By Lisa Zengarini
The Bishops of Ireland, during their 2020 Winter General Meeting, decided to proceed along a Synodal Pathway. Since then, they have been assisted and encouraged by Cardinal Mario Grech and Sister Natalie Becquart of the General Secretariat for the Synod of Bishops in Rome.
The new Synodal Pathway was further discussed during their recent Spring General Meeting held at the beginning of March. It will consist basically of two phases: a consultative process (2021-2023) and a planning phase leading to the Synod Assembly.
First phase of the Synodal Pathway (2021-2023)
The first phase will be a period of prayer, listening and discernment, involving a nationwide consultative conversation on the theme: “For a Synodal Church: Communion, Participation and Mission”. This will be the focus of the next Ordinary Assembly of the Synod of Bishops to be held in in Rome in 2022.
The consultation 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.
The planning and preparation phase for the National Synodal Assembly will subsequently bring together and seek to implement the fruits and recommendations from this initial phase, also taking account of the conclusions of the General Assembly in Rome, together with the following Papal Apostolic Exhortation.
The aim of this second phase will be to design the particular form of the National Synod and prepare directly at local, regional and national level for the holding of the Synod.
Deciding methods to adopt in the consultation
Before embarking on the first phase consultation, Bishops are inviting submissions to reflect on what methods/models to adopt in these coming two years of conversations (parish hall meetings, focus groups, questionnaires, deep-listening sessions; written submissions; family-focused gatherings; summary of findings of assemblies that have already taken place across dioceses; and/or conferences).
On the new Synodal Pathway web page (www.catholicbishops.ie/synod), Irish Catholics are invited to offer feedback to the following question: “What would be your preferred option for engagement in a conversation process about the Synod?”
Feedback, which should be submitted by Pentecost Sunday, 23 May 2021, should focus on the nature of the process for the consultation, that is, on how the Irish Church can best go about the initial phase of establishing the conversation, rather than on the prospective themes for the Synodal Pathway, which will be addressed in the subsequent phase.
Special task group to oversee the first steps
The responses will be considered by a special task group which the Irish Bishops will put in place during their next Summer General Meeting in June 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. Commenting this first step of the Synodal Pathway, Bishop Brendan Leahy of Limerick expressed his hopes that many will offer their suggestions, saying it is “a simple but significant step”.
New opportunities and challenges
Irish Bishops have been considering the idea of a National Synodal Assembly since the 2018 Ordinary General Assembly of Bishops on Young People.
They were inspired by Pope Francis’ repeated call for an “outgoing” Church and in the light of the many challenges facing the Church in Ireland today.
These include, they say, in the first place, the rapid secularisation of the Irish society, which has brought a major decline in practice of the faith and in the number of vocations to the priesthood and the religious life in the country; the clerical and institutional abuse scandal that has rocked the Catholic Church in Ireland in the past years, and the call for transparency, greater participation and accountability.
Families, young people, and women
As pointed out in during the last General Assembly in March, there is a growing awareness of the need for more support for the family as a "Domestic Church", of connecting with young people, and for honouring the contribution of women in the Church.
Bishops are also aware of the need for ongoing peace-making and building of trust and reconciliation in Ireland, and for a culture of welcome and integration for migrants and the many newcomers who have arrived in the island.
All these issues will form the focus of the National Synodal Assembly.