All three consultation phases of the Synod of Bishops 2021-2024, local, national, and continental, have concluded for now. Preparations are underway for the General Assembly in Rome Oct 4 to Oct 29, 2023. Until Pope Francis reformed the synodal process, the General Assembly was more or less all there was to it.
Now, the Assembly is only one, albeit key, moment within it. Even that has seen radical change with the announcement on April 17 that at least 70 people other than bishops will have full participation and voting rights this coming October. Of these, half must be women and there should also be representation of young people. Most participants, however, will still be bishops, and the entire process remains ultimately advisory to the Pope.
Ireland’s declining influence
Given our small Catholic population and our diminished influence internationally, the Church in Ireland can expect limited participation. In fact, Europe’s presence will be eclipsed by that of the Global South.
According to the last Vatican census (2021), globally, the Catholic population is steadily increasing, by 15 million alone in the most recent year for which we have figures (2018 /2019). Meanwhile, Europe’s Catholic population is consistently in decline.
In 1910, 65% of all Catholics lived in Europe. A hundred years later this percentage had dropped to 24%. In 2018/2019 alone, Europe’s Catholic population declined by 300,000. Pope Benedict XVI believed that Europe would always have a decisive role to play in global Catholicism. On the other hand, in the charter for his pontificate, The Joy of the Gospel (2013), Pope Francis said that in seeking to establish or renew the Church, other continents cannot be required to “imitate modes of expression that European nations developed at a particular moment of their history” (n. 118).
It has been suggested that Europe now belongs to an “axis of irrelevance” where the world Church is concerned, the recognition of which it should embrace with an appropriate humility. That said, synods are not exercises in democracy but in discernment; the Holy Spirit often speaks through those whose voices are least dominant.
Synodal changes take time
Councils and synods can have a major impact on the life of the Church, but it takes time. The present emphasis on synodality represents a new phase in the reception of the Second Vatican Council that took place 60 years ago.
Though synods can produce surprises, we need to acknowledge that the forthcoming General Assembly is focused on revitalising communion, participation, and mission through inculcating a synodal style into the day-to-day life of the Church. We will have a better sense of the agenda when we see the Working Document for the Assembly in the coming days (the Instrumentum laboris), but it is unlikely to propose changes to Church discipline or development of doctrine. These issues are more likely to surface indirectly.
Synod 2021-2024 will not conclude, as originally planned, with the October 2023 General Assembly but rather at the end of a second General Assembly in October 2024, thus allowing a year in between for further deliberation and discernment, locally and globally. Pope Francis did something like this before when he held two synods on marriage and the family back-to-back in 2014 and 2015, the intervening period provoking much lively debate and discussion. In taking this approach, Francis is replicating the process of Vatican II, which also consisted of separate assemblies.
A ’sound decentralisation’
At the beginning of his pontificate ten years ago, Francis called for a ‘sound decentralisation’ (Evangelii gaudium, n. 16), urging episcopal conferences to take responsibility for the mission of the Church in their own situations and circumstances (n.30, n. 33).
Concluding the consultation phase of Synod 2021-24 last March, the Office of the Synod of Bishops asked local communities to rise “to the challenge of putting synodal reforms into practice in the daily routine of their ecclesial action, in the knowledge that much of what has been discussed and identified so far at the local level does not require the discernment of the universal Church nor the intervention of the Magisterium of Peter”.
For several reasons then, what matters most immediately to the Catholic Church in Ireland is not what takes place in Rome in the coming months. It is what the Church undertakes here and now for itself. There are many worthwhile processes of renewal under way, whether in response to Pope Francis’ global call to synodality, or out of urgent pastoral necessity, or both. These need to focus upon what can be achieved within existing provisions without awaiting changes from Rome.
Supporting marriage and the family
To give one example: pastoral support for marriage and the family. During the Easter ceremonies this year, I noticed parents and grandparents, who had succeeded in persuading their children and grandchildren to accompany them to church, explaining patiently to them the various rituals and symbols and their significance.
Families who are trying to hand on the Faith need urgent support, and this, not primarily in terms of marriage counselling, in which assistance is available from secular bodies, but specifically in nurturing their own faith and that of their family. Several chapters of the exhortation that followed the Synods of 2014 and 2015, The Joy of Love, are dedicated to this topic.
Eight years on, we need to ask if we have taken sufficient steps to implement the strategies these synods proposed, including recommendations for people in second unions and same-sex relationships. What is preventing us from doing so? Who needs to step up, or, perhaps, step out of the way, so that this can happen?
Three wounds inflicted by our culture
Several of the submissions to the synodal process from different parts of the world faced fully the fact that the wounds inflicted by the Church remain a barrier to the Church’s mission and need to be addressed comprehensively.
The synodal process also needs to reckon, however, with the ways contemporary culture can also inflict wounds. These, too, are a barrier to the Church’s mission and must be tended to. The Church needs to discern carefully what it has to learn from contemporary culture as well, but that is another discussion.
Michael Paul Gallagher SJ was one of the first to alert us to the non-neutrality of culture; how it predisposes us to interpret and respond to our lived reality in particular ways. He identified three particular wounds our culture inflicts, and which must be addressed, he argued, before people can hear the Word of God.
The first of these is the collapse of collective memory. Many people are no longer anchored in a tradition, a shared body of meaning, that has been handed on to them. The symbols and narratives of the Catholic faith have become like a foreign or lost language for them. Without roots in a received and shared body of meaning, people are disposed to construct their sense of self and of what is of value to them in a ‘pick and mix’, manner, like consumers.
The second wound Gallagher identifies is that our culture disposes us to opt for a superficial sense of belonginess without commitment over genuine companionship and communities of support. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks notes the widespread unravelling in society of “the close bonds of belonging that allow psychological wounds to heal…”.
People today are disposed not only to be shy when it comes to making commitment, but suspicious of it, and sluggish when it comes to the self-giving that building community requires. In the Joy of Love, Pope Francis identifies the fear of commitment as one of the most grievous wounds afflicting contemporary culture. Half-believing, Gallagher says, goes hand in hand with this sense of half-belonging, and this brings with it a spiritual loneliness: “In the spiritual isolation often induced by today’s culture, to retrieve a quality of prayerful receiving of God’s word has to go hand in hand with liberating an energy of Christian service and self-giving”.
The third wound, Gallagher discerns, afflicts the “religious imagination”, an expression he borrows from St John Henry Newman. By this he means the way we perceive and understand both ourselves, God and the world. He quotes T.S. Eliot: “The trouble of the modern age is not merely the inability to believe certain things about God which our forefathers believed, but the inability to feel towards God and man as they did”.
The prevailing culture captures our sensibility; how we encounter and respond to God at the affective level. It shakes and can even shatter our confidence in the intuition of religious belief. It overwhelms our innate, God-given desire for God with “small and ego-centred goals”. “The constant message”, Gallagher says, “is that your autonomous self-fulfilment is the key to happiness”.
Our world has become more precarious since Michael Paul Gallagher provided his cultural analysis. The wellbeing and mental health crisis pandemic, especially in Western countries, is evidence of this. “Christ shows himself to us in the wounds of our world”, Tomás Hâlík told the European synodal assembly in Prague.
The fact that so many people are asking the Church “to enlarge the space of your tent” (Is 54:2) means that, despite the crimes and sins of some within the Church, many people still look to it to help them encounter the healing power of Christ.
Deeper listening and ongoing consultation
Even though the consultation phase of Synod 2021-24 has concluded, listening and discernment with and among the People of God must become a permanent feature of Church life if inculcating a synodal style into the daily life of the Church, which is the goal of the Synod, is to be realised.
Proper discernment requires listening not only to the words spoken, but also with ‘the ear of the heart’, as St Benedict says, to the “joys and hopes, the griefs and anxieties” that underlie them (Gaudium et Spes, n. 1).
An analysis of the wounds inflicted by culture and how they impact on discerning what the Holy Spirit is asking of the Church in the twenty-first century is an important part of that listening and discernment.
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.