Archbishop Martin: There are recognised challenges with synodality but Church will reap rewards if done well

Speaking to The Synodal Times, Archbishop Eamon Martin emphasised the need for constructive synodality, infused with discernment and listening, which will in turn affirm the teaching authority of the Church.

As another synodal day of judgment beckons with the debate and approval of the European Continental Assembly’s final document (a document collating the presentations from 39 countries along with the working group discussions in the first half of the week), I think it would be highly remiss of us to suddenly fail to remember the enormous labours that went into its production when the proverbial creative dust of all of the faithful has been left to settle and is now being surveyed by the continent’s bishops.

One consistent feature of the affairs in Prague is that the demands undertaken by the delegates have placed no distinction on the status of the individual. Ordained and lay, experienced and inexperienced members of the Church were all expected to make their respective inputs, listen intently to the diversity of views on hand and conceive the previously inconceivable. For many delegates this has necessitated deep introspection and for some, discomfort.

The Archbishop of Armagh, Eamon Martin, can deservedly be described as one of the more experienced members of the European delegates and is one of the four members of the Irish delegation currently participating in the Continental Assembly of the Synod in Europe, with another 10 Irish delegates making their inputs virtually.

As part of Tuesday’s schedule, Archbishop Martin delivered a speech in the Main Hall which reflected on the creative tension between synodality and the hierarchy in the communion of the Church. “One of the challenges facing a synodal Church is learning how to foster that deeper communion in Christ between the people of God, the bishops, and the Pope,” he said. “Synodality should seek to affirm and enhance the teaching authority of the Pope and the bishops, not diminish it. This is Christ’s Church, not ours to create at will to our specifications.”

Speaking to The Synodal Times in Prague, the Primate of All Ireland further elaborated on the contents of his speech, namely the existing discrepancies between the historical characteristics of the Church and the current need to establish binding synodal procedures – especially in the realm of decision-making and consultation with the Church’s wider regions.


“The speech I made was very deliberate because I felt that the synodal process has been extremely exciting, refreshing and rewarding,” Archbishop Martin said. “It has been reminding us so much about the fact the body of Christ is made up of everyone who is baptised – that we share a common mission. I think that synodality has been a very visible sign – the various synodal gatherings in our parishes and our dioceses in the country, in Athlone and Ireland and then here. They really give a tangible and optical vision of what the Church being together means.”

However, Archbishop Martin said that there are still prevailing question-marks over how to correctly apply this new approach in a Church that has historically functioned from the perspective of a teaching Church while also crucially ensuring that the giftedness and fruits of the Church’s hierarchy and synodality are of mutual benefit to one another. “The point that I was making during my speech was that there is the question of how we will fit this new methodology into the current understanding of our Church – our teaching Church: Ecclesia docens,” Archbishop Martin remarked.


“At the moment, the teaching Church with centuries of tradition is found very strongly in the role of the bishop together with the Pope – collegiality is the word I used yesterday. The collegiality of the bishops with the Pope, which is very clearly part of the understanding of the Catholic Church that the teaching Church rests there.

“So the question I was asking is: How does this new instrument of consultation with the faithful fit with the hierarchical charism within the communion of the Church? I think it would be incorrect to say that I was simply saying that the whole point of this is to enhance and make the hierarchy more separate – I was actually saying the opposite.”

Dispelling any misapprehension that synodality seeks to distance the Church’s hierarchy from its faithful, Archbishop Martin stressed the importance of a strand of synodality that operates in tandem with the discernment of the faithful and the current role of the bishops in the Church. “I was saying that if synodality is done well it will affirm the teaching authority of the Church because the teaching authority will have been more discerning, more listening, and more humble in terms of service – more aware that we are in a common mission. When we meet as bishops at a synod, for example, at a synod of bishops which is a gathering of the bishops, that we will not simply be a group of people isolated off from our faithful.”


There remained however one compelling and, more importantly, unresolved issue from Archbishop Martin’s point of view and that was without the requisite canonical framework in place buttressing this new way of being Church, it was almost inevitable that the Church would encounter complications unless assessments were made by the Church’s legal experts with regards to how this way can be successfully integrated into the hierarchical structure of the Church. Archbishop Martin also admitted that there is already a basic understanding of consultation and communication between the hierarchy and the faithful as is required of their respective roles.

“I did point out yesterday that we have a challenge to integrate this new methodology of synodality into our current way of making decisions in the Church,” Archbishop Martin recalled. “For example, canonically, in the canon law of the Church this instrument that we’re engaging in here to me doesn’t appear to have a canonical foundation and therefore that’s very important that it be given a proper canonical foundation so that our theologians and those who are working in our canon law can see where this fits into the Magisterium of the Church.

“The place where this can be found in the theology and ecclesiology is in determining the sensus fidei fidelium. Already, bishops and the Pope have an obligation as pastors to consult with the faithful – to try and determine because the teaching of the Church is also held by the faithful of the Church. They are instrumental in the teaching of the Church.”


According to Archbishop Martin, although new initiatives have emerged in the Church which have attempted to harness the mutuality of the voice of the faithful and the receptiveness of the hierarchy, these have not been as comprehensive as the current mechanisms of discernment in the Church, namely the initiation of a universal Synod. “So far we haven’t found, in my view, apart from parish pastoral councils and maybe a diocesan synod even though it’s a very confined and narrow function in canon law, a means or a consultative instrument by which the hierarchy, meaning the Pope and the bishops, can effectively understand and pick up the voice of the faithful with regard to matters of doctrine, faith and morality.

“Therefore for me, the synodal process has really raised a lot of questions as to how we can more effectively make use of this kind of instrument, whilst at the same time affirming the centuries tradition of the Church that the teaching Church rests within the Pope and the bishops who hold the unity of the Church universally”.

Reiterating that it is imperative synodality be developed in all of the organs of the Church, Archbishop Martin believed that the points of conflict in the process were caused by the ambiguities which centred around the reconciliation of traditional modes of decision-making in the Church and the increased agency given to the faithful as a result of their Synod experience.

“This affirmation of the Church’s tradition and the effective use of this synodal process is a conundrum and I think it’s at the nub of a lot of disagreement around synodality where some people are opting in and others are opting out in the Church,” Archbishop Martin reflected.  “We’re seeing now that there is some foundational, theological, ecclesiological and canonical work to be done in order to give effect to what we’re trying to do in this synodal process.”

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