At their Spring General Meeting, which concluded on Wednesday 10 March, the Irish Bishops’ Conference announced their decision to embark on a synodal pathway for the Catholic Church in Ireland leading to the holding of a National Synodal Assembly within the next five years.
Giving some background to the announcement, the bishops said, “Since the 2018 Ordinary General Assembly of Bishops in Rome on the theme of young people, the faith and vocational discernment, we have been giving active consideration to calling a National Synodal Assembly for the Church in Ireland. Conversations at local, regional and national level have informed the work of a subgroup of the Episcopal Conference which was established to explore the idea further. During the 2020 Winter General Meeting of the Bishops’ Conference we decided to proceed along a synodal pathway, and, since then, we have been assisted and greatly encouraged by Cardinal Grech and Sr. Natalie Becquart, of the General Secretariat for the Synod of Bishops, who addressed us on 3 February last.
Context: Challenges and Hopes
Bishops said they are mindful of the challenges and opportunities that provide a context for a synodal pathway leading to a National Synod at this pivotal time for the Church. The bishops highlighted some of these challenges and opportunities:
- Solidarity, Outreach to the Peripheries and the Promise of a New Pentecost
- Listening to what the Holy Spirit is saying to the Church in an Ireland faced with rapid transformation
- Secularisation of Society.
- Shocking Revelations.
- The need to promote peace-making and a culture of welcome.
- Listening to the Cry for Transparency.
- Discovering the Family as “Domestic Church”.
- Connecting with Young People.
- Honouring the Contribution of Women.
The Initial Phase – Prayer, Listening, Consultation, Discernment
Bishops said, “The initial two-year phase of embarking on the synodal pathway and leading, in time, to a National Synod, helpfully coincides with preparation for the 2022 Ordinary General Assembly of Bishops in Rome entitled, For a synodal Church: communion, participation and mission.
“We envisage the next two years as a period of prayer, listening and discernment, involving a nationwide consultative conversation on this theme. This will allow individuals and parishes, religious orders and associations as well as groups, movements and organisations both within the Church and in Irish society at large, to share their insights into the Church in Ireland – past, present and future. It will also include discussion and debate via related information sessions and educational programmes on the meaning and processes of synodality. We will research best practice in listening and synodal processes and assemblies at home and around the world.”
The Planning Phase – Preparation for a National Synodal Asembly
Outlining the planning that will have to take place, the Bishops said, “The planning and preparation phase for a National Synodal Assembly will bring together and seek to implement the fruits and recommendations from the Initial Phase. It will, in particular, take account of the conclusions of the General Assembly in Rome in 2022, together with any Apostolic Exhortation by the Holy Father emerging from the General Assembly. The aim of this phase will be to design the particular form of our National Synod and prepare directly at local, regional and national level for the holding of the Synod.”
Outlining the immediate next steps, the Bishops said, “Next June, at the Summer General Meeting, bishops intend to establish a task group to plan and oversee the first steps along the synodal pathway. This task group will be made up of lay women and men, including young people, religious, priests and bishops.
“We encourage reflection, study and research on the theme of synodality at parish, diocesan, regional and national level and we invite writers, theologians and lecturers to prepare papers for sharing and discussion in the initial two-year phase.
“From 6 April next, an online page will be available on the Bishops’ Conference website for the submission of ideas and suggestions.
“As we embark on the synodal pathway, we ask for prayers that this may be a time of renewal, reform and new hope for all the People of God in Ireland.”
What is a Synod?
The word “synod” evokes the image of “walking together on the way”. For the Church it is a time-honoured way of working out together the “navigation map” for the Church at particular times. Synodality is about the whole People of God helping each other listen to what the Holy Spirit is saying to the Church. Pope Francis emphasises that this is not simply a matter of discussion as in a parliamentary debate. Rather it is primarily a prayerful spiritual time of communitarian discernment. It is about finding the best ways for every baptized person to fulfil the Church’s mission of proclaiming to the world, God’s love and salvation in Jesus Christ. Pope Francis has emphasised that “it is precisely this path of synodality which God expects of the Church of the third millennium”. Synodality is at the heart of the pastoral conversion that Pope Francis emphasises in the Joy of the Gospel (Evangelii Gaudium).
To read the Bishops’ Conference statement in full see www.catholicbishops.ie.