An Entirely Synodal Church: The Vision of Pope Francis

The Church in Ireland entered crisis mode – but the synodal process offers a timely opportunity for reconnection writes Maureen Kelly. The possibilities that the synodal vision of Francis opens up and the profound shift …

The Church in Ireland entered crisis mode – but the synodal process offers a timely opportunity for reconnection writes Maureen Kelly.

The possibilities that the synodal vision of Francis opens up and the profound shift it requires is only gradually coming into view. In effect, he is calling the whole Church, to a new way of being. A few preliminary remarks create the context for reflection on the role of the lay faithful in a synodal Church. 

It calls for a wholly participant Church, in which all God’s people are subjects, ‘by virtue of the dignity of their baptism and their friendship with Christ’ and ‘through their sharing in the one priesthood of Christ’. ‘In all the baptized, from first to last, the sanctifying power of the Spirit is at work, impelling us to evangelization. The people of God is holy thanks to this anointing’.  

The anointing of the Holy Spirit is manifested in the ‘sensus fidei’ – an instinct of faith which allows them to discern what is truly of God.

Synodality is in the service of mission. It is not an end in itself, but should lead the Church to reaching out beyond itself in mission. All are called to mission, so all must listen and discern together where the Holy Spirit is leading the Church. 

A Synodal Pathway for a Church in Crisis 

Against this backdrop, the Irish Bishops have announced their intention to embark on a synodal pathway for the Irish Church and to hold a National Synodal Assembly within the next five years. The context in which the Irish Church is embarking on this path is stark. There is widespread recognition that the Irish Church is in deep crisis and there is a longing for leadership and a collective response. The Church system as we have known it is broken. The service model of Church, which came into being as Irish society recovered from the famine, and which thrived for most of the twentieth century, is in free fall. The now Archbishop of Dublin (and then Bishop of Ossory) put it succinctly: ‘The Catholic Church in Ireland is in the maelstrom of its gravest crisis in centuries’.  If the synodal path is to address this situation, it is crucial that the depth of the crisis be acknowledged. 

There is a crisis of participation. Dr Michael Breen’s work on patterns of religious practice in Ireland, based on the European Values Studies, allows us to sketch the fall in weekly Mass attendance between 1981 and 2018.

Over four decades, participation in Sunday Eucharist, has dropped dramatically and in some age cohorts has completely collapsed. It is widely anticipated that the decline will be accelerated following from the COVID pandemic. 

This profoundly impacts on the local Church. Numbers regularly participating in the life of their local parish communities continue to decline. The pool of people available as volunteers for parish groups and programmes is also declining and aging. Many priests, lay ministers and volunteers continue in parish roles because there is no one to take their place. Allied to the decline in participation is a decline in financial support for the Church. 

The crisis is also apparent in relation to priesthood. In the diocese of Killaloe, over one third of parishes are currently without a resident priest. My experience is of a tiredness and discouragement among many priests, many of whom carry on valiantly, trying to shore up a dying system. Discouragement makes it hard to generate energy or hope about the possibility of change. 

On the other hand, there are still significant numbers of people for whom belief in God, prayer and living of the Gospel in their everyday lives gives meaning and hope. Dr Michael Breen points to an interesting finding of the European Values Study. 

Figures for non-participation at Mass do not necessarily mean the rejection of God. Even a significant number of younger people, for whom Mass attendance is no longer a practice, still turn to God in prayer at least once weekly. This suggests an openness to something other than materially-focused and self-interested lives, an openness to the transcendent. 

It’s also true that many families continue to link with the Church at special moments in their lives, through baptism, First Holy Communion and Confirmation, and at death. This presents the Church with both the challenge and the opportunity to reach out to these families, most of whom are not regular Church-goers.. 

This is the context in which the proposed synodal process must discern ways forward. This reality may appear bleak, but it is necessary to try to name the truth of our situation if we are to have any hope of addressing it. 

Learning from Previous Experiences of Listening 

In Irish Dioceses over the past 10-15 years there have been many instances of diocesan processes aimed at identifying pastoral priorities and developing pastoral plans in their respective dioceses. Dioceses such as Down and Connor, Kerry, Kilmore, Ardagh and Clonmacnoise, Killaloe and more recently Cashel and Emily and likely many others have engaged in processes aimed at involving as many people as possible. The Diocese of Limerick instituted a more formal synodal process.  

How do these local processes relate to the Synodal Pathway now proposed? Pastoral Development personnel in dioceses which have already had significant listening processes ask if the proposed Synodal Pathway may end up repeating what has already happened at local level. There is also concern that the length of the process, currently proposed as five years, is too long and will be impossible to sustain. Others feel that the crisis in the Irish Church requires ways forward that cannot wait five years. Others still feel that there has been sufficient listening and now practical solutions and actions are needed. 

My sense is that the scale of the crisis we face as a Church is bigger than can be addressed by local dioceses working in isolation. What does it mean to be a Christian Community in an increasingly secular and materialistic society? How can the Gospel message be proclaimed meaningfully in this culture?  

Over the past 10-15 years, similar issues have surfaced continually, in one form or another, in listening processes in dioceses all over the country. They have to do with participation and power, with sexuality and the acceptance of different sexual orientations, with young people and their absence from Church communities, with ministry and how it is expressed, with the role of women in the Church and their absence from decision making in the structures of the Church. 

Many of these issues are related to culture. There is an enormous disjunction between the worldview of a hierarchically structured, patriarchal Church and that of the surrounding culture. The Church as institution is losing its place in contemporary society, I suggest, because its structures and ways of operating are alienating for those whose worldview is shaped by post-modern culture. Michael Conway has written powerfully and insightfully about this disjunction.6 

We are witnessing a tectonic shift in our culture away from a social order that is hierarchical in its order, vertical in its structure and deferential in its dynamics.  Our culture is gradually putting in place an alternative order that is horizontal, egalitarian, functional, discourse based, person centred, communitarian and so on … We are moving from a form of order that was significantly indebted to the patriarchal system to a new form of order that is based on very different principles and values.7 

Accountability and Trust 

There is also the issue of accountability. With the initiation of a process of listening comes the responsibility of ensuring that outcomes flow from the process. ‘We have been through all this before and nothing happened’ is not an uncommon statement in the Irish ecclesial context. When this has been the experience on the ground, it hugely damages confidence.. 

Trust is a crucial issue here too. My experience is that trust is greatly undermined when what has been agreed by priests and people in diocesan listening and discernment processes is allowed to be ignored at parish level. The toleration by bishops of the clerical mindset, which sees the priest as the arbiter of what happens in ‘his parish’, is incalculably destructive of any effort to work in a synodal way. The role of episcopal leadership is holding a diocese to account for what has been agreed in synodal processes is crucial. Disillusionment sets in when there is a failure of accountability. 

Who Are the Laity? 

It goes without saying that the laity are not a homogenous group. However, labels typically applied to them such as progressive or conservative do not do justice to the complexities of the different theological outlooks this term includes. In his book on the identity of Catholic Parishes today,8 Australian theologian and priest Dr Brendan Reed has developed a parish engagement scale aimed at understanding how Catholic parishes – and I hypothesize both parishioners and priests – see themselves in a changed cultural environment, and how would they like to see themselves in the future?9 The typology which emerged from the study has, I believe, parallels in the Irish situation. 

Reed presents four predominant types. He explores the theological emphasis of each type and examines how each sees itself in relation to the prevailing culture. The four types he identified are as follows: 

  1. a) The Convinced
  2. b) The Devoted
  3. c) The Consumerist
  4. d) The Engaged

The convinced typology looks to the Church to offer certainty and security in a time of turbulence and change. They want the Church to hand on tradition and dogma, which for them is unchanging, in an uncompromising way. The devoted typology looks to the Church to provide the comfort of a strong devotional life where prayer and liturgical life are central. There is a strong emphasis on piety, with traditional devotional prayer such as the rosary, attending exposition of the Blessed Sacrament, prayer groups, etc. The consumerist type will likely try out a number of experiences of parish before they settle on one that is to their liking. Choice is a critical value for this cohort as well as meeting personal needs. 

The engaged see the need to explore the meaning of faith and its contemporary expression, seeking to relate faith to the struggle for life and meaning they see around them. They see the faith tradition as needing to find new expression appropriate to the cultural context in which they live. Engaged parishioners are conscious of living in a pluralist society. They are open to dialogue with others in shaping the future of society. 

The above categorisation is not an exact mirror of reality.10 But they do give us a framework in which to think about the category ‘laity’ under consideration in this paper. 

It is likely that every parish has members of each of Reed’s four categories.11  

The insights of Michael Paul Gallagher SJ on discerning the culture and the seeds of the Gospel inherent in it is a valuable resource in this regard.12 

Listening with Openness to Conversion and Change 

The Redemptorist, Cardinal Joseph Tobin CSSR, has spoken powerfully of the need for the Church ‘to listen to people who have, in one way or another, been pushed to the peripheries, in a way that is open to conversion and action’.13 He points out that the ‘septic wound’ of clerical abuse has been compounded by the perennial ignoring of the voices of people who have been wounded and pushed aside by the Church.  

Listening to the voices of those who have been pushed to the periphery of our Church may be the blessing of this synodal pathway. It may call us to conversion, to recognising our blind-spots and awakening our sense of needing the mercy and forgiveness of others. Conversion will call us to change those parts of our structures which no longer speak to our culture or which are experienced as alienating. 


This is an edited version of the article which can be found in full in The Synodal Pathway – When Rhetoric Meets Reality available from Columba Books.  Article reproduced with permission.

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