How religious and missionaries can help the synodal Church

Consecrated men and women in Ireland continue to provide very
valuable, meaningful, courageous, and relevant ministries to the poor and marginalised, both at home and overseas.

The Association of Leaders of Missionaries and Religious of Ireland (AMRI) with over 25 member institutes responding, offered their responses in collated and synthesised form which was sent to the Irish Bishops Synodal Committee and to the Vatican Congregation for Religious in Rome. (The submission has been edited for space).

Rooted in prayer

At the heart of our life is our prayer as we seek to deepen our relationship with God. We hold our local and global faith communities, as well as the entire human family and all of God’s creation, consistently in our care and concern. Our prayer has been invited specifically for the ‘fruitfulness’ of the synodal process.

Listening to one another and to God

We view synodality as “a privileged eavesdropping on a conversation between God and God’s people”, a key element in this process being the ability to listen. Listening, is the most important part of the synodal process.

Daily life in community

As communities of sisters and brothers we share in the daily life of each member, in the joys and sorrows of each one in sickness and in health. Together we engage in scripture and faith sharing and in our daily rhythm of prayer and liturgy. For many their life was often rooted in the ministry of the congregation. However, this is changing as we let go and empower lay colleagues who share our charisms, to continue the work we began. The synodal process is about inclusivity.

Our decision making

All congregations have moved to more participatory ways of being, including all in consultation, valuing different voices, especially those on the ground. The value of subsidiarity is empowering members to take responsibility for decisions made and actions taken.

Our reality today

We do all of this in the context of our declining numbers and high age profile. Consecrated men and women in Ireland today continue to provide very valuable, meaningful, courageous, and relevant ministries to the poor and marginalised, both at home and overseas.

Our learning over time

Over the years we have learnt much about how to live synodally in our communities and with our lay colleagues, shared by one missionary society in this way: “As missionaries in a variety of countries in Asia, Oceania and Latin America, we were inevitably vulnerable outsiders, limited in our mastery of complex cultures and languages, and therefore so much more dependent on lay leadership in the various communities in which we served. So often there was a lack of ordained priests and therefore 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 often the actual shortage of ordained ministers that enabled the laity to take their God-given role. We can see now that our very inability and vulnerability as strangers became the most valuable corrective to the kind of clericalism we had absorbed inevitably in our early formation. We knew that basic equality and dignity in the Church is rooted in our common baptism and that therefore a synodal Church needs to encourage and empower the laity. We knew it in theory, but the practice of working with multiple lay-led communities brought it home in a new way. We experienced the essential role of laity in responding to missionary challenges and especially the indispensable contribution of women in ministry. Little by little we learned in practice that leadership really does consist in service”.

Our witness to living synodally

To live synodally and to engage fully in the process of deep listening and discernment towards consensus requires members to be open to participating in the gatherings and to be open to hear the voice of others. Our experience as religious of living synodally is often not reflected in diocesan and parish life. This needs to be addressed to enable greater participation by all people in the life of the local faith community and in the wider Church.

What do we as consecrated men and women have to offer the Church? We offer our life experience

Consecrated men and women by their calling are witnesses to the radical call of the gospel as it is addressed to all in the community of disciples, as well as to the missionary thrust of that call. In our time, members of religious orders/ congregations/societies of apostolic life are especially well placed to explore and mediate, for the benefit of the Church in general, the widespread polarising of religion and spirituality. We come to the wider faith community with varying degrees of experience of dialogical and discerning approaches to decision-making, including processes of planning and the selection of personnel for service in positions of formal leadership.

We offer our prayer

Living our lives rooted in prayer and contemplation we are open to sharing this with others especially our lay brothers and sisters.

We offer our repentance

We come as a humble group of men and women conscious of the hurts caused by our failures in the past, but also our striving to reach out, to care, to love, to nurture, to heal and to educate especially those whom society cast aside. For our failures we are truly sorry.

We offer our learnings

Most of us grew up in a Church “where we ourselves did not have strong expectations of being consulted, nor did we question the ‘status quo’ in the Church”. We had little experience in sharing feelings so that what we really felt remained concealed. In our formation and subsequent ministry there was more emphasis on teaching people what to believe and do, than on listening and being taught by them. We were blessed in our call as missionaries “to be at home in very different cultures, challenged to learn and be evangelised by those to whom we had been sent, especially the poor and marginalised, but we had to learn painfully through our mistakes”.

We offer our ministry experience

We are called to learn from those we consider ‘other’, listen to the pain of the shaken faithful, and engage with other institutions and organisations that can help with the kind of reform the Church needs in order to serve more faithfully the gospel it proclaims. We open ourselves up “To ask not what the Church can do for me but I, as part of the whole people of God ask, ‘What can I do to build up the body of Christ on earth?’” We are ready to become “leaders of the change we want to see”.

We offer our courage to change

While we fully acknowledge the dreadful hurt caused by some religious, we are also conscious that the good work done by so many religious in diverse areas of life over many years is overlooked and ignored and some feel we are the scapegoats for all that was wrong in how society operated. For many religious today these events took place before they joined their institute and “absorbing anger and projections regarding events completely outside my lifetime or life experience can be very painful”. Within this pain there is also a call to continuous renewal, in faith, love, humility, and truth, seeking to be faithful to what God is asking of us.

We offer our hope

As Christians we are called to be “beacons of hope to our world which is breaking down. There is a collapse of old certainties due to war, climate change and abuse among other issues”.

Our hopes for the synod process

We are inspired by the leadership of Pope Francis which we experience as pastoral, compassionate and marked by integrity. We are hopeful that this synodal process will bring forth:

A Church that is open and welcoming

We desire a Church that is “open to the Holy Spirit so that all, women, men, children… are given their rightful place in the Church”; in this way it will become “an inclusive Church, that is always open to all”. This new Church will “look with justice and fairness at the current failure to fully include blended families, those in second relationships and LGBTQI+ people”.

A Church that offers education and formation for all

The Church will need to design and offer programmes of catechesis and religious education, including effective sacramental preparation and adult faith development, that are open and accessible to all who may wish to participate. The formation of priests has been raised as needing attention. The institutional Church needs to “undertake a critical review of its position on priesthood, diaconate, and the role of women in a 21st century Church”, rather than putting excessive energy into maintaining a model of the Church which no longer resonates with the call of the spirit and the needs of God’s people today.

A Church open to an outpouring of the Holy Spirit

We pray that the Church together experiences a new outpouring of the Holy Spirit – a new Pentecost, and is “willing/able to live with uncertainty and lack of control” just as the disciples experienced at the first Pentecost.

A Church open to change and development

For the people of God to join this ‘walking together’ we feel there needs “to be clarity around the steps” towards bringing about this synodal Church. As religious men and women “what we try to model – involvement, consultation, discernment, inclusiveness – we hope will be seen as a model for the future Church”. “The clerical structure of the Church, something often highlighted by Pope Francis, needs to be challenged, and alongside this, serious consideration needs to be given to the way bishops are selected. This, we feel, is in need of some reform to make it more inclusive.” Having expressed all these hopes, we believe that synodality is worth the effort.

Our fears for the synod process

Fear of the process

We fear “that exercises will be done, but people will not be listened to” and that time and resources will be invested into “an already decided project”. There are those among us who “feel not much will come of all the sharing” and conversations we have engaged in, in our communities, parishes and other groups.

Fear of change & lack of engagement

Many religious sense “a lack of enthusiasm for the vision of Pope Francis in the local Church” and some say “Synod never mentioned in our parish”. The “lack of dialogue, openness and fear of change coming to the Church” is preventing some parishes from inviting participation, especially some parish clergy and “rigid/ closed thinking groups” that are present in the Church”.

Indifference to the Church

We feel there is an apathy among the people, “a refusal to be involved, and a belief that the problems or things needed to be done in the Church are not their business because they are more concerned with the cares, concerns and busy-ness of their own life”.

Lack of education in faith

In our experience “there is a lack of spiritual formation and faith development of laity in our Church today” and this needs to be addressed so that all people feel able to participate in this process as equals.

Marginalisation and exclusion

Many people are marginalised in the Church. There is clericalism/institutionalism among some Church leaders and some laity. There is the exclusion of women from leadership, ordained priesthood and diaconate, and the exclusion of laity in general from influential and decision making roles in the Church. As religious we often feel excluded in the Church and know this is also true of our lay brothers and sisters (and perhaps some clergy!); it is also true of the poor, young people, and those who do not live up to institution expectations.

We question ourselves

In the past there have been synods that have produced working documents, but little became of these. We fear that this could be repeated, and therefore it is incumbent on all people within the Church, including religious, to take responsibility for moving the process forward.

Our dream for a synodal Church

As consecrated men and women inspired by Pope Francis, we dream of a Church that is open and welcoming to all people without question so that all feel they belong, can participate, and their giftedness, knowledge and experience is valued. As religious we must become living witnesses to the dream we are pursuing.


The most important contribution to this synodal process will come from the Holy Spirit. Unless we develop a culture of listening to each other in respect and above all listening to the voice of the spirit, there will be no true synodality. We have to remember it is God’s work, not ours to control, and this will require our openness to a new outpouring of the Holy Spirit on all people, men and women, rich or poor, educated or not, those who participate in the life of the Church and those who do not.

To assist the Church as a whole we offer our resources, our personnel and our prayer to this universal process towards a synodal Church and to the synodal pathway of the Church in Ireland. Education and formation will be key to every stage of the process – for all clergy, religious and laity of all ages – this must include engagement with the media to allow the story to be told effectively in the public forum. Only when we can journey towards this dream we have for the Church together will we experience true communion, participation and mission in the world.

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