Talk given to “We Are Church” by Bishop Paul Dempsey, Achonry Diocese, 12th October 2021.
“Our Synodal Journey”
As I look back over my life and especially since I entered priestly formation in 1989 there has been a lot of change in the Church and society. As someone immersed in the life of the Church, the image of the dessert in the scriptures captures for me a little of what it has been like. We have wandered through the wilderness wondering which way to follow. In the light of this “wandering” I believe we have a great opportunity as we set out on this synodal journey together. It is an apt time to reflect upon our experience of Church and face the many questions we are grappling with.
On the 10th of October Pope Francis launched the Synodal Journey in Rome which will focus on “Synodality,” its themes being “Communion, Participation and Mission.” My presentation this evening is focussed on the journey towards the Synod in Ireland over the next five years or so. However, the processes closely connected.
The crucial question that lies behind this journey for us in the Irish Church is: “What is the Lord asking of us as a Church in Ireland today?” To begin the exploration of this question I turn to Pope Francis’ Homily on Pentecost Sunday 2021. In it he emphasises the primacy of the Holy Spirit and he makes three points that help us understand how he approaches synodality:
- Firstly, he reminds us that the Holy Spirit advises us to “Live in the Present.” He encourages us not to be paralysed by the rancour of the past or fear about the future. Synodality offers us all the opportunity to share our experience of the Church today. People need to be heard. We have had a lot of listening processes, but are we actually hearing what people are saying? This has to be at the heart of any synodal journey.
- Secondly, the Spirit tells us to “Look to the whole,” in other words, focus on the bigger picture. The Spirit shapes us into a “unity that is never uniformity.” He takes the Apostles as an example. They were all different! Matthew was a tax collector, he collaborated with the Romans, whereas Simon, the Zealot fought them! They had contrary political ideas and different visions of the world. However, when they received the Spirit, they gave primacy to the “whole” of God’s plan, not their individual viewpoints. If we apply this to today’s experience of Church, if we listen to the Spirit, we will not be concerned with conservatives or progressives. When we get caught up in such things the Church has forgotten the Spirit. This is a very important point in the light of the polarisation that is being experienced in the Church today. There are strong viewpoints, this is positive as it illustrates the great passion for the Church and the mission entrusted to us. But there are many different views of how this mission should take place.
- The Spirit advises us to “Put God before yourself.” There is need to empty ourselves to leave room for the Lord. We should not focus merely on our own effectiveness or efficiency we must be conscious of the transcendent.
In the light of these helpful pointers, how do we answer the question: “What is the Lord saying to the Church in Ireland today?” The answer to this question calls for discernment. Pope Francis has named his fear that “synodality” is sometimes understood in a parliamentary sense. People discuss relevant issues which are then voted on. However, there is much more to it than this. Discernment is required and this is something far deeper. Discernment is an attempt to discover God’s mysterious plan for us, it is a gift of the Spirit. We must allow the Spirit to surprise us!
There was much commentary on the Amazonian Synod. One of the topics reflected upon was the possibility of ordaining married men. Pope Francis stated that there was rich discussion and debate but there was no discernment. I was somewhat confused by this statement but then I understood that despite the rich discussion there was no moving forward together, therefore it was not the time to move on this issue. However, the door is not closed to further discernment in the future.
The process of discernment involves prayer, a deep sense of prayer. We must enter this experience of prayer together being open to the Spirit and see where it leads us. This may require us letting go of our agenda and be open to the prompting of the Spirit. There are many examples of this in the life of the Church. If we look to the early Church we see examples of discernment. In Acts 15 the serious topic of Jewish Christians and Gentiles emerges. There were deep tensions among the members of the Church. In Acts 15:22 we hear the following: “Then the apostles and elders together with the whole Church decided to choose representatives from among them to send to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas…” (Judas and Barsabbas were chosen). Then in Acts 15:28: “We, with the Holy Spirit, have decided not to put any other burden on you…” This work of the Spirit allowed the new Christian faith to spread widely, illustrating that it must have been the action of the Spirit.
John IIXXX was viewed as a “stop gap” pope. In an interview with his private secretary, he mentioned how Pope John XXIII came to him three times mentioning a Council. It seems there was discernment happening deep within Pope John’s heart. Shortly afterwards he introduced the idea of Second Vatican Council. We can see that this was an action of the Spirit to bring fresh air through the life of the Church.
These are just a couple of examples of discernment and how the Spirit can surprise us!
As we set out on our synodal journey we are called to enter into a prayerful discernment together in order to listen to the Spirit so as to serve the mission of the Church. The first phase consists of the first two years of listening to as many people as possible and what they would like to feed back. This is being overseen by a Steering Group, made up of men, women, ordained and religious and assisted by a task group. When we harvest what emerges out of this listening, we then will take the next steps towards our synodal assembly or assemblies.
As we set out on this journey, I am conscious of my own hopes and fears around the journey ahead. The following is an attempt to name those hopes and fears:
- I fear the image of Synod as a “gathering in a hotel” where we will gather for a week or two. The “red button” issues will be debated, and decisions made. My fear is that we get caught up in our own agendas rather than the bigger picture which is the mission given to us by Jesus Christ.
- I fear a sense of deeper polarisation and division. Some people want to see major change happening, others don’t want to see change happening at all. I fear that for some if change doesn’t happen as they would like to see it happen then there will be deep disappointment and disillusionment. For others if change does happen, then they will be disappointed and disillusioned. There is certainly a need for the Holy Spirit to navigate us.
- Could our journey be more issue orientated rather than mission orientated? Our call as a community of disciples is to share Jesus Christ and the vision of his Gospel.
- I fear that we might view this as a once off journey over the next few years. But perhaps this is inviting us into a way of being Church well beyond five years.
- I mentioned earlier that my experience of Church has been a little like the Israelites wandering around in the wilderness, a sense of being a little bit lost! We’ve had the scandals, changes in society etc. I see this synodal journey as one of opportunity for us to reflect in a prayerful way together on where the Lord is calling us. Out of our experience of the last few decades, where are we being called to now by the Lord? Despite the challenges, there is a great opportunity in this!
- I am hopeful that we can reflect upon the area of leadership in the Church. When leadership is mentioned in the Church sometimes our minds jump to the clerical system. Pope Francis has been strong in his condemnation of clericalism. This needs to be looked at further. Conversion is needed. But conversion is also needed in the hearts of people to take real responsibility for the life of the Church. I hope we can tease this out on our synodal journey.
- My hope is that it will be a lifegiving journey for us. We’re not all the same, Pope Francis reminds us that “unity is not uniformity.” There will be tensions and disagreements along the way. The positive aspect is that there is still a real energy. The late Fr. Michael Paul Gallagher SJ outlined how apathy is the great enemy of the Church. I still believe we all want the best for the Church and now is our opportunity to harness that over these coming years. Even though some aspects of what we will be discussing will be in the Irish context I hope some of those discussions can inform the Universal Church also.
- I hope the journey will look outwards with missionary zeal, that it won’t be an inward-looking journey. How do we reach out to the poor, the young, those who feel they don’t belong to the Church because of their life circumstances, the disillusioned, those who were hurt by the Church, those on the fringes? How do we bring the message of Christ into the public square in a real and credible way? I hope these bigger questions emerge.
- I hope for genuine openness to the Spirit. In his address at the launch, Pope Francis reminded us of the attitude that says: “We have always done it this way” (EG 33) and the temptation not to change or that we apply “old solutions to new problems.” He sees the synodal journey as a process of becoming, an exciting and engaging effort that can draw us into communion and participation directed to mission. I hope the journey will be an exciting and engaging one for us which is rooted in Christ. We are all called to holiness, sometimes we can see this in a devotional sense. Origen said that holiness is being able to “see with the eyes of Christ.” I hope this synodal journey will help us to see with the eyes of Christ and that the concerns of all the baptised are listened to and that we try to work together to respond to those concerns.
In conclusion, as we set out on this journey of prayerful discernment, I return to the Scriptures to the beautiful story of the Road to Emmaus. It provides a wonderful insight into our synodal journey together. We are familiar with the story of the two disciples walking with heavy hearts, they are downcast, disillusioned. Many of us have been there. They have an encounter with the Risen Jesus. This encounter transforms them. They see things in a new light. The encounter literally turns their lives around. Then with hearts burning within them they have to share with others their encounter of the Risen Lord. This is the road we are now on. May we too encounter the Risen Lord as we take this journey together and may our hearts burn within us!