The Irish synod and the quiet revolution of Francis

The Irish synod and the quiet revolution of Francis Pope Francis greets a youth delegate in 2018 before a session of the Synod of Bishops on young people, the Faith and vocational discernment at the Vatican. Photo: CNS.
The Pope is putting greater faith in the local Church and does not believe that the magisterium must intervene to settle every doctrinal, moral and pastoral dispute, writes Fr Declan Marmion SM

The Catholic Church is typically structured as a pyramid – the Pope at the top, people at the base. Pope Francis wants to turn this image on its head. He calls it an ‘inverted pyramid’. The clergy, bishops, cardinals, and even the Pope himself, are all located beneath the people, providing a system of support for the Christian community, and where the only authority is the authority of service.

One practical result is the appointment of laypeople to head key Vatican departments. Recently an Italian journalist and media professional was asked to lead the Holy See’s communications office. Francis has also urged Vatican officials to appoint women to leadership roles in the Curia, which typically has been a clerical closed shop. He has reopened the issue of women deacons, a topic much discussed at the Amazon synod. Progress might be too glacial for some, but the glaciers are beginning to move.


The final document of the Amazon synod shows how Francis is laying the groundwork for reform in the Church. If he disappointed some by side-stepping (for now) the hot-button issues of women deacons and the ordination of married men, neither did he silence the discussion. He is putting greater faith in the local Church and does not believe the magisterium (the Church’s teaching office) must intervene to settle every doctrinal, moral and pastoral dispute.

Francis sees himself as a listener. The Pope, he believes, should listen to what the people are saying and learn from them. He accompanies the Church, heeding the different and differing voices, while trying to harmonise them.

This is Francis’ synodal vision. A synodal Church is a Church which listens, and this requires a new way of operating. It means real engagement with all members of the Church and reflects Francis’ desire for a less clerical Church preoccupied with rules.

‘Synod’ means ‘walking together.’ The Church is the People of God, “companions on the journey,” with a mission to proclaim the Gospel. On this journey, Francis urges pastors to “keep connected to the ‘base’ and to start from people and their daily problems”.

Synodality commits the Church to real engagement with all members of the Church. We do this, says Francis, “by discerning with our people and never for our people or without our people”.

Francis has set the tone. He believes the search for truth is best undertaken together fostered in a climate of dialogue and honest debate. But synodality is not only about listening and collaboration, but part of a wider agenda of reform – including reform of the Roman Curia, of bishops’ synods, and of the papacy itself.

Nevertheless, the process of discerning and determining a consensus in matters of faith involves tension, disagreement and conflict – even among bishops themselves, as recent synods have shown.

Francis is unfazed by this. He encouraged and approved of the open discussions and debates at the synod on the family. He believes in the synodal process as a collective search for the truth, not one where majority rules, but where the aim is to allow a common will to emerge in the Church. As one theologian put it: “dialogue is the means through which the Spirit communicates” (Ormond Rush).


If synodal processes desire to consult as widely as possible, then the sense of faith not only of committed believers but also of those who are on the periphery needs to be heard. These include: the poor, those who are ambivalent towards, or dissent from, aspects of Church teaching, the separated and divorced, and members of the LGBT community.

Francis is aware that many reforms come from the periphery. The sense of faith pertains to all the Faithful and the Church has much to learn from the experience of its sceptical and alienated members.

The opposite of synodality is clericalism. This is a mindset that resists the participation of laity in the life of the Church, keeping them on the edges of ecclesial life and away from decision making. It opposes the creation of synodal structures, where people can express themselves.

Synodality begins at home. The first level in which synodality operates is at the local level – it begins in the parish. Synodal processes include diocesan, regional and universal assemblies: from local or national gatherings to ecumenical councils. Synodal processes are currently underway throughout the Catholic world from Germany to Australia, while Pope Francis has chosen ‘synodality’ as the theme for the next world meeting of bishops in 2022.


Closer to home the Diocese of Limerick held a synod in 2016, the first synod in Ireland in 50 years. This entailed a process of listening, discerning and identifying key themes to be discussed at the three-day Synod. The outcome was a ten-year synodal plan for the diocese (2016-2026) designed to bring about change with progress reports available online. In the context of fewer priests, new models of leadership are being explored.

The Limerick synod was a call to “a more mission-shaped Church” and a rediscovery of “the vocation and responsibility of all the baptised”. The vision of the Church is that of a “community of communities”, including schools, hospitals, prisons, and nursing homes, as well as other, often new, religious associations, institutes and movements. Francis is convinced that the Church is only the Church if it is there for others, going out, and creating, what he calls, a “culture of encounter”. The mission of the Church is not restricted to tasks within the Church but is ultimately about the transformation of society.

There is a ‘quiet revolution’ taking place under Francis – one that is convinced that a synodal Church is the Church of the future.

Fr Declan Marmion SM is professor of systematic theology at St Patrick’s College, Maynooth and editor of the Irish Theological Quarterly.