‘The Synodal Pathway – When Rhetoric Meets Reality’

Being synodal is being receptive to the cry of all of the faithful, writes Bishop Paul Dempsey. Back in 2011 a new version of the Roman Missal came into existence.  We were told it would …

Being synodal is being receptive to the cry of all of the faithful, writes Bishop Paul Dempsey.

Back in 2011 a new version of the Roman Missal came into existence.  We were told it would be an exact translation of the original Latin text and would contribute to the much-needed renewal in the Church.  Even though I was ordained fourteen years at that stage, I heard little, if anything, about it.  In the months coming up to its introduction I had a conversation with an aunt of mine, a faith filled Catholic.  She had been faithful to the Church all throughout her life.  When I told her of the impending changes to the liturgical language she replied: “Could they not just leave the Mass alone.”  Shortly afterwards there was a gathering of three dioceses: Kildare and Leighlin, Ossory, and Ferns.  At this gathering the local bishops along with liturgists emphasised that this new translation would be the vehicle for the much-needed renewal in the life of the Church.  There was a great deal of scepticism in the room.


I plucked up the courage to stand up and share the conversation I had with my aunt, asking that things might be just left alone and that there were other more pressing items needed to renew the Church.  The comment was met by an uncomfortable silence.  I sat down realising that the voice of a faith filled and faithful Catholic, like my aunt, who supported the Church in every way throughout her life was a voice that did not count when it came to decisions in the life of her Church.  Interestingly, St. Jerome, the great Doctor of the Sacred Scriptures, spending twenty years to translate the bible into Latin, was not a literalist. 

He said: “If I translate word by word, it sounds absurd.”  In any case, I am still waiting for the great renewal that was promised with the introduction of the new translation.


I share this experience with you this evening as it clearly illustrates the antithesis of synodality.  It is a real-life example of people not being asked or consulted about an important issue in the life of the Church.  It is a good example of the “command and control” model.  It is how things should not be done and we need to learn from it.  The process of Synodality, encouraged by Pope Francis, offers us the opportunity to learn how things could be done, where every voice is respected, and every voice is heard.  There is no doubt that Synodality is the hot topic in the Church today.  I am at a symposium on Synodality on Saturday.  In September I will be attending a course for newly ordained bishops in Rome.  I glanced at the outline of the eight days and noticed every talk, every input has Synodality in its heading.  Thankfully I will be well equipped to contribute to the conversations having “The Synodal Journey” with me.  Of course, it has already made its way to Rome when it was presented personally to Pope Francis by Professor Eamonn Conway a few weeks ago.  I understand Pope Francis was particularly attentive to the subheading “When Rhetoric Meets Reality.”   

The reality of our situation as Church is quite stark, it is outlined very clearly and succinctly in the fifteen essays presented to us in “The Synodal Pathway.”  There is no doubt the footprint of Catholicism is weakening rapidly within our society and the scaffolding that was familiar within parish life that supported so many generations in the faith, has collapsed.  The reality is that faith no longer speaks, not only to people “out there,” but to many within our own families and circles of friends.  As Michael Paul Gallagher SJ reminded us: “God is missing, but not missed.”  How this has come about is a deep and complex question.  Charles Taylor, the Canadian Sociologist grapples with this question in his comprehensive work “A Secular Age” where he poses the question:  

Why was it virtually impossible not to believe in God in, say, 1500 in our Western society, while in 2000 many of us find this not only easy, but even inescapable?”   

Closely related to this, Michael Paul Gallagher SJ asks the deeper questions: “Behind the statistics of religious decline, what is happening to people’s spiritual imagination? What is really happening to people’s deeper selves?  What is happening to their felt meanings and values?  His concern is that the “loss of such anchors can leave people existentially stranded and adrift.”  That, I believe, is the reality of so many people’s lives today, especially in the West, if you scratch the surface many are drifting, many are struggling with the question of meaning.  I heard it put simply by a speaker on one of the TED talks, where he said: “the reality of life for so many today is that they are working long hard hours, at jobs that they hate, to enable them to buy things they don’t need, in order to impress people they don’t like!”  That is the experience of many people today.  When Pope Francis tells us the Synodal Church is a Church that listens, a point he has emphasised so many times and is illustrated in “The Synodal Pathway,” I believe he wants to hear the existential cry within people’s hearts.

For Pope Francis the synodal journey, the synodal way of being Church is not just about hearing the controversial issues or so called “red button” issues, so familiar to us all, it is about listening to the deep cry of the human heart and trying to respond to that cry with the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  When we speak the language of synodality, we are journeying on sacred ground.”  

So many of the essays in “The Synodal Pathway” remind us that Synodality is rooted in the vision of the Second Vatican Council, especially the Constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium.  Pope Francis wishes to reenergise this vision.  The emphasis on the People of God is critical here, we do not journey alone, we journey together.  As has been pointed out, it is significant that the sequence in Lumen Gentium places the People of God before the Hierarchical structure of the Church.  This is key in understanding the essence of synodality.  The hierarchy is at the service of their brothers and sisters, something we may have forgotten as the emphasis often weighed more heavily on the side of self-preservation and importance rather than mission and service.  Synodality has shone a light on this and brought it into sharp focus. 


Pope Francis has clearly pointed out that the way of synodality is not just something he desires but it is something God desires.  Several references in the essays, reminded us of what he said during the commemoration of the 50th Anniversary of the Institution of the Synod of Bishops in 2015.  On that occasion he told us: “it is precisely this path of synodality which God expects of the Church in the third millennium.”  This clearly shows the depth of importance Pope Francis has placed in this way of being Church.  It also brings home the weight of responsibility we have as the People of God to respond to this call.  


It also exposes many challenges, too numerous to mention here, but clearly outlined in the chapters of “The Synodal Pathway.”  Some of those challenges might be as follows:  How do we truly listen to what people are saying?  As the understanding of the human person changes, people experience the world in a radically different way today from just a couple of decades ago, how does the Church speak to this?  Are those who carry the charism of leadership, truly ready to listen and perhaps respond in ways that were unimaginable before?  Is this a way of being Church that some are going along with for now, but deep within, are not convinced and have no intention of going this direction and will remain in and continue to live the clerical model?  How does synodality challenge the current mode of governance in the Church? 

Many of the questions raised by synodality today have already been discussed in local churches over many years, but no significant progress has been made, what is to say this will be any different?  And what of accountability, something that has been seriously lacking within Church leadership?  After all the listening, after all the consultation, who is ultimately accountable in this process?  These are just a few of the questions that emerged in my heart as I read through the various essays presented in “The Synodal Pathway.”   


I wish to thank and congratulate most sincerely the editors, Eamonn Conway, Eugene Duffy and Mary McDaid.  I mentioned earlier how synodality is the hot topic today.  There are so many books, articles, commentaries dedicated to the topic.  “The Synodal Pathway” is a clear and concise resource for anyone who wishes to understand the concept and the complexities of synodality.  The authors are informed by good theology, real pastoral experience, and solid life experience.  It is a stimulating read, which I found quite challenging as a Christian, as a Catholic, and as a bishop.  It opened up for me many questions that I am continuing to reflect upon.  It is wonderful that Pope Francis himself was presented with it during your recent visit to Rome.                    

The well-known 20th Century theologian, Karl Rahner SJ said that the Second Vatican Council was: “A watershed marking the transition from a European and western-Church to a world-Church… moving towards a more missionary style aiming to speak to those for whom Christianity had become alien.”   

Today Christianity has become alien to many, Pope Francis wishes that we, the People of God, through the prism of the Second Vatican Council and open to the Holy Spirit, would once again discern and discover our missionary zeal so that Jesus Christ can touch the hearts of those who are searching and are open to the new possibilities the joy of his Gospel offers.        

This address by Bishop Paul Dempsey was given at the launch of  The Synodal Pathway- Where Rhetoric Meets Reality edited by Eamonn Conway, Eugene Duffy and Mary McDaid and is reprinted here with permission.   

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