'The deep heart's core': Faith of lay people will guide Catholic Church for uncertain future

Killala diocese group uses belief and hope to overcome lack of trust in clergy

I am torn. A rather negative starting point I must confess, but let me elaborate. On the one hand I hear the echoing voices of my now adult children expressing, rather vehemently, their incredulity that a woman they deem intelligent continues to be involved with the Catholic Church.

It is an institution which has become irrelevant in their lives. They repeatedly describe it to me as misogynistic, homophobic, abusive and money-grabbing. I understand where they are coming from and find myself sadly in agreement with their analysis.

So why am I still hanging in there? That is a question I struggle to answer except, to say, borrowing a few words from Yeats, that there is something I feel “in the deep heart’s core” which doesn’t allow me to walk away just yet.

And so, I have found myself involved in a process in the Killala diocese called Placing Hope in Faith. This listening exercise was initiated by clergy and completed well before the synodal process, now under way in the Catholic Church worldwide, began. As a result, there are a number of insights we have gained, which might serve as pointers for those just setting out on this journey.


The environment created is critical. People want to express their opinions as part of an open, respectful and credible process. They want to know they can say exactly what they feel. They do not want to be patronised for being “lay people” or supposedly theologically uninformed.

Private and independently verified information-gathering ensures transparency and builds trust. This is critical as many do not trust the clergy and the bishops.

Role of women

Issues such as the role of women in the church, clerical celibacy and LGBTQ+ concerns cannot be sidelined. Over 80 per cent of representatives in Killala diocese, for example, highlighted the need to change the church’s approach to the LGBTQ+ community.

Clericalism must be tackled. If we are journeying together, then decisions have to be made together. Neither lay people nor the priest can decide anything on their own, or in advance. It’s all about dialogue as equals.

Over 80 per cent of representatives in Killala diocese highlighted the need to change the church's approach to the LGBTQ+ community

Adopting an approach which considers lay people as equals will take time. It will require a mindset change and “buy-in” by the clergy, as well as a concerted effort on their part to share decision-making. This means trusting that lay people are not trying to take over but rather walk alongside and share the journey, along with some of the workload.

Some of the language in documentation surrounding the synodal process proposed by Rome is quite off-putting. It is best to use terminology that people can readily relate to. There is no point in trying to promote a way forward using vocabulary that alienates.

At all times, it needs to be emphasised that every person baptised in the Catholic faith is a “real” Catholic and that, although there are certainly many differing opinions about the way forward, everyone has a right to be heard respectfully.

Communication of findings

It is about listening to all voices and praying together in order to discern the direction in which the Holy Spirit is moving us. Those who question the nature of the process must be reminded that all baptised have both the right and a duty to have their voice heard.

Looking to the future, we are extremely concerned about the manner in which diocesan findings will be communicated onwards. It is essential that what is said at local level is what is actually forwarded to Rome.

It is essential that what is said at local level is what is actually forwarded to Rome

The suggestion that outcomes be synthesised by the bishops is deeply disturbing and risks derailing the process. The best way to avoid this, we suggest, would be to return finalised documents to the people for ratification.

Lockdowns have shown that life goes on even though the church door is closed. The obligation to attend Mass every Sunday will be questioned now more than ever. My 90-year-old mother, for example, said recently “sure the need to go to Mass every Sunday is only a man-made rule”.

People have lost the habit of attending and many may not return unless they see something new – something meaningful, inspiring and relevant to their everyday lives and concerns – happening.

It is essential that this synodal process succeeds. Most Catholics are calling for change and those who are willing to become involved will not wait around forever.

It is a process we hope will work. For me that is the key word – "hope". I like to be a little bit awkward and change the name of our process in Killala diocese from Placing Hope in Faith to Placing Faith in HOPE.

I am placing the remaining bit of faith I have in institutional Catholicism, in the hope of a new, inclusive, Gospel-value-centred model of church.