A core team was formed to connect with, and listen to, some of those at the margins of our Church in the Diocese of Down and Connor. The participants who shared their insights valued the opportunity, albeit that this was tempered by an uncertainty as to whether the Church would respond and effect the changes that they desired.
Many people find the Church to be a place of real belonging and a spiritual home where they have been cared for, nurtured and challenged to grow in faith. Throughout the synodal moments, people were conscious of those who were not in the room; it was with compassion that they recognised that the number of people from different ethnicities, younger people, and working families was low and that the synodal experience was poorer for this. There was a resounding desire to respond to the call of Pope Francis to be with people on the margins.
Overwhelmingly, the people who contributed to the synodal process expressed a desire for the Church to be more welcoming of people in general, and people from the LGBTQ+ community and divorced and remarried people were mentioned often.
Some people from the LGBTQ+ community said that they were still practicing their faith despite the Church’s position on homosexuality and same-sex marriage. Those who represented the LGBTQ+ community in advocacy organisations cited examples of people being excluded from participation in family funerals and baptisms due to their sexuality.
Some of the suggestions for going forward were that the Universal Church revisit the teaching and language on sexual orientation and gender and that the Local Church would provide pastoral support.
Divorced and Remarried
When it came to those who are divorced and remarried, we heard from some people in that situation that, while Church’s rules and regulations might have an internal logic, they are experienced as draconian. Divorced people described the ambiguity that exists in relation to their role in the Church with some priests denying an active role in parish life. Some divorced and not remarried people expressed their belief that they cannot receive Holy Communion. It was reported that many priests avoid the strict implementation of the regulations regarding access to Holy Communion. This is experienced as helpful but it is ‘turning a blind eye to the reality’.
Others who identified as feeling like they do not belong were single parents.
The teaching of the Church on sexuality and relationships informed people’s decision making in relation to Mass attendance and reception of the Eucharist, with many deciding not to go to Mass or receive the Eucharist. This was brought up specifically in relation to contraception. Many seek a reconsideration of the Church’s teaching on contraception that is more compassionate to women’s health, well-being and raising their families in light of financial circumstances.
Belonging to the Church was not linked to sexual ethics and relationships only. We heard from many people that they felt that they were excluded from participating in their Church Community due to their perceived class. We heard numerous times that the Church caters more for middle-class people than working-class people, and in particular, any decision- making still lay in the hands of the middle classes in many communities.
We heard from the deaf community, adults with disabilities and parents of children with disabilities and here the issue of belonging came up again. People with learning disabilities and their families want to be included in the activities of the Church and to have opportunities to take on meaningful roles within the Church.
Liturgy and Welcome
The liturgies of the Church were places where people felt connected to the Church community. People spoke of the central role of the Sunday Mass and the pandemic brought into acute focus how important this was in their lives. People sought that the Sunday Mass would be an opportunity for joy-filled liturgy, with compelling preaching and an opportunity to express our reverence and gratitude for Christ truly present in the Eucharist.
The diversity of vocations in the Church was acknowledged, with people expressing their gratitude for vocations lived well. The Permanent Diaconate was welcomed. Many people expressed their joy in using their gifts by serving within the Church, participating as lectors, eucharistic ministers, in music ministry, running adult faith development programmes and helping in children’s and youth groups.
People expressed a desire for priests to be cared for and to keep central their role as pastors of the community of faith. They called for priests to let go of some of the roles they currently carry out and to allow others to exercise their skills in pastoral work, administration, finance and management of properties.
In all of the synodal gatherings, the role of women in the Church was spoken of. It was recognised that women represent half of humanity and contribute so much to the life of the local church through the volunteering of their time and yet in the places of decision making in the church there are few female voices. Some sought that the Universal Church should review the decision on the ordination of women to the vocation of Priesthood and Permanent Diaconate. However, many felt that the local church could do more in relation to the role of women in leadership and needed to do so urgently in order to have any credibility, especially with younger generations.
The language of the Church was also discussed as being a barrier, with many finding the masculine language off-putting and excluding women.
People said that a more decided appreciation of, and investment in, the development of lay ministry is essential to the life of the Church going forward.
There was a desire for enhanced co-responsibility in our local parishes where priests and people together would make decisions. Some people felt that they were completely removed from decision making in the life of the parish citing that if Father didn’t like an idea it simply wouldn’t happen.
Abuse by priests and Religious in the Church has caused huge levels of hurt and scandal in an institution in which people had placed their trust.
People expressed the need for transparency and accountability as being central to having a truly synodal church. In particular, they highlighted the need for transparency over financial matters by publishing both Parish and Diocesan accounts widely and explaining the purpose and impact of the various collections throughout the year.
People expressed their desire for greater dialogue to take place within the Church, especially with Church Leadership. People recognised that while the Bishop would visit Parishes, this was connected to the Sunday Mass and Confirmations, we need to create the opportunity for a more authentic dialogue on the pastoral needs of the Parish Community with the Bishop.
Among the various synodal contributions, it was on the theme of mission that we experienced the greatest level of consensus. There is a desire to belong to a Church that deepens our love of Christ, feeds our deep desire to know more about our faith, and readies us for mission in a more secular world.
Many people spoke of their love of the Church and the Church being truly present for them on their life’s journey.
Need for Faith Development
We heard that people feel ill-equipped to undertake the task of evangelisation. For some living in Northern Ireland has meant that there has been a long-standing tradition of saying nothing about your faith. In more recent times, as peace has grown, so too has secularism, a new stumbling block to speaking openly about faith.
In order to grow in confidence and to be able to share their love of God people called for the Diocese to invest more heavily in adult faith development.
The value of Catholic Schools, their ethos and their contribution to the education of our young people was spoken of as a great asset to society. Teachers spoke of how their work within Catholic Schools was an opportunity for them to live out their mission. However, many people queried the sacramental preparation taking place within schools led by teaching staff who were not fully committed to their faith and the teachings of the Church.
The starkness of poverty within our Diocese was highlighted in listening to people in poverty and those who work to support them. Some told us that God often appears distant in their lives as they struggle to provide for their families. We also heard a call for greater appreciation given to the work of so many voluntary organisations run by lay people.
The opportunity to learn from, and grow in relationship with, our sisters and brothers in other Christian traditions formed part of what we heard in our synodal listening.
In reflecting on Communion, Participation and Mission there are five areas of priority for the Diocese to discern further and to make concrete proposals for adoption in the life of the Diocese.
The five areas identified are:
Encountering God’s Love
We will equip each person to deepen their spiritual lives, through vibrant liturgy, faith development programmes, and gathering for fellowship, prayer and worship.
Special care is required to ensure that programmes are created and taken up by families with young children, people with disabilities, socio-economic difficulties and different ethnicities.
God calls us to serve together
We commit to building a Diocese where all know that they have a vital part to play in the life of the Church. We will work together to create structures and pathways that enable the building of vibrant and sustainable communities of faith where the vocations of all are recognised, supported and valued.
Decision making should be borne out of authentic discernment and we will grow as a synodal church exercising co-responsible leadership across the Diocese.
Action is required to ensure that the voice of women is integral in our decision making.
Being a Church where everyone can find belonging
As a diocese, we must commit to ensuring that our parishes extend Christ’s loving embrace to everyone no matter where they find themselves on life’s journey..
Being an authentic witness in the world
We will put our faith into action, working in partnership with other churches and faiths, in order to create a just, equitable and sustainable world for all.
Our Church as a loving family
We commit to journeying with people through all stages of their lives – times of joy and of difficulty- helping them to encounter Christ and to discern God’s plan for their lives.
This synodal journey has been one of learning, encounter and authentic dialogue. While the levels of participation in this diocesan phase of the Universal Synod, For a synodal Church, were good, there is a need to widen our engagement and harness the life-giving power that Synodality can bring to our Church experience.