Hopes for a new Spring for the Church in Ireland

Hopes for a new Spring for the Church in Ireland Professor Eamonn Conway presenting a copy of The Synodal Pathway to Pope Francis during a recent reception for Catholic educators at the Vatican.

Fr Niall Coll

The Synodal Pathway: When Rhetoric Meets Reality, edited by Eamon Conway, Eugene Duffy and Mary McDaid (Columba Books, €16.99/£14.99)

St John Henry Newman famously observed that “there has seldom been a Council without great confusion after it”.

The Second Vatican Council (1962-65) was no exception. Hence the often fractious discourse between traditionalists and progressives concerning its meaning and implementation in the decades since.

Whatever the merits or otherwise of their respective arguments, the pontificate of Francis, now in its tenth year, is about inviting the Church into a new phase in the reception of Vatican II. Even if Pope Francis did not participate in the Council, it is the backdrop to all he says.

The various emphases of his pontificate – a Church that is poor, a merciful Church, a missionary Church, etc – are attempts to encapsulate vital aspects of the Council’s vision.

Pope Francis and Synodality

‘Synodality’ is the catch-all phrase that the pope uses to express Vatican II’s comprehensive vision of the Church. While the Council itself did not use this precise term it has taken on a great resonance in his writings and preaching.

He speaks repeatedly of “a listening Church, a synodal Church” as he seeks to promote a more participatory and dialogical style of Church life universally. A synodal Church will therefore be mindful of the medieval maxim, “what affects all must be addressed by all”.

Pope Francis has gone on to envisage a synodal Church as a kind of “inverted pyramid” in which “the top is located beneath the base”. Consequently, those who exercise authority in the church are called ‘ministers,’ because, in the original meaning of the word, they are the least of all. “It is in serving the people of God that each bishop becomes, for that portion of the flock entrusted to him, vicarius Christi . . .”

A synodal church is one that listens, it is a mutual listening in which everyone has something to learn – the faithful people, the college of bishops, the Bishop of Rome – all listening to each other, all listening to the Holy Spirit, the “Spirit of truth”, in order to know what the Spirit is saying to the Church.

The Synodal Pathway

On March 10, 2021, the Irish Catholic bishops conference announced a Synodal Pathway for the Catholic Church in Ireland in preparation for a National Synodal Assembly or Assemblies within the next five years.

It is part of a wider global consultation process which Pope Francis has launched in preparation for the XVI Ordinary General Assembly of the Bishops dedicated to the theme, ‘For a Synodal Church: Communion, Participation and Mission’ that is due to take place in Rome in October 2023. Already a process of widespread consultations has taken place over recent months in in the parishes and dioceses of Ireland regarding the Synodal Pathway for the Irish Church.

The book under review here seeks to explore the meaning of synodality and its rich foundations within the Catholic tradition.

In the introduction, Fr Eamonn Conway explains that the volume brings together a range of writers, most of them Irish, to explore the meaning of synodality, to make a case for it in the life of the Church today and to counsel that if the process does not arrive at “the desired destination of sincere and meaningful Church reform” that it will leave the Church in an even worse situation than hitherto.

Sr Nathalie Becquart critiques clerical power and argues for new structures in the Church to align synodality and collaborative ministry”

The book is divided into two parts: the first explores the foundations for synodality in the Catholic Church and the second speaks out of particular ecclesial contexts. In the opening chapter, Austen Ivereigh, a biographer of Pope Francis, offers an insightful analysis of the Pope’s vision of a synodal church, one which seeks space for ecclesial discernment of spirits prior to apostolic action.

Rafael Luciani and Serena Noceti, the former a close collaborator with the Latin American Bishops and the latter an Italian theologian, in their essay, shed light on the connection between synodality and the ongoing reception of the Second Vatican Council.

Sr Nathalie Becquart critiques clerical power and argues for new structures in the Church to align synodality and collaborative ministry. Dutch Jesuit Jos Moons offers an introduction to the process of discernment so essential to the notion of synodality and the Maynooth scholar Jessie Rodgers highlights the practice of communal discernment in the early church.

Fr Gerry O’Hanlon SJ, a long-time advocate of ecclesial renewal in Ireland, explores the sensus fidei, the sense of the faith, both in the individual and in the whole community, and the light it can throw upon contested issues most obviously with respect to Church teaching on sexuality and gender.

Parish renewal

The book’s second section opens with Fr Eugene Duffy exploring synodality in the context of a diocese and reviewing various approaches to diocesan and parish renewal that have occurred in Ireland since Vatican II.

Fr Eamonn Fitzgibbon gives an account of the Limerick diocese’s synodal process. Fr Bernd Hagenkord SJ and Fr Timothy Costelloe SDB respectively discuss the German Synodal Pathway and the Fifth Plenary Council of the Church in Australia. Janet Forbes, a pastoral worker in Armagh diocese, argues that a synodal church can learn from the fields of Leadership and Management about helping people in realising vision and mission.

Maureen Kelly, a co-ordinator of liturgy and spirituality in the Killaloe diocese, aware of the extent of the crisis of credibility that the Church in Ireland faces, argues that these issues cannot be faced by local dioceses working in isolation.

In the final two chapters Baroness Nuala O’Loan and Patrick Treacy, both with extensive legal backgrounds, identify specific obstacles to accountability and thus to a genuine exercise of listening and synodality in the life of the Church.

Baroness O’Loan regrets the tardiness of many canonical processes and Treacy offers a cri de coeur for bishops to ensure that they comply with statutory requirements of company and charity law in the management of Church assets. This will require a better understanding and appreciation of the fiduciary obligations of all trustees, whether lay or clerical.

Eugene Duffy is surely correct here when he laments the slow pace of ecclesial and pastoral reform in Ireland since the Council”

This book will be a most useful companion for those who wish to participate in the synodal process that is now underway across the country.

Each chapter provides discussion questions which parish and deanery groups might find useful in understanding synodality better and planning for the future. Eugene Duffy is surely correct here when he laments the slow pace of ecclesial and pastoral reform in Ireland since the Council.

Hopefully, the diocesan synods and assemblies planned for Ireland over the next few years will be the beginning of a process which will herald new life as the second wave of Vatican II reforms so close to Pope Francis’ heart are encouraged to take firm root in our country.

Dr Niall Coll is Parish Priest of Donegal Town and Clar.

The Synodal Pathway: When Rhetoric Meets Reality co-edited by Professor Eamonn Conway, Mary McDaid and Eugene Duffy is available to purchase at Columba Books.