The following is the text of homily preached by Dr Eugene Duffy at Mass to launch the Synodal Pathway. Mass was celebrated in the Cathedral of The Annunciation and St Nathy on Saturday October 16th. The Principal Celebrant was Bishop Paul Dempsey.
When Pope Francis was elected, in March 2013, his simplicity and charismatic character somehow caught the imagination of the world. There were images of him paying his hotel bill, ringing up his corner shop in Buenos Aires to cancel his newspaper, moving from the grand papal apartments to simpler accommodation near his offices and taking his meals in the canteen with rest of the staff. All of these simple gestures were another way of saying he wanted a different kind of Church, one that was less formal, closer to ordinary people and more sensitive to their daily concerns.
In fact, he was chosen as Pope because the Cardinals recognised that there was serious dysfunction in the Vatican and that somehow the leadership of the Church was losing contact with its members. Apart from internal problems in the Vatican, the Church faced other major issues, such as the fallout from the sexual abuse scandals, a growing secularisation in Europe, the advance of the Pentecostal churches in Latin America and a general fatigue in Church leadership. Thus the stage was set for a Pope who would recall the Church to a renewed vision of its mission and one who could effect an internal renewal of its structures.
In practically every letter he has written, and every address he has delivered, since his election, Pope Francis has been reminding bishops, priests and every member of the Church of the need for reform and renewal. It is in the context of this renewal effort that he has summoned a Synod of Bishops in Rome in 2023 to look at how the Church itself can be more synodal. By that he means: how can every member of the Church play an active part in making the Church a more credible sign of God’s action in the world? How can all of us work together in creating genuine communities of faith and service? How can we hear the message of the Gospel more clearly and begin to live its implications.
Last Saturday afternoon, Pope Francis launched the preparatory process for this Synod to be held in 2023. He has asked the bishops of the world to launch a similar preparatory process in each diocese around the world this weekend. That is what we are doing today. We are in a small and low-key way launching that preparatory process for the diocese of Achonry.
The Pope wants us to engage in what he calls a process of discernment. It’s a little like going to the doctor. You might present with a rash on your skin. The doctor will look at it and examine it. He might then take your blood pressure, listen to your heart and lungs and eventually and discover that the problem is more than skin deep. Only then will he prescribe a treatment.
We know that the Church is not in as good a shape as it might be right now. We can see so many of the symptoms, but like the doctor, we need to listen to what is going on below the surface. What listening do we need to do? Essentially, like the doctor, we have to listen without actually seeing what we are listening to. We are listening for God’s word or we are listening to what God’s Spirit is saying to us at this time.
How do we hear God’s voice today? We hear it, first of all, in the scriptures. We have just heard three readings, each of them is the word of God spoken to us today. The first reading told us the story of the Holy Spirit coming on the disciples at Pentecost. That same Spirit is poured out on every member of the Church ever since. We could listen to that message over and over again, so that our awareness of God’s Spirit becomes more acute and our sensitivities sharpened to pick up on how the Spirit is working on us.
We get further help in the second reading. There St Paul reminds us that each of us is gifted differently. Our list might differ from St Paul’s, but in reality when we look around us we notice people gifted in all kinds of ways – there are leaders and managers, there are teachers, nurses, doctors, engineers, fitters, carpenters, butchers, tailors, IT specialists and the list goes on. We rely on so many people for our lives to run smoothly. Every one who contributes to our survival and wellbeing is a gift to us. We are an interdependent people, none of us could survive on our own. We depend on others and others depend on us. That gives us reason to be grateful.
This sense of interdependence is something to be valued and supported. It is part of what it is to be both human and Christian. Therefore, when you contribute in any way to the wellbeing of others you are acting under the influence of the Holy Spirit. It is not as if being a good citizen of the world has nothing to do with being a good Christian. A good Christian is also a good citizen and in being so, one is responding to God’s call on one’s life.
The second way of hearing God’s word is by noticing what is going on around you. Where do you notice people in difficulty, struggling to survive, worn down by the pressures of life? Do you hear an inner voice inviting you to do something in response? One small example of this is the Irish response to the UNICEF Covax campaign – Irish people who received the Covid vaccine have contributed over €5m to this campaign, to share the benefits of the vaccine with poorer countries around the world. You could call that advertisement by UNICEF a prompting of God’s Spirit. I’m sure that each of you could give examples nearer home – someone reaching out to a neighbour in need, is responding to the promptings of God’s Spirit.
In this synod process, we are now being invited to listen to the needs of the world, to hear where we are being called to bring God’s love to bear on challenging situations. We are being asked to look at our local parishes and communities to see how they can be more genuine, more authentic in living lives fashioned on the gospel. We can also look at the level of the diocese and see how we are living gospel lives and then at the global level. But we have to begin locally and sincerely.
The Irish bishops have also been planning on a synodal process for some time. Therefore, the Pope’s initiative coincides with something that the Irish bishops had also been planning. At a local level, Bishop Paul Dempsey has established a Pastoral Leadership Team, which had its first full in person meeting last night in the College. So, at the level of our own diocese, there is also a renewal process about to get underway. All of these initiatives will involve a listening process, where we hear the needs of the people and hear their perspectives on the life of the Church at every level.
Two members of the Pastoral Leadership Team, Maeve Leheny and Bill Carty, will work with me in planning how that process will be rolled out over the coming months. Each diocese is expected to have undertaken a listening process by February next, the results of those processes will be collated for the country and then forwarded to a European centre and eventually all of those from around the world will be sent to Rome to be analysed and used to prepare for the Synod of 2023. The data gathered in our own diocese will help to form the basis of our own pastoral planning for the coming years.
Life today is complex and challenging. There is an enormous amount of good in our world, in our local communities and in our Church. We have to acknowledge and celebrate that goodness. Equally, there are big problems facing us: we have great threats to the environment and displacement of peoples on a global level; health care and housing are major issues in our country; then we face problems of secularisation and unbelief, a decline in prayer and practice in our Churches, an ageing and declining priesthood, the lack of leadership roles for women in the Church and lack in knowledge of the basics of the faith.
The agenda is extensive. However, we are not alone in facing all of these issues. First of all, the Spirit of God is at work among us, but we have to listen to that voice. Secondly, we have one another, each of us uniquely gifted, so we have great resources upon which we can draw. That calls for both humility and generosity – the humility to acknowledge the gifts that others can bring and the generosity to offer our own gifts for the benefit of others. Our hope is that this process on which we are embarking this evening will generate those gifts of generosity and humility to build up our world and our Church. As the weeks go on, you will hear more about the process and I hope that you will support it in whatever way is possible for you.
I will end with the same prayer that Pope Francis used last week in his own address, when launching the Synod:
Come, Holy Spirit! You inspire new tongues and place words of life on our lips: keep us from becoming a “museum Church”, beautiful but mute, with much past and little future. Come among us, so that in this synodal experience we will not lose our enthusiasm, dilute the power of prophecy, or descend into useless and unproductive discussions. Come, Spirit of love, open our hearts to hear your voice! Come, Holy Spirit of holiness, renew the holy and faithful People of God! Come, Creator Spirit, renew the face of the earth! Amen.