A national assembly of the Catholic Church met in Athlone, Co Westmeath on Saturday in what was described by participants as “challenging”, “heartening” and a “a once in 2,000-year” opportunity to influence Vatican teaching.
Attended by 160 delegates representing the church’s 26 dioceses in Ireland as well as religious congregations and various lay groupings, it is part of a worldwide process in the church in preparation for a synod at the Vatican in October of next year.
The delegates discussed and reflected on reports from every diocese in Ireland as well as submissions from the religious congregations and others, following widespread consultation over recent months. Each diocese published its own report earlier this month and, in general, these called for radical change in the church’s attitude to women, and to LGBTI+ people and other marginalised people. They also called for a greater role for laity, and for priests to be given the option to marry.
These reports are to be collated by a “synodal pathway steering group” into a final synthesis which is to be sent to Rome by August 15th, as representative of the views of the Irish Catholic Church for consideration at the Synod there in October 2023.
Delegate Ursula Halligan of the We Are Church Ireland group, said she was “heartened by what I heard today. To be honest, I was dreading coming here because I felt so excluded from my Church but I was really heartened by the presentation of the feedback. It was so raw and so honest and I am just sorry all of Ireland didn’t get to see it because there was a lot of hard work put into it too”.
She said “at the table discussion afterwards I could hear that people were challenged by it”. She realised “a lot of us are out of our comfort zone. It will be our shared faith that will get us through this because it’s not going to be easy. But I think today was a good start. I am heartened and encouraged by what I experienced this morning”.
As to whether church thinking could revert to what it was before Pope Francis, she was “quite aware that there are a lot of people who are comfortable with the church as it is and have very set views, very rigid views, and I could easily see it reverting and going back.
“It will require leadership and courage, at the moment from those who are in those positions, which are the male hierarchy, and that’s how the Holy Spirit works through us. I would have concerns about it reverting but I have been heartened by what I’ve heard today, in a way I hadn’t expected. So, I see today as a good starting point”.
Anthony Neville, who represented the Association of Catholics of Ireland at the meeting, said it was “important to realise it’s the first time in 2,000 years that the people of God have an opportunity of discussing what’s happening in the church, what has happened and indeed what will happen in the future. It gives us great hope that for the first time we have an opportunity to have our say”.
Tony Brennan, a delegate from Derry diocese, emphasised that the meeting “isn’t an event, a one-off event. The message from Pope Francis is that synodality, the concept of walking together, is continuous. And we are at the very start of this”. While people were engaging in a form of conversation “that hasn’t ever been done before”, he said, “it’s not that we’re going to finish it now. We’re going to continue with these conversations”.
Bishop of Limerick Brendan Leahy said: “I think we’re in a major moment. Pope Francis often says it’s not just an era of transformation, it’s the transformation of the era and I think we recognise that.”
The second Vatican council, which ran from 1962 to 1965, “was much more significant than perhaps we realised, about opening up a spiritual revolution really,” the bishop said. “That is something we’re gradually entering into. The actual reform called for by the council was something deep and it’s something we can only enter into together.”