The diocesan Synodal Steering Committee proposed four questions focused on joys and sorrows, hopes and fears, to help local parish gatherings to share experiences.
As participants listened to each other, indications of ‘what the Spirit is saying to the churches’ emerged.
A total of one hundred and seventy-three parishes hosted gatherings.
Hopes – Synodality as a cause for hope
Firstly, for the majority of those who took part in the gatherings this synodal process was a cause of hope. Coupled with this was a high expectation of a humbler, listening clergy, that is, bishops and pastors who engage with people, in real life situations, as all walk and discern together. This can be practically actioned locally, by carefully discerning together what we can do and need to do. This implies that a synodal church cannot go back to silencing divergent voices. Feedback from parishes indicated that this only alienates more and more people.
Pope Francis Inspires
Secondly, a large majority find Pope Francis positive, inspirational and encouraging, in particular his simple lifestyle and his call to care for creation. The desire for an outward-looking church is strong, a church that connects with young people in a more intentional way. For the young, action for social justice is both central to Church teaching and also a means of making the Gospel message more relevant for our time.
Thirdly, people coming to Dublin from different cultures are also a positive influence in our parishes: with a vibrant living faith and high levels of participation, they are a great example to their Irish friends of how things can be.
Fourthly, the opportunity to connect to the celebration of the liturgy on-line has been very supportive during the pandemic. Other on-line ways of engaging should now be developed further, making better use of the arts to communicate the Gospel, expressing our symbols and sacraments, using digital communications, music and social media.
Concerns – No Change or Slow Change
Firstly, parishes stated that the synodal consultation was very welcome and there was a strong voice for urgent change. At the same time, anxiety was expressed that nothing might happen as a result or it might happen too slowly. In particular, there is a consciousness that change may face resistance to renewal from within the Church and from clericalism. The biggest fear is that there will not be a shift in the balance between the pastoral application of Church teaching and community needs. This is aligned with the fear that once the synodal process has finished, there will be a continuation in the decline that sees a drop in numbers of priests, young people in the church, and no change in the role of women in the Church or the option for priests to marry and enjoy family life. There is a hope that women will have a meaningful role in the life and governance of the Church. Feedback also highlights that a palpable tension exists between the desire to be relevant and meaningful and the fear that traditions and teachings will be lost.
Liturgy language a barrier
Secondly, for many the language in the liturgy is a barrier. The language needs to speak clearly to people, relate to laity and connect with people at Mass. A need for more simplified language is well articulated with the fear that the encounter of the Eucharist risks being lost in too many words, many obscure.
This is aligned to concern about the quality of homilies and their relevance for today. It is more positively expressed in an articulated desire for good quality faith development and the necessity of re-evangelising across the generations.
Sorrow for absence of youth
Thirdly, an older generation experiences sorrow, guilt and helplessness about their children not participating in the sacramental life of the Church and grandchildren not being presented for baptism. Reaching those who have some affinity with the Church, especially young adults and children is a key concern. One parish stated,
‘It may well be that the young people “out there” know nothing about the church experience except the scandals.’ A key concern for young adults is the lack of relational warmth in many Church settings, as they stated:
‘The church is a cold place for young people.’
A fourth concern arises about the workload of the priests and the age profile of both priests and people. Many priests are over-stretched and the current model of parish is no longer sustainable. There is an urgent need to develop new ministries.
The four major trends are:
- the importance of community belonging
- the role of women
- the place of young people
- the inspirational leadership of Pope Francis.
Every parish highlighted the sense of belonging and support as vital, linking this with the celebration of the Eucharist. It would be hard to overestimate how enormous this trend is in parish reports, even if among the older generation. For this generation, the sacramental life also retains its significance as an experience that provides life, joy and energy.
All reports highlight and value the role of women. In particular, this includes leadership and ministry, as well as governance.
Every parish mentioned sustainability in relation to the felt absence of the young. It is hard for young people to identify with and affiliate to the church. This is articulated in the following statement:
Across all the parishes and deaneries, Pope Francis is inspiring many and energizing them for change.
Finally, the impact of the abuse scandals is ever present. The abuse scandals caused lasting harm (as well as sadness) and a deep longing for healing is also articulated by many parishes.
Although the belonging afforded by Church membership and participation are crucial for many people, there is serious worry that it is disintegrating. Correspondingly, this raises the need to promote actively the value of community.
This great value placed upon community can be discerned as the Spirit inviting the Church to reflect on how Christ reached out to the people of his time in their diversity. There is a clear indication to seek a true and honest inclusiveness within the Church, that welcomes and accepts all those who want to be there.
Parishes are keen to continue the synodal dynamic which can promote community by means of gatherings, both formal and informal.
Parishes observed that the scandals, abuses and inappropriate behaviour by some of those in ordained ministry and Church authority have contributed to current difficulties. The Church must continue to implement rigorous safeguarding policies. Coupled with this, parishes generally expressed regret that this has enabled some to opt out of Church, and some media use this to undermine the Catholic way and culture. There has been significant reputational damage, resulting in the loss of moral authority. However, there are other forms of abusive behaviour also named: clericalism, materialism, the remoteness of some clergy and hurtful experiences of exclusion. The communion of the Church has been significantly fractured as a result of these scandals, where many people have left the Church and may never return.
Participation of Women and Married Priests
The effort to renew the Church must be marked by urgency and also openness to the new. This will include much more significant roles for laity, recognition of the role of women and expanding criteria for who can be ordained. The continued treatment of women as less than co-equal with men is a source of anger as well as of sadness, in the majority of the parishes. Across the vast majority of the parishes, there is great hope that women will have a meaningful role in governance and ministries, including becoming deacons and priests. Parishes also expressed great openness to married men becoming priests. In this way, the witness value of optional celibacy might be more evident.
Parishes articulate the need to facilitate and promote lay leadership at a local level immediately. There is, however, a concern that lay people who respond to the call to serve in the near future will not have the support or formation they need to bear lasting fruit.
There is a call to recognise marginalised groups, through developing church teaching and finding ways of welcoming and becoming more inclusive. In a deanery report, this was expressed as follows:
‘many are demoralised by the Church’s approach to issues of sexuality, raising the need to include all who are seeking God.’
There is a strong plea that the Church should become genuinely inclusive not only in word but also in deed, by reaching out to unmarried couples, divorced, remarried, LGBTQI+. The Church needs to explore how people can be included and stop looking for reasons to turn people away. This also connects with a clearer outreach to those who are disadvantaged and a call for the Church to become the champion of the poor, the oppressed and the vulnerable.
Challenges to reach Youth
Critically, all reports cited a reduction of people in all age categories participating in parish life, a situation that has worsened in the pandemic. In particular, there has been widespread inability to engage the young and to continue meaningful participation after reception of Communion for the first time and Confirmation.
On the positive side, parishes are more aware that the community of faith is called to reach out to young people—they are genuinely good, with a great deal to offer.
A clear strategy is needed to support young people and young parents, with a particular focus on catechetical accompaniment in the parish.
Some young people still have a desire to engage with the Church—this is a sign that the Church can thrive, if it actively listens to the voices of the young and changes. Young Adult synodal participants stated:
‘The Church needs to adapt and bridge the gap between us and them—why does it stay silent on matters of who we can love—the body of Christ is not out of touch, the Church is.’
Parish reports articulate the need to become more missionary, to be less passive by going out to people and not always relying on them to come to Church.
Parish reports highlight the necessity to grow and mature in faith and to be formed both for living a life of faith and for evangelisation. Faith needs to be fostered and nourished. During the pandemic, various experiences of different activities and projects across parishes are evidence that local parishes are actively beginning to seek to strengthen their faith. It is critically important to form parents/guardians at the time of sacramental milestones of children. Such nourishment will include good homilies, training in prayer and adult catechesis. The lack of this faith development at parish level indicates that there is a crisis in the transmission of faith rather than a crisis of faith.
At the same time, parishes highlighted that Christians must learn to live in an increasingly secularised society. There will be pressure to abandon their faith. The Church must provide support for its members to live their faith in that context. Without such support local pastoral initiatives can flounder. Parishes also articulated a fear that the Church is gradually disengaging from society and going into a cocoon of its own.
Change has to happen – Majority Parishes
More than half of the parishes said change has to happen or the children of tomorrow will never experience Church. While change and renewal are often used interchangeably, some renewal movements can be identified. Parishes are now more conscious that change is required to transform the world for the better, in the spirit of Laudato Si’. There is also a sense of urgency that steps must be taken to address the many gaps that have opened up in Church life and are manifested in falling attendances, decline in vocations to priesthood, absence of young and middle-aged people, lack of formation and of leadership.
Fear of Deaf Ears Among Leadership
The Synodal Pathway offers hope but there is also a fear that the Church leadership will not listen and that nothing will change. Change can often be perceived as a dying but, in reality, it is a marvellous opportunity to respond to the Spirit.
Look, I am doing something new, now it emerges; can you not see it?
The full report from the Archdiocese of Dublin is available here.