The initial phase of the synodal pathway for the Catholic Church in Ireland, announced by the Bishops' Conference during its spring general meeting in March of this year, is now under way.
The focus of this phase will be prayer, listening, consultation and discernment, as we seek to lay the foundations for a national synodal assembly (or assemblies) for the church across our island to be held within the next five years.
To start the process a steering committee has been appointed to oversee its work, carry out some initial listening, analysis and awareness-raising and to offer recommendations about how this might be carried forward into the next stages of the process.
This committee is supported in its work by a task group to help co-ordinate engagement at local level and ensure that what happens nationally is shaped and informed by the learning from recent and current processes of listening and consultation.
At the heart of our work is this question: “What is God saying to the Irish church at this time?” We will be exploring this through a process of discernment which, in a Christian context, is understood as a decision-making process in which discovery leads to action, guided by the Holy Spirit.
An important task before the steering committee will be to identify the challenges that have inhibited the practice of discernment in the church up to now, and discouraged people from taking a more active leadership role in the life of the church.
One of the first challenges we face is that the language of “synod” and “synodality” is unfamiliar to many people in the Catholic Church. The term synod, meaning assembly, has its roots in the Greek language for “together on the way”.
In describing this new focus for the Catholic Church in Ireland as a synodal pathway, the Irish bishops, similarly to other Bishops’ Conferences around the world, have sought to convey this image of being on a journey together.
Among the most common misunderstandings we encounter in our work is the idea that synodal assemblies are parliamentary-style debates where the objective is to win votes for particular decisions.
Rather, synodal processes create space for different views, and different visions for the future, but in a spirit of sharing, respectful listening and discernment, rather than argument.
A priority for this initial phase will be to help people understand how this might work in practice and attempt to address any fears and apprehension they may have about the process.
As part of their preparatory work, bishops invited submissions by way of a public consultation undertaken between Easter and Pentecost this year. More than 500 submissions were received.
Unsurprisingly, we see from the consultation submissions that there are clear tensions we will have to navigate throughout this process.
Some people are fearful that it will lead to the secularising of the church and will devalue elements of their faith and local parish community that are so precious to them.
Others are concerned that the process will fail to take sufficient account of the changing social context, or to engage in a meaningful way with those who feel alienated from the church.
The initial phase of the synodal pathway for the church in Ireland coincides with the preparations for the 2023 Ordinary General Assembly of Bishops in Rome, which will focus on the similar theme of “For a synodal church: communion, participation and mission”.
While the process under way in Ireland will create space to explore the questions that arise specifically in an Irish context, it will also take account of the wider global developments, with particular emphasis on the example of Pope Francis, who has consistently prioritised a focus on those who are marginalised, and those who have been made to feel "discarded".
How we frame our invitation to people to participate in the synodal pathway will be crucial. We are asking people to join us on a journey without knowing all the detail of the final destination, but to trust that this is a sincere effort to bring about real transformation and renewal in the church guided by the Holy Spirit.
Through the process of the synodal pathway we are seeking to acknowledge the hurts that exist within our church community and work to heal those relationships, so that the Catholic Church in Ireland can fully live out its calling to serve the wider society as a wounded healer.
Dr Nicola Brady is chairwoman of the Synod Steering Committee