It is rare that anything that the Roman Catholic Church does meets with general approval, but the National Pre-Synodal Assembly in Athlone last Saturday was greeted with cautious and sometimes outright enthusiasm by people with diverse views on the church. Some 160 delegates discussed synthesis documents based on consultations at a local level in 26 dioceses about the future of the church.
The key questions are: What happens now? Have expectations been raised that cannot possibly be met? Will it be just another talking shop that achieves nothing?
The answers to those questions in Ireland do not lie in Rome but in the very process of the synod itself. Pope Francis’s ambitious and unprecedented consultation of the global church is meant to transform permanently the way local churches operate as faith communities.
Basing the first phase on listening was vital. In the 26 diocesan reports, many people said that it was the first time anyone had asked their opinion on anything to do with the church.
Focusing on listening prevented the consultations from fracturing along predictable fault lines. Listening with care means that you have to put aside the burning desire to be heard in order to make space for someone else, and renounce entirely the desire to win ideological battles.
Journalist and We Are Church Ireland (WAC Ireland) representative Ursula Halligan described the Athlone assembly as “raw and so honest”. She said that she was just sorry that all of Ireland did not get to see it.
WAC Ireland conducted a rough-and-ready analysis of three different issues from the diocesan reports. They carefully included the caveat that their analysis was a “crude method of capturing such complex and nuanced documents”. They stated, for example, that 85 per cent of the diocesan reports referred to LGBT+ issues, and 69 per cent referred to the laity being involved in decision-making, while 96 per cent of the reports mentioned the ordination of women.
There is no doubt that all these issues were raised by many, sometimes passionately, at the local consultations. But the percentage of reports that mention these issues is not the same as the percentage of people who favoured them — technically, only one person from a diocese would have to mention women’s ordination for it to feature in the report. To state that 96 per cent of those consulted favoured women priests misrepresents a process that encompassed everyone from traditional Catholics to those who would change everything.
No headlines proclaimed that most participants expressed gratitude for the gift of faith — but they did. The one thing that emerged from every local consultation was a desire to see the faith thrive.
There is no doubt, either, that the deep, ugly shadow of sexual exploitation of children and subsequent abject failures to deal with it lay heavily across all the local consultation processes.
But, as the Cork and Ross report stated: “There is a hunger for small communities of faith where people believe they would achieve a better sense of belonging and connection, where they could share their gifts and talents to better support each other’s spiritual growth and development.”
When young people were consulted, they confounded expectations. For example, it emerged clearly from the diocese of Kildare and Leighlin that young people want to be involved but needed active involvement. In another report, they dismissed as simplistic the idea of using social media to reach them. They wanted much more.
Crucially, listening alone is not enough. Something solid must be offered in response. And you have to be prepared for some people to reject outright what is being offered.
Churches that have modernised to the extent that they are indistinguishable from the majority secular culture are losing members even faster.
Expectations have been raised that foundational church teachings are somehow going to change, even though Pope Francis has consistently repeated from the beginning that this is not some kind of parliamentary process or consensus-seeking — “I give you this, you give me that.” It is a way of discerning how to live as faithful Catholics so as to serve others with humility.
A proclamation from Rome in 2023 will not bring about much-needed change. The communitarian process of the synodal pathway is itself the way. Take one issue — concern about the exclusion of LGBT+ people. Gather the people of the local church again and decide on one small, concrete action that could be taken to welcome LGBT+ people, while remaining faithful to Church teaching.
Some people will react with anger to what they will perceive as tokenism. Others will begin to heal in some little way from the pain of rejection. This can be repeated with every area of concern. Ask young people how they would like to be involved. Give them responsibility. Give them something with spiritual depth that stands in stark contrast to the culture that primarily values success, good looks and wealth. “How can I serve?” is closer to the gospel than “How can I wield power?”
The Church at its best is a family ——–¯―— a fractious, bickering family, full of love and brokenness. This process has lifted people out of silos. It is now time to begin to act.