The findings from the listening sessions and conversations which took place around the country in preparation for the Synod on Synodality in Rome in the Autumn of 2023 have been summarized in the Synodal Synthesis which was published and sent to Rome in mid- August. All those involved in the ground-work done at parish level, in the steering committee and in the writing group are to be commended for all their hard work.
Like many others I felt that the synod process itself was somewhat rushed. The time limitation given by those tasked to oversee the Synod in Rome was insufficient. The synodal process was formally launched by Pope Francis on 9th/10th of October of 2021 and in dioceses across the world the following weekend while the covid pandemic was still causing havoc and proving to be a serious block to any proper parish interactions. Each diocese had to make a written submission by the end of May this year. Therefore the discussions or parish conversations or listening sessions or whatever one wishes to call them were completed under a certain pressure with little time to ensure deep reflection, have meaningful conversations and prayerful consideration of the questions posed on the themes of communion, participation and mission. Even with the best preparation, to hold one meeting in a hotel or parish hall on these topics which are profound and need serious reflection is unlikely to be really worthwhile. Much more time for reflection, prayer and conversation was needed.
The Synthesis then is a snap-shot of where those who attended the parish conversation/listening sessions were at. As Dr. Nicola Brady, chair of the Synod Steering Group, states in her excellent talk at the launch of the document in Knock: “it is not the last word”.
It is a record of a moment in time. It shows us where those who participated are at. The Church exists in time and in order to understand her teaching one must consider what she has taught throughout her history and not just at any particular time. Tradition, as Chesterton observed, is the “democracy of the dead”. The time in which we are living is characterized by secularism, an exaltation of the individual, a dismissal of objective truth, a view of all institutions as being essentially democratic and ever subject to fundamental change. A number of things emerge from the Synthesis which challenge Church teaching which she has held since the beginning.
The synthesis is helpful in that it shows the serious fault-lines of the Irish Church at the moment. It catalogues the issues in the minds of many living in our parishes and those in the various interest groups.
We can ask – Who is forming them? From where are they getting their ideas and what preoccupies them?
In the feedback from parishes and in the Synthesis itself we see a lot of emphasis on participation and communion or more accurately community. But as the Synthesis itself states – the Holy Spirit also speaks in the silence, in the gaps.
The gaps in what emerged from parishes as recorded in the Synthesis are quite staggering. There is little or no mention of the poor, the sick, the homeless, drug abuse, the environment (and this after a lot of work on Laudato Si ), the unborn, the housing crisis, the Word of God, the social and ecumenical outreach of the Church.
This is very revealing and very disturbing.
The synthesis also reveals an attitude to what could be termed ‘traditional’ faith which is mildly dismissive. From my own interaction with some ‘conservative’ or traditional’ believers it was clear that many did not engage with the synodal process at a parish level. It would be interesting to research why this was so. Is it because they themselves feel marginalized? Or because they felt that Church teaching cannot be changed and that there was no need for this synodal process and that little fruit would ensue? Or perhaps they felt they simply had better things to do with their time? These are all questions to ponder. If the Church in Ireland is worried about groups on the margins of Irish society then we will have to dialogue in a more serious way with what might be termed ‘traditional Catholics’.
Generally speaking many the submissions from the 26 dioceses show a difference in emphases to the final synthesis. Certain issues come to the fore more prominently in some if not many of the diocesan summaries. One can see a difference in what was given more emphasis and space in the final synthesis. But this is my subjective take on it and I do accept that there will always be different subjective attitudes at play in the writing up of any summary of people’s views. I feel that the issues of adult faith development, youth, and the future of the Church came out more strongly in many diocesan submissions and perhaps not so strongly in the final document. In no way do I wish to criticize the writers of the synthesis or all those who worked long hours in the preparation of the synthesis.
However, most people will not know of it. Most will not read it. In a sense there is nothing new in it.
But it is enormously valuable in that it catalogues what most people in responding to the questions posed failed to address.
I appreciated much of what went on in Athlone at the very worthwhile meeting of delegates from across the country in June of 2022. It is vital that we keep talking and listening to one another and especially listening in prayerful submission to the Holy Spirit. There was a great deal of work and effort put into the organization of the Athlone event and a genuine sharing of heart-felt opinions. But I came away from the gathering realizing that we had heard very little on mission and the missionary outreach of the Church. There was far too much introspection.
Where was the prophetic voice of the Church calling society to take a serious look at itself? Where was the challenge to the prevailing culture of individualism and secularism? Are we just giving in to current trends and forgetting about the wisdom of past generations and the long Tradition of the Church? What solutions were suggested to encourage commitment to one’s vocation and to holiness in life? Where was the call to conversion? What is God blessing in the Irish Church at the moment? Where is faith flourishing?
Was there to much about ourselves and not enough about others? Where was the desire to encounter Christ in the poor, the unborn, the elderly, the refugee and the homeless? What emerged to put before our young people who are aching for hope and purpose in life? What alternatives were proposed to a life lost in drug addiction and self-gratification? What initiatives were put forward to support family life? Where was the cry for the healing of Jesus Christ upon our world? Why didn’t these issues emerge more strongly in the conversations around the country?
I have no doubt that the Holy Spirit was in the synodal process, but maybe more in the gaps than in the utterances. I believe that we need to observe where the Church is flourishing in Ireland, where people, especially the youth, are being formed in character and in the Faith? In contrast there are others who continually pump out their negativity, disappointment and desperation but have little else to offer. They have no growth.
Surely we should look at where there is spiritual growth and outreach to others for the sake of Christ? All over Ireland there are families, lay groups, movements, parish churches, monasteries, convents, classrooms, religious orders, prayers groups, parish programmes, etc., where people are getting to know Jesus Christ, are being converted and are trying to be His disciples amid the struggles of everyday life.
As we continue on the synodal journey we must keep talking to each other and leave no one out of the conversation and together endeavour to see where the Holy Spirit is leading. We must have confidence in this.
In sum, I think, that the Synodal Synthesis is an immensely useful document in that it shows where we are at, what was missing and what needs to be done especially in the missionary outreach of the Church.