers a particular moment in this encounter, with a modern society whose culture is still capable of a Christian sensibility and of affording space for the transcendent, but which has roundly rejected the model of Church which shaped its past.

Those engaged in the synodal process called for unity in diversity, which does not entail a bland uniformity or avoidance of conflict but an ability to ‘endure conflict’. Such unity needs to find expression by a national co-ordination across dioceses – the Church in Ireland is being called to act together. It was noted in the spiritual conversations at the national pre-synodal assembly that schisms happen because people stop talking. Let us keep talking and the Holy Spirit will reveal the path.

There is a challenge to sustain the encounter and the participative nature of synodality, grounded in respectful listening, for long enough to arrive at the point where specific decisions are discerned to be necessary, given the risk that such decision points are inevitably difficult for those of a contrary disposition. Throughout the process there has been a broad welcome for and affirmation of synodality itself – a desire to grow as a synodal Church.

Parishes that have a praying and discerning ethos will surely embrace the pastoral care and missionary needs of the people. In saying this, there is a broad recognition that ongoing formation in synodality is required, in particular around skills for discernment, both personal and communal. We need to learn from the past. There is recognition that we are a Church in need of healing at every level and, as a survivor of abuse who engaged in the process remarked, we need to find a forum in which we can all heal together. In our process there has been a call to go deeper and a recognition that the crisis in the Catholic Church in Ireland is, in many ways, a crisis of faith.

The General Secretariat for the Synod encouraged each synthesis to conclude by indicating ‘the steps to be taken in response to that which was recognised as the call of the Holy Spirit, highlighting in particular those points regarding which it is considered important to solicit the further discernment of the Church’. In answer to this we point to the fact that across the various submissions and syntheses many issues emerge consistently, including a strong desire for women’s involvement in leadership and ministries – ordained and non-ordained – and additionally, a concern around the Church’s approach to the LGBTQI+ community and to the hurt experienced by its members.

There is also a call for greater lay involvement and participation. Some obstacles in Canon Law which limit the full realisation of this could be revisited. Simultaneously, the Church in Ireland can explore ways in which the call of the Holy Spirit, as articulated in the Diocesan Phase, can be advanced. Co-responsible leadership needs to be embedded at every level through Parish Pastoral Councils, Diocesan Pastoral Councils and other structures that enable this.

At local level we need to ensure the voice of women will be truly integral in our decision-making. We must secure effective participation by the poor and excluded, and other marginalised groups. The recommendations of the document Christus Vivit need to be attended to. Pastoral care of members of the LGBTQI+ community can be enriched. In accordance with Amoris Laetitia, we can engage in a ‘dynamic discernment’ in making a ‘what for now is the most generous response which can be given’ to those in non-sacramental unions, remaining ‘ever open to new stages of growth and to new decisions’. Throughout the various syntheses and submissions, and again, at the pre-synodal assembly, there emerged a strong call for further work on adult faith formation. There is a recognition that a synodal process is not easy – it so often entails the Way of the Cross. It will require humility and conversion of heart, a call which Pope Francis has issued to the Church in initiating this Synodal Pathway.

The full national synthesis is available here.

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