“Pope Francis is clear that this global, universal process of reflection needs to be firmly grounded in the local church” – Dr Brady
· Address by Dr Nicola Brady on the publication of the National Synthesis of the Synodal Pathway
· Everyone is invited to read, discuss and reflect on the National Synthesis on synod.ie, on what its calling us to do, as individuals and as a Church community
Today we mark a significant milestone in the synodal process that is currently underway in the Catholic Church with the publication of the national synthesis.
In essence, synodality, taken from the Greek for ‘together on the way’, is about how we journey together as a Christian community – listening to and supporting one another and discerning together how we are called to live as followers of Christ in the circumstances of today.
Although it’s unfamiliar to many people, synodality is not a new concept in the Church. Synodal practice in church decision-making can be traced back to the early Church, to the Council of Jerusalem, but Pope Francis has now called us to a re-examination or re-discovery of this practice, thinking critically and creatively about how it can be widened and deepened in the life of the whole Church, drawing all of the people of God into the work of shaping the vision and mission of the Church, and developing with that our sense of collective responsibility. In doing so the Pope places particular emphasis on our responsibility to those who are most in need, those who are vulnerable or marginalised.
In my work in the area of inter-church and inter-faith relations, I often hear leaders from other Christian churches and other faiths talk about how Pope Francis inspires them. I remember, in particular, meeting an Imam in Denmark, where we were learning about challenges in inter-faith relations, who said of the Pope: ‘I love Pope Francis, I see in him a unifying figure for peace’. This comes to mind often when I reflect on what Pope Francis is saying about the synodal process, because it has been characterised by an attention to relationships at every level. This was evident in the theme that was chosen for the Synod on Synodality that began in October of last year which was ‘Communion — Participation — Mission’. The theme prompts us to reflect on how we relate to each other in the Church, to examine where there may be barriers that prevent people from experiencing welcome and belonging, and to think about what the Holy Spirit may be calling us to do to better to help people to experience the guiding and healing presence of Christ in their lives.
Pope Francis is clear that this global, universal process of reflection needs to be firmly grounded in the local church context, and so it began with a phase of listening at local level, which was organised and facilitated primarily by dioceses, but also by other groups including religious congregations and lay associations.
There was incredible energy and commitment channelled into this work, and as we mark this important milestone today, we really want to express our gratitude to all those who took the time to participate and to facilitate and coordinate outreach activities. A wide range of different types of outreach was organized – to take account of the pandemic circumstances and to think creatively about how to engage people who were coming from different places in their faith journey, including those who may be struggling or feeling marginalised. At the beginning there was nervousness and uncertainty because people didn’t really know what to expect, but we’ve been learning by doing, as we journey together.
Synodality really does have to be experienced in order to fully understand how transformative these processes of deep listening can be. If you’ve not yet been able to engage, there will be many more opportunities in the coming months, and the Synod Tent here in Knock is a good example. The events I took part in, whether online or in person, were characterised by a strong emphasis on hospitality — every effort was made to make everyone feel welcome and included. As the discussion got underway there was a growing sense of hope. And this wasn’t because the organisers or participants sought to minimise the challenges, or shut down challenging conversations, but rather it was the very fact that we were able to have honest conversations about tensions and difficulties, and that people were free to disagree without being corralled into some kind of superficial consensus, that made them feel hopeful.
There have been powerful and emotional moments as people have felt able to share painful experiences for the first time, or discovered some new insights from speaking to people that they might not have sat round a table with before. In my experience many of these moments began with someone saying “You know, I didn’t really want to come here”, or “I didn’t want to take part in this, but…” and I think this illustrates, on the one hand, the significant challenge that exists in terms of building and re-building trust in the Church, but also the promise that synodality offers us the tools to connect and to re-connect with people.
The diocesan phase of the work concluded at the end of May and in June over forty synthesis documents were submitted for the next stage of the work at national level, as well as being published online as resources for dialogue and pastoral planning. It’s important to understand that in the synodal process a synthesis is much more than just a report of what was said. Instead, a small group of people with different backgrounds and experiences come together to engage collaboratively and prayerfully with all the views that have been collected in different ways over the course of the different initiatives, and they seek to identify themes and messages that might be important, to explore the wider context and give consideration as well to what might be missing.
A similar process then took place at national level where a small group from our Synodal Committee came together to read and reflect on these local submissions. To keep the close connection with the local level we organised a pre-synodal assembly in Athlone on 18 June where bishops, members of diocesan committees and representatives of other participating groups, came together to reflect on the themes identified by our readers group.
And it is these fifteen themes, set in the context of our synodal experience so far and the reflections shared in the pre-synodal assembly, that form the basis of the national synthesis that we have now submitted to the Synod Secretariat in the Vatican. We are publishing it today with an invitation to everyone to read it, discuss it, and reflect on what it might be calling us to do, as individuals and as a Church community.
The fifteen themes are: Abuse as part of the Story of the Church; Co-Responsible Leadership; Clergy; Lay Ministry; Sense of Belonging; The Role of Women in the Church; LGBTQI+; Sexuality and Relationships; Adult Faith Formation; Liturgy; Youth; Education and Catechesis; Family; Covid-19 Pandemic; and Culture.
Undoubtedly these themes are complex and inter-connected, and in approaching the national synthesis it is important to bear in mind that this is not intended to be the last word on any issue, but rather it’s offered a resource to support a deepening dialogue. Ideally, it will be read alongside the local syntheses, because these each have a unique quality and value.
While I don’t think any of the themes will, in themselves, be surprising or new to people, the synthesis is not an easy read. Some of the findings are stark, many of the experiences shared are painful. The synthesis points to areas where there are tensions or opposing views about the future. None of this will be easy to navigate, but throughout the process the honesty and clarity with which the challenges have been articulated has helped to build confidence.
And, as I mentioned, there have been many encouraging aspects — the quality of the dialogue, the positive experiences of the listening sessions reported by participants, the discovery of the incredible resource that exists within our church in the skills and experience of those who offered their time and expertise to facilitate synodal processes and, of course, the fact that, as we read in the synthesis, there is clearly a lot that people value and appreciate about the Church.
At the same time, however, we are very conscious that the work to date has also had its limitations. We did not reach as many people as we would have wanted with the invitation to participate. It takes time to raise awareness and build confidence, and we have been challenged in particular in the course of this process to look critically at the Church’s connection to the most marginalised individuals and groups in our society. The national synthesis offers a foundation to build upon, and may help us to see some of the gaps more clearly.
Arising from these reflections are questions that need to be examined more deeply at the level of the local, national and universal Church. At local level, it is important to take time to reflect on what pastoral actions we could take now — what might we do differently as a result of what we’ve heard? At the national level, the Irish Bishops have also committed to a national synodal pathway for the Church in Ireland, and that work will continue beyond the timeline of the Universal Synod, which concludes in October next year. The decisions about how that national process will be developed have not yet been taken, and so there are still opportunities for people to help shape it.
The Universal Synod will now move into its continental phase, where the fruits of the different national synodal processes will be shared, initially for us at a European level. This provides an important reminder of our global Catholic identity, and the need to ensure that our sense of collective responsibility extends not only beyond the local church, but that it also takes into consideration those who are most vulnerable globally and who may need our support or be impacted by our choices.
As important as what we do, will be the way in which we do it. Some of these painful issues around identity and belonging have the potential to be divisive, but our experience to date demonstrates that they need not necessarily be so. It is possible to hold on to our convictions and at the same time to choose relationship over rupture, taking the time to ask questions, to deepen our understanding, to seek points of connection even in the midst of disagreement.
Pope Francis calls us to resist the temptation to turn diversity into opposition and as we look around our world today, and as we reflect on the history of this island, we can see the devastating and often deadly consequences of polarising tendencies that turn every disagreement into a power struggle. Through the synodal process the Church has a God-given opportunity to model a better way, contributing not only to the healing of relationships within the Church, but to the work of building a more just and compassionate society for all. When I’ve been speaking to people about why they have become involved in the work of synodality, Pope Francis’ vision of the Church as a field hospital at the service of a wounded society is frequently cited as their point of reference.
It’s fitting that we mark the publication of the national synthesis today here today in Knock — a special place that evokes faith and healing for so many people, not just in Ireland, but around the world. The Novena theme of ‘A Journey of Hope’ resonates strongly with the experience of, and vision for, our synodal process.
As I conclude I want to reiterate our thanks to all those who have contributed to the work to date, including our hosts here in Knock today, and encouraging you all to pray for the success of this work and to make your contribution as the journey continues.