The response of the local Church to synodality in Ireland: A case of few but firm …. So far

It’s been a year since every diocese engaged in a listening process as part of the Synodal Pathway. Many parishes have responded to the issues raised by the people of God and in turn have begun new initiatives, reforms, etc. The Synodal Times contacted all of Ireland’s 26 dioceses to ascertain what types of synodal-inspired initiatives have taken place in parishes since the culmination of the listening sessions. Four dioceses submitted reports in response.

Achonry Responding to the Synodal Process – Fr Eugene Duffy: Priest of the Diocese of Achonry

Achonry is a predominantly rural diocese, encompassing mainly parts of East Mayo, South Sligo and one parish in Roscommon, with a population of approximately 40,000 people. There are twenty-three parishes, now served by twenty-two parish priests and supported by a number who are retired.

During the autumn of 2021 and the spring of 2022 various consultation exercises were conducted in the diocese in preparation for the Universal Synod 2021-2024. The collated responses from the diocese show a very close correspondence to the national synthesis, insofar as the issues identified were almost identical. Indeed, when one looks at the syntheses from various countries around the world there is a remarkable similarity.

It is also interesting to note that there is very little in these syntheses that call for major doctrinal changes, apart from the issue of women’s ordination and some LGBT+ issues. In other words, most of what has been identified as needing attention or action is within the remit of each diocese. The question remains, what inhibits us as Church leaders or as Church members from becoming more proactive in addressing the pastoral issues that have been long identified as needing attention?

As a first step in responding to what emerged from the Synodal process, Bishop Dempsey together with the Diocesan Pastoral Leadership Team, agreed that each parish establish or renew its Parish Pastoral Council (PPC).

 Each parish was provided with fresh guidelines for nominating and appointing members to the PPCs. In response to the synodal consultations, emphasis was placed on recruiting new members and representatives of the younger population. This was generally successful insofar as each parish now has a properly constituted PPC and a significant portion of the membership are first-time members of a PPC.

On February 17th 2023 the Bishop commissioned all of the PPCs at a Mass in the Cathedral. Over the following two months, training was provided for them at seven venues across the diocese. The training programme involved attendance on two evenings for about two hours and a follow-up day to be held in June. The programme was entitled, “A Church Structured for Mission”.

The programme content stressed the participative nature of Church membership, the responsibility that each member has for the life and wellbeing of the parish, the priority of people over territory in the life of the Church, as well as basic guidelines in running good meetings.

In light of the importance given to communications in the feedback from the synodal process, this was stressed during the training sessions. It was recommended that PPC members listen to what people in the parish are saying about the life of their local Church, to elicit their views as to what needs attention, to publish, via the parish newsletter and website the issues being considered by the PPC and to alert people to the decisions that are taken.

The training sessions also devoted some time to how a discernment process underpins good decision making in a pastoral context. This had been identified in the consultative process as an unfamiliar methodology, one which has been mentioned regularly by Pope Francis in his various addresses.

It was also suggested during these training sessions that the issues highlighted by the synodal process could be put on the agendas of the PPCs. Some of these could be prioritised and worked on methodically over a period of time.

A further suggestion was that each PPC carry out a regular evaluation of its work. This was regarded as important because very often projects are not sustained or fail without any assessment of what happened.

An evaluation process provides insight as to what is positive in a project and can also identify where there are weaknesses. Without this information, especially where there are failures, enthusiasm and energy are sapped and any attempt to try the same or similar projects in the future will meet with cynicism.

While the Diocesan Pastoral Leadership Team prioritised the establishment of PPCs in each of the parishes, it has also encouraged various diocesan commissions to pick up on other items in the Diocesan Synthesis.

The Diocesan Youth Commission is supporting training for youth leaders in the diocese, as well as developing initiatives such as the John Paul II Awards, a Diocesan Youth Day and youth pilgrimages. The Diocesan Liturgy Commission, too, has been addressing some of the concerns noted in the synodal process. Training has been put in place for those involved in the Ministry of Reader and Extraordinary Ministers of the Eucharist and several workshops have been offered for parish choirs.

Chrism Mass

Diocesan events such as the Chrism Mass and the Commissioning of the PPCs have been used to model good liturgical practices, involving a better representation of ministries, age groups and ethnic groups.

The agenda created by the Synodal process is very comprehensive and can only be addressed over a long period of time. Nevertheless, a start has been made and certain items have been prioritised. Even these very modest beginnings have generated a sense of enthusiasm and energy across the parishes.

In the end of the day, the Synod is simply a catalyst for the local Churches to engage more proactively with some of the longstanding and urgent pastoral needs of our parishes. We continue to pray that the good work begun can be brought to completion.

Synodality in the Archdiocese of Armagh: April 2022 – April 2023

Since the end of the local consultation sessions last April, and the publication of the National Synthesis in August, there have been significant steps taken to establish synodality in the Archdiocese of Armagh.

A Diocesan Synodal Moment with priests and people from every parish in the archdiocese was organised for 10th May to review the raw data from the diocesan consultation, foster further discussion, and extract the key issues. The feedback was then synthesized by the Diocesan Synodal Core Group for the 29th of May, in preparation for the National Synodal Moment held in Athlone on the 18th of June.

In addition to serving on the Diocesan Synodal Core Group, Auxiliary Bishop Michael Router and the youth coordinator, Janet Forbes, also serve on the National Steering Committee. In the months of June and July, they, with others from the national team, helped to prepare the mate[1]rials for the National Synodal Moment and to compile the National Synthesis.

The synthesis was completed and released on August 16th in Knock and the Diocesan Synodal Core Group distributed it to the priests and parishes of the Archdiocese for local discussion. On 1st December, another Diocesan Synodal Moment was held with over one hundred people present to see what could be learned from the Armagh Diocesan Synthesis. The participants also reviewed the National Synthesis and provided feedback for the delegation who were representing the Irish Church at the European Synodal Gathering in Prague in February.

As part of the diocesan effort to keep the synodal momentum alive the parish representatives and priests present at the December meeting were asked to prioritize what could be done in the diocese over the next two years without waiting for the approval of the universal Church or the outcome of the last session of the Synod on Synodality in October 2024.

The following are the issues that were highlighted by the participants as achievable priorities in the coming years. The issues raised, which are summarised below, will provide an interim pastoral plan for the diocese until the proposed Diocesan Assembly in 2025.

  1. Evangelization and the transmission of Faith: The question of how we share the Gospel message and connect it to everyday life is a concern. Enhancing liturgical celebrations, focusing on the quality of homilies, and making language more accessible, coupled with a review of communication structures/practices across the Archdiocese of Armagh, is a priority. There is a strong call to reach out beyond traditional boundaries and include the LGBTQI+ community, those experiencing poverty, ethnic groups etc, living in the Archdiocese of Armagh.
  2. Formation in Faith and Synodal Practice: Providing services to cater to the sacramental needs of the baptised often takes up most of our energy, rather than reaching out to the uncatechised, marginalised, or disaffected. The task of being a missionary disciple, which we are all called to at baptism, is often seen as a task for others, especially the ordained and commissioned few. Formation in faith and synodal practices of discernment are a priority for the Archdiocese of Armagh.
  3. Creation of spaces for authentic dialogue: There is a desire for transparency and the creation of spaces where everyone can speak freely. The creation of such spaces grounded in prayer and spirituality is a priority. The next stage in our diocesan synodal journey will focus on this desire for the creation of spaces for dialogue. The Archdiocese will strive to support and foster such local gatherings and continued dialogue.
  4. Co-responsible and Synodal governance and leadership: The Archdiocese of Armagh and its parishes have councils and com[1]missions in place that are grounded in co-responsibility. However, more needs to be done to make these groups truly representative and authentically co-responsible. Communication needs to be improved to provide a better flow of information and feedback between the Parish Pastoral Councils, the Pastoral Areas, the Diocesan Pastoral Council, the Bishops and others who assist in the governance of the diocese.
  5. Young people, women, and the marginalised: Young people feel that little has been done to make them feel part of the faith community, and women, though involved and committed in many ways, feel marginalised and have little say in the decisions that are made. The Archdiocese is called to affirm and champion the role of women, create spaces where young people feel welcome, and actively accompany those who are marginalised.

Ongoing Work on Synodality

The priorities outlined above have been presented to the priests of the archdiocese at a meeting of the Council of Priests and at a Vicars Forane meeting during the early months of 2023 for discussion and comment.

Priests were encouraged to discuss them with their Pastoral Councils and decide in the coming months what they might be able to achieve at a local level. The foundation for these priorities is already evident in most parishes but further work will need to be done in order to develop them and embed them as a regular part of parish life.

The priorities and calls to action listed above have also been discussed at the first meeting of the Diocesan Pastoral Council’s new term and will provide the basis of an agenda for their time in office. At diocesan level we are endeavouring to realign the existing structures, according to synodal principles and to enhance the role of the lay faithful in all decision making.

Regarding youth ministry in the Archdiocese of Armagh a strong call for accompaniment and formation of young people emerged from synodal listening held at, local, national and universal level. Considering this call to action, the Archdiocese felt that this was such a significant area that it has already held two synodal gatherings centred on youth ministry.

These took place in February and March 2023. The findings of these gatherings are being considered and discerned further by the Archdiocese. Priorities and calls to action regarding youth ministry are currently being circulated to clergy and parish pastoral councils.

There is a lot happening but as is often the case in Church a small number of people at diocesan and parish level carry out the bulk of the work so sometimes the progress, while steady, can be slow.

This is unlikely to change until people are more familiar and comfortable with the synodal method of dialogue and discernment. The Archdiocese of Armagh is therefore committed to developing long term practices and processes aimed at growing confidence, competence, and capacity for the task of developing a synodal Church.

The Diocese of Limerick and engagement with the Universal Synod and the Irish Synodal Pathway

Diocesan Phase

On 9th and 10th October 2021, Pope Francis launched the Universal Synod on Synodality. Thus began what was termed the ‘diocesan phase’ when every diocese engaged in listening and consultation, submitting their thoughts and findings by the end of May 2022 – feast of the Ascension.

In Limerick, 38 parishes engaged with the Listening Process, group synodal conversations were also held at various locations, with a number of parish groups and a varied selection of other ecclesial and social groups – 29 such groups were interviewed from a wide range of backgrounds – and 28 online submissions were received through the Diocesan website questionnaire alongside a number of individual submissions received.

This data generated the data for analysis and discernment to create the Diocesan Synthesis.

Limerick Diocesan Synod 2016

However, we also included the work from our own recent Diocesan Synod. In the two years leading up to 2016 a very significant listening process was conducted whereby all sixty parishes engaged in listening and discernment along with a further twenty-five other groups including educational facilities, migrants, members of the Travelling community, people with disabilities, youth ministry groups and social workers.

More than 4,000 people responded to questionnaires and a further 1,500 people participated in large gatherings and small group discussions. Emphasis was placed on trying to reach people on the margins and those who have lost connection with or become disenfranchised from the Church. Pope Francis has urged us to do likewise in this Universal Synod.

As stated, the Diocesan Synod of 2016 has yielded a great deal of data which was further coded into twelve themes – six of which were brought forward to the Synod itself. This data and these themes were now integrated in to the listening which has been recently engaged in throughout the diocese as part of the Universal Synod.

It is interesting to note congruence and divergence between what has emerged from the two processes. Finalising the Diocesan Synthesis We have a ‘synodal team’ comprised of ten people – laity, clergy, religious. This group met to read through the various submissions and produced a draft of the Diocesan Synthesis.

This draft was presented at a Pre-Synodal Meeting which was held in Rathkeale on May 28th 2022 and was essentially an opportunity to feed back to those who had engaged the summary to check for accuracy and whether it truly reflected that which had been named. Subsequently the draft was finalised and submitted at national level.

Finalising the Irish Synthesis

In June 2022 at national level a group of readers and writers produced a draft from the 26 diocesan syntheses and a further 25 submissions. On the 18th June 2022 – Vigil of Corpus Christi – the National Pre-Synodal Meeting was held in Athlone. 160 delegates from all 26 dioceses and other groupings attended.

In August 2022 – The Synthesis of the Consultation in Ireland for the Diocesan Stage of the Universal Synod is finalised and sent to Rome. Finalising the Continental Document A group of Readers and Writers sat for two weeks in Frascatti in Italy to review the syntheses of 112 different Episcopal Conferences throughout the world.

They then created a synthesis of this in a wonderful document entitled ‘Enlarge the Space of Your Tent – the Working Document for the Continental Stage’. This document (as part of the continuous ‘feed-back loop’) was sent back out to the local Churches.

Limerick’s Engagement with the Continental Document

The Diocesan Synodal Team has read across all three syntheses; the diocesan, the national and the Continental. In reading them they engaged with three questions:

*What resonates, what is new?

*What are the Challenges?

*What are the priorities and the calls to action – at diocesan level, at national level and at universal level?

Our response to these questions was two-fold. On the one-hand we submitted our diocesan response to the National Office whereby it formed part of the Irish Submission offered in Prague in February. On the other-hand we also wanted engage Pastoral Units and parishes to identify particular, concrete actions at local level.

On 28th January 2023 in the Rathkeale House Hotel a diocesan gathering took place in which the synodal team presented its report and named issues that could be addressed at local and diocesan level. It was also agreed that this needs to be integrated with the Diocesan Pastoral Plan – Moving Forward Together In Hope – which was developed following the Diocesan Synod of 2016.

Issues that were identified and which have been taken on at diocesan and parish level include:

*Be a listening, welcoming Church.

*Faith formation.

*Pastoral Care of the Family.

*Parental Partnership in sacramental preparation.

*Communication – using technology to promote the message.

*Liturgical renewal.

*Enlarge the space of your tent.” Bring more people in; expand the tent; be missionary vis a vis youth and others.

*The role of women.

*Ministry to LGBTQI.

 *Foster encounter with the person of Jesus Christ through generating small Christian communities and small faith communities based on the Word. We need to underline community dimension in the practice of faith. Also, spaces where people can come together and talk about faith – speaking out of a ‘faith experienced’ context.

*Promote a synodal way of being at every level…keep ever-before us the question “Are we being truly synodal?”

 *Look creatively at our Church buildings. There is ongoing work in the diocese around developing a model of leadership based on pastoral units (grouping of parishes); bereavement support and funeral liturgy teams; Pastoral Unit Councils; faith formation and catechesis; creative liturgies; responding to Laudato ‘Si etc.

Navan Parish – Diocese of Meath – Parish priest Fr Declan Hurley

Bishop Thomas Deenihan has asked every parish in the Diocese of Meath to constitute a parish pastoral assembly. So whereas before some parishes would’ve had parish councils, Bishop Deenihan was very anxious that every parish would establish a new form of parish council. So there was a fair bit of thought that went into what that would be.

A name change was part of it. It’s seen as being more representative of the parish community – something that’s more concerned with pastoral and faith initiatives rather than parish management. It’s very much oriented toward evangelisation and mission and that’s prob[1]ably the main distinction between this new model and the former model.

As part of the process for constituting the new parish pastoral assembly, each parish is asked to conduct listening sessions and information sessions with parishioners. We took that to heart in Navan.

We said that we want to consult parishioners and inform them about this new parish assembly. We thought that it would be helpful to do this in the context of the previous conversations of the previous Lent which were the synodal conversations of the Diocesan Phase of the Universal Synod.

We did this by harvesting the findings of the Synod in Lent 2022 and our steering committee prioritised three of them and then we held listening sessions around those three and how the new parish pastoral assembly might prioritise them when it’s constituted. It was also a way of discerning the type of people that we will invite and would be nominated for our parish assembly.

People are getting used to the words Synod and synodality. They’re seeing it but the vast majority of people still don’t understand. They might be aware of something going on at a universal level, they might be aware that there’s a Synod coming up in Rome and that it affects all of us in some way and that all are invited to be part of it in some way. But for the vast majority of parishioners, it hasn’t really landed with them yet.

 However, I have to say that the meetings that we had at Lent this year gave parishioners who participated a great experience of what it can mean to be synodal. In our first meeting we looked at the Synod finding from last year that encompassed a sense of belonging and what this would mean.

So we had a presentation on that and then we had a spiritual conversation – the model of conversation that the synodal process is really encouraging. It was lovely to see the people in the room – you had some of the priests of the parish sitting with people, knowing that they’re being listened to.

As a result of these meetings, we’ll be able to give the newly-constituted parish assembly a good roadmap to start with. Perhaps there is a sense amongst clergy and those who were more involved with the synodal conversations last year that things have plateaued a bit and that there’s not much happening.

What is very much coming from the steering committee is an encouragement just to be synodal. Based on what we did last year at diocesan level, based on what came out of the National Pre-Synodal Assembly last year, we don’t have to wait for Rome to give us permission to begin acting because already there are the fruits of a synodal process which we can begin to action at parish level and at diocesan level.

Take faith formation, that’s something that any parish can begin to do. We could invite people to come to open meetings to discuss what the Spirit is prompting us to do here. So what’s going on now is an encouragement – an encouragement for people to be synodal. To begin to address things in parishes in a synodal way. I think that’s what’s happening.

There’s nothing glitzy about it – just perhaps a little change. Just to give an example, before this I might’ve run with an idea but now I would do it in a much more consultative way where we can listen and chat. Of course, it’s not about listening to my idea, it’s about listening to the Spirit who leads, guides and prompts us. That’s the big change here. Synodality is actually giving us a way to bring together views that are polarised – even at a parish level.

Michelle Daly – Chairperson of the outgoing Parish Pastoral Council in Navan Parish

It’s been a really nice opportunity for all of us – even going back as far as the synodal conversations that we have had. We’ve really put into action what that synodal conversation was about. What I think we’ve done with regard to the pastoral assembly, we tried as much as possible to harvest the ideas of as many as we could and going forward that’s what we’re trying to do.

I know that I, as an individual, and many of the people that are involved in the parish, find the parish to be a real source of life for us in our way of living and really have a value for the parish in our own lives; getting together and chatting about where we feel the parish could go and what potentials are there.

There are so many people in our parish who have a hunger to develop the parish and to develop themselves within that parish and I think what this process has allowed for us is the opportunity to get involved, have their voices heard and formulate a vision for what the parish could be, whether that be in their own mind or together in a group. In expressing all of that, it really encourages everybody.

When you talk about what the parish means to you and what’s going on and what could go on, it kind of gives you a bit of impetus for enthusiasm and you think that you have your own role to play in conjunction with the clergy. You don’t just sit back and get everything served to you, it’s about being aware of our giftedness that comes from the sacrament of baptism and knowing what we can offer and do.

I think that’s something that both the Synodal Pathway and definitely the move to the assembly as opposed the parish council have fostered. I think the call seems to be – I could be wrong – but I think the call is urging us to get up off of our bums and do something with the idea of evangelisation and mission.

With the three point plan we had, there was a real case of knowing that these are three areas that we could look at that would give people that impetus to realise that the time is done for sitting around and we really have something to give; but there are loads of challenges with that. But it is an opportunity to see what’s possible and to do it together.

The culture has changed so much. There’s a sense among the people that they want to understand their faith so that they can become missionary but in an authentic sense where their faith is really owned by them.

I think in one way, that’s where the change in culture has done us a service because all of the people who attended our meetings were happy to stand up and say that they probably don’t understand their faith enough. In the past that was okay; but it isn’t okay anymore.

There was a real sense of a desire from those who attended to cry out for the Holy Spirit to touch our lives so that we then have the bravery to move forward and then to action what we talk about.

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