Hearing the echo of the Gospel in the life of the faithful

‘The synodal process has provided a forum that was long owed to those hurt by the Church as an institution. They deserve and need the opportunity to register the wrongdoing they experienced as a necessary first step in the healing process,’ writes Professor Eamonn Conway.

The synodal process in Ireland has been the occasion of extensive listening to many of those wounded by the Church, and who as a result, in the words spoken recently by the Irish Bishops’ delegates in Prague, have become ‘disaffected and discouraged’.

Those wounded include people who have been injured by abuses of various kinds as well as others who feel they have been excluded or have experienced discrimination. According to the delegates, some of those who spoke of their hurt by the Church have sadly lost their faith, while others have managed to hold on to it despite their experiences.

A forum for those wounded 

The synodal process has provided a forum that was long owed to those hurt by the Church as an institution. They deserve and need the opportunity to register the wrongdoing they experienced as a necessary first step in the healing process. Listening, of course, is never enough, and there is always more that needs to be done to bring about healing and to restore justice.

There is general agreement that the future of the Church in Ireland depends on how well it deals with its recent past. At the same time, some priests and lay people are disappointed that the good news about the Church in Ireland, for which there is much to be grateful, in the past as well as in the present, is not also being sufficiently acknowledged in the synodal process. They find this discouraging.

Meanwhile, it is important to remember that at this stage the synodal process is focused on teaching us how to be synodal; it is focused on embedding a synodal style into the daily life of the Church and that is all.

The first and most important step in this regard is learning how to discern the sensus fidei fidelium, that is, ‘the sense of faith of the faithful’. (For convenience, we will refer to this as the sensus fidei).

We are all struggling, even theologians, to come to terms with what this concept means in practice. It is a concept that until now has been, for the most part, confined to the pages of Church documents.

What can be said, however, is that although the process of listening to the many people wounded by the Church is relevant to the process of discerning the sensus fidei, it cannot be considered synonymous with it. 

Listening to those who love the Church 

So, what is the sensus fideiThe short-hand answer is that it is the sense of the Catholic faith held by all those who love the Church as God’s faithful people. It arises from the conviction that not only bishops but the entire People of God “share in Christ’s prophetic office” (Lumen Gentium, n. 12).

It follows that in discerning what the Holy Spirit requires of the Church at a particular moment in its history, bishops must listen to the understanding and appreciation of faith held by those living and practising their faith in the Church.


The views and opinions of many different people and of interest groups are important to the Church in discerning ‘the signs of the times’ so that it can determine how best to proclaim the Gospel. For instance, scientists, many of whom are non-Christians and are even atheists, are often consulted on Church policy documents when the content relates to areas in which they have expertise. Such experts also serve on advisory bodies within the Vatican.

The publication of Laudato Sí, Pope Francis’ encyclical on the environment, for instance, was preceded by consultations with the world’s leading experts on the state of our planet, regardless of their personal religious beliefs.

Discerning the sensus fidei, however, is quite different. It doesn’t seek out experts, at least not if by this we mean people with extensive knowledge, outstanding qualifications, or exceptional experience.

Rather, it seeks out those who, in their daily lives, seek as faithfully as they can to live as disciples of Jesus within the community of the Church, nourished in this by the Word of God, personal prayer, regular celebration of the sacraments, and selfless acts of service.

It makes sense to understand the sensus fidei as residing with such people because it is the faithful living of one’s faith within the Church community that keeps alive the gift of being able to appreciate the Church’s faith given at baptism.

There is much that can be said about how, as the People of God, we can best prepare ourselves for participation in discernment of the sensus fidei. It is clear, however, that this discernment process, which is unique, is not to be confused with other processes of listening and consultation undertaken in the Church, however useful or valuable they may be.

Not just public opinion

The most important recent document on the sensus fidei was published by the International Theological Commission in 2014. It merits close attention. In particular, it points out that the discernment of the sensus fidei is not to be confused with garnering public opinion or with recording dominant views, even those held by people within the Church.

All our opinions are transient; they form and change frequently; they are often influenced by the media and other pressures. Discernment of the sense of faith of the faithful, on the other hand, is of an entirely different order. It is a prayerful process. This is because it is to give voice to and surface in the faithful ‘the echo of the one Gospel which is valid for all places and times’ (“Sensus fidei in the life of the Church”, 2014, n 118 [i]).

It remains to be seen how well or otherwise the sensus fidei has been discerned as part of the synodal process here in Ireland so far. Last year, local churches, including Ireland, were put under immense pressure to conduct the listening stage of the 2021- 2024 Synod in a relatively short period of time.

Recently, Cardinal Grech, the Secretary General of the Office of the Synod of Bishops, suggested that Ireland should pause its national Synod until the conclusion of the global Synod 2021-2024 or, at least, “proceed at a slower pace”. He is concerned, it seems, that the Irish Synodal Pathway might outpace that of the global Church.

There seems to be some wisdom in his suggestion as it would allow more time for embedding authentic processes for discernment of the sensus fidei, and this is likely to prove fruitful in the long-term.

It would be a matter for concern, certainly, if we were to rush into advocating for “doctrinal, structural, canonical, and pastoral changes” (Irish Bishops’ submission to Prague gathering) before we were fully satisfied that such recommendations are indeed “the echo of the one Gospel which is valid for all places and times”.

Implementing past synods

There is another consideration. Four General Assemblies of the Synod of Bishops have taken place in the recent past, all under Pope Francis. One was specifically on the Pan-Amazon Region (2019). However, two were on the subject of marriage and the family (2014 and 2015), and one on young people and vocational discernment (2018).

These synods recommended critical pastoral changes that, as far as one can judge, have yet to be acted upon in the Church in Ireland. As the Irish bishops’ submission of July 2022 to the current Synod acknowledges, “The recommendations of Christus vivit (still) need to be attended to”, referencing the exhortation that followed the 2018 Synod on Youth.

Amoris Laetitia (which means ‘The Joy of Love’) is the exhortation that followed the synods on marriage and the family of 2014 and 2015. It seems this also still awaits implementation. For instance, Pope Francis requires dioceses to support people in second unions pastorally so they themselves can discern whether, in their circumstances, they can receive communion, and this on the basis that the Church is called to form consciences but not to replace them (n. 37).

On the issue of homosexuality, Amoris Laetitia states that “every person, regardless of sexual orientation, ought to be respected in his or her dignity and treated with consideration, while ‘every sign of unjust discrimination’ is to be carefully avoided, particularly any form of aggression and violence. Such families should be given respectful pastoral guidance, so that those who manifest a homosexual orientation can receive the assistance they need to understand and fully carry out God’s will in their lives” (n. 250).

Should we not ensure the implementation of changes to pastoral practices required from previous synods before calling for additional changes to discipline, or seeking the development of doctrine?

One has to ask if those who reported experiences of hurt and exclusion by the Church during the consultation here in Ireland had the opportunity to encounter pastoral practices in their parishes that reflect the teaching of Amoris Laetitia. Of course, the recommendations of past synods may not go far enough for many of those who feel hurt and excluded.

The reality, however, is that a synod, the focus of which is bringing about a synodal Church and not upon any other area of Church reform, is unlikely to go further than recent synods that specifically addressed pastoral changes in these areas.

Father Eamonn Conway is a priest of the Tuam archdiocese and Professor of Integral Human Development in the School of Philosophy & Theology, University of Notre Dame Australia.

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