I felt blessed to be in Rome at the weekend to be with Pope Francis for the launch of the synodal way which will see a massive programme of consultation in every parish in the Catholic world. The Irish phase of the consultation – known as the synodal way – will begin in dioceses this coming Sunday (October 17).
It’s an exciting – if daunting – challenge that the Pope has set before the Church: to have 1.2 billion people from “every nation, race, tribe and language” (cf. Revelations 7:9) discern what God is saying to the Church in the 21st Century. In Rome, the byword from everything the Pope was saying was about ‘encounter’ – to authentically listen to one another and to journey alongside one another patiently listening to the Word of God and authentically interpreting the promptings of the Holy Spirit.
The Pope warned against what he characterised as dangerous polemics designed to divide people rather than bring people together.
It was a beautiful experience of the universal Church – together with the Successor of St Peter and under his authority: cum Petro et sub Petro.
In a word it was an experience of Communion and I left Rome invigorated about what the synodal pathway can offer to the renewal and revitalising of the Church in Ireland.
It was a short-lived experience. I had just landed in Dublin when I turned on RTÉ Radio One only to be confronted by two priests who were offering polemics very far from Pope Francis. One, Fr Roy Donovan was comparing the Church to the Taliban.
Yes, let that sink in for a second. Fr Donovan – a member of the leadership of the Association of Catholic Priests (ACP) said: “In Afghanistan, the Taliban have pushed women out of the public square back into the home with no part in decision-making in politics.
“The Church is Taliban-like because women are not involved in leadership or governance or decision-making. To all purposes they are excluded from public forums in the Church,” he said.
The murderous Taliban, really? An organisation that terrorises Afghanistan and Pakistan and metes out the most horrible violence to anyone who stands in their way? An organisation who shot a young girl in the face because she wanted to go to school? An organisation that executes people in the street who their crazed foot-soldiers view as having a haircut that is un-Islamic.
Even women who feel very strongly that there ought to be female priests in the Church will surely be dismayed at the glib comparison to the horrors going on in Afghanistan.
Speaking to this newspaper after the broadcast, Fr Donovan made it clear that his outing on radio had more to do with grabbing a headline rather than making a worthwhile contribution to discerning God’s will for the Church.
“The comparison is extreme,” he admitted. “But I’ve been saying this [about the inclusion of women] for the last seven or eight years and nobody in the Church is listening – and now by using the Taliban, if I’ve got people to listen, to wake up, and to see what’s happening and going on with the exclusion of women in all these different areas, then I’m ok with that.”
But, not to be outdone by this outlandishly over-the-top comparison with the Taliban, another priest was soon on the same programme insisting that he will resign if the Church doesn’t shift the position on women within six months.
Media punditry is a cruel master, those in demand one day are soon like eaten bread – forgotten. That means if one longs to “grab a headline” as Baroness Nuala O’Loan put it this week, one soon finds oneself having to up the ante.
The synodal pathway can be a grace-filled moment for the Church, universal as well as in Ireland. But, Pope Francis also warned at the weekend of the risks of a lack of maturity when it comes to discernment and authentically encountering one another.
A danger, he said, is a synodal process where no one listens and everyone sticks doggedly to their opinions.
It’s no secret that there are varying degrees of enthusiasm about the idea of a synod for the Church in Ireland amongst the members of the hierarchy. It’s illustrative to note that alongside those who speak with optimism about it, there are other bishops who have not uttered a word publicly about the process. What they have said in private is at least sceptical about the level of formation and maturity that may be present in the Church in Ireland for such a creative and bold gesture.
Those involved in organising the synodal process in Ireland will need the wisdom of King Solomon to keep it from being derailed by those who shout the loudest.
Maybe a key part of discernment might actually be those who have come to the conclusion that they have the most to offer, asking themselves honestly whether their shrill voices add anything to a culture of encounter. If the synod is about cheap shots and people trying to outdo one another for easy headlines, it will be an unmitigated disaster and simply contribute even more to the decline of Irish Catholicism.
I hope I am wrong – come Holy Spirit.