Don’t focus on ‘winning a debate’ during synod

Don’t focus on ‘winning a debate’ during synod Irish Catholic bishops have chosen Nicola Brady to head up preparations for a national synod of the church in Ireland, due to be held in the next five years. Photo: CNS.
The Pope’s call for a more collaborative Church inspired by the margins is winning hearts and minds, one of the organisers tells Chai Brady

It’s no secret that Pope Francis has been met with a mixed reaction since his election in 2013. Many people have hailed his emphasis on a humble Church listening to those on the existential margins. Others have despaired of what they have perceived as the Pontiff’s lack of engagement in the so-called ‘culture wars’ around issues like abortion and same-sex marriage.

From his election, the Argentine has emphasised one of the great unfinished works of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65): the theme of synodality. The concept was not a new one with firm roots in the early Church, but the council sought to breathe new life into the process.

Fast forward to 2021, and the Pope has now set the entire universal Church on a synodal path. Dr Nicola Brady, who has been appointed to lead the process in Ireland, admits that there have been fears and apprehension as well as enthusiasm since the Irish hierarchy announced a synod for the Church in Ireland.

However, she is adamant that through engagement any fears can be dispensed.

Speaking to The Irish Catholic Dr Brady said that: “Certainly people have fears and apprehensions about the process and some of those are based on people not having experience of what synodality is and thinking that it’s about parliamentary style debates – that the people who have the best arguments or the most votes are going to win”.

A key part of the work of her steering group will be ensuring that people know what a synod is and, crucially, what it is not. “The responsibility for us is to communicate to people around discernment and that it’s about deep listening, respectful dialogue,” she said.

Dr Brady and the steering group want to share good news stories about the Church in Ireland, to create a space where people can share what is important to them, what they love about their faith and the ways in which they have seen God at work in their local Church community and beyond.

She adds: “Of course there is also the space for people to share their hurts, their concerns and their fears but it is a hope-filled process and for something to be hope-filled it needs to engage with the difficult realities that are there but open up the space in which we commit to working together for a better future.”

Dr Brady, has a wealth of experience in ecumenism and interfaith dialogue and hopes she can bring this to the process. “You do find that when you create a space for honest, respectful dialogue that people do get a sense of being lifted up by that shared Christian witness. They are lifted up by the feelings of solidarity that bring people together to engage in those issues and it helps them and it strengthens them in their faith and it strengthens them in their motivation to get out there and work for healing of relationships, bringing people together and sharing the ‘good news’ in a society that is increasingly secular, increasingly multicultural and finding that solidarity and standing together help support people in their leadership journey,” she said.


So far in the synodal process Dr Brady was struck by the number of people who have been inspired by Pope Francis’ leadership and his call to be a Church that goes out to the existential margins.

“I’ve gone through the consultation responses that were sent in when the bishops opened the public consultation and it’s a recurring theme,” she said, “for a lot of people that’s one of the most important elements of this, that we are taking up the call and following that leadership example that has been set by Pope Francis. They see this as a really important opportunity for the Church in Ireland as a whole, to follow that lead and really just embed that kind of outreach.”

Asked about doctrinal issues such as women’s ordination – which Pope Francis has emphasised is off the agenda  – Dr Brady would not say whether she felt the synod should and would stray into this territory, despite being repeatedly asked, but said “At this stage, all voices are welcome”. However, she added that the synod is not about “winning a debate” or “pushing a particular policy”.


“We want people to bring their hopes about the future of the Church, we want to create a space in which people can share their concerns and it’s really important that those spaces are as inclusive and representative as possible so the most important thing at this point is for people to get involved,” she said.

“We’re asking the big questions: we’re asking what God is saying to the Church in Ireland at this time and therefore it’s not about a limited number of issues, it’s about the journey that we’re on together as a Church so we need to create a space in which all of those issues can be raised but we can’t lose sight as well of the fact that we are working towards a long-term Spirit-led transformation in the Church in Ireland.

“We hope that as people engage, they will benefit from that engagement in lots of ways and understand that it’s not about winning a debate, it’s not about pushing a particular policy but getting involved in a process of reflection, discernment, dialogue,” she said.

In terms of what will happen through the synod, Dr Brady said there are many different ways the results of discussions can be implemented.

“I would hope that people who step up and make the effort to get engaged will not be disappointed because they will see there are lots of ways that we benefit through this engagement and a lot of that is around understanding our faith better, thinking about how it’s communicated, how we connect with people and how we bring that Christian witness into the wider society.”


Like so much else, Covid-19 continues to cast a shadow on the work of the synod process. Dr Brady insists that there is a need to be sensitive as it has “brought so much suffering”.

“There’s such a keen awareness of that at local level because of the pastoral support to the bereaved and the various different forms of community outreach that parishes and faith-based organisations have been involved in, so we’re very aware of all the ways people have suffered through bereavement, people experiencing isolation, those who have experienced financial difficulties and there are also obviously the feelings of loss from the times when we couldn’t come together in the local parish church and people couldn’t be present in person for Mass… the process has to be really sensitive to that,” she said.

A year ago, the bishops announced that they hoped the process would lead to a national synod of the Church in Ireland within five years. At the same time, the Irish process will feed into the continental phase of the Pope’s universal synod, a key plank of which will be next year’s Rome-based ‘synod on synods’.