Faith Matters

A synod is the people of God walking and talking together

Pope Francis wants more consultation and discussion between lay people, clergy and bishops, with Irish dioceses launching 'synodal pathways' to give a wide range of Catholics input into this 'synod' process. But what is a 'synod'? It's the people of God, in conversation, journeying together, says Fr Eddie O'Donnell.

 Pope Francis poses for a group photo with bishops and participants during the last day of the synod of bishops held at the Vatican in 2018. A 'synodal pathways' process is currently gathering views of how the Church at all levels can listen and collaborate more effectively. The Pope wants a synod due to take place next year to set out how this synodal way of 'being Church' might work in practice. Picture by Fabio Frustaci/ANSA via AP.

SOMETHING is happening in the Catholic Church. Motivated anew by her central belief in Christ's resurrection, the Church is on the move.

Long enough have we been in the doldrums. It is time for us to, as St Paul says, "Wake up from your sleep, rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you" (Ephesians 5:14).

It is not overstating things to say that, in these last years, we in the Church, for many reasons, have endured the pain of a Good Friday, and the emptiness of a Holy Saturday. But, as Jesus himself demonstrated, a crisis always has within it the seed of a new beginning.

Such a new beginning Pope Francis calls "synodality"; the word simply means "journeying together". Just as Jesus walked with the two disciples on the road to Emmaus, we too can share in an Easter experience, when the lifegiving breath of God is breathed out once more upon this "Body of Christ" we call the Church.

Now, as parish communities, we are invited to begin this journey together on the pathway of synodality.

Before reflecting on synodality, there are realities we must first acknowledge.

Our greatest enemy will be in finding the enthusiasm and energy to undertake this journey, because, like the disciples on the road to Emmaus, we too have been "downcast" - the challenging times we have lived through have shattered many of our dreams.

One thinks immediately of the devastation caused by the pandemic. What Covid-19 has inflicted upon our society, and on the world in general, would have been beyond our imagining this time two years ago.

So many have died due to Covid, some of them our own relatives and friends; many have been sick; work and education have been severely disrupted; our liberty to associate with others and to worship as a community, have been greatly curtailed. Isolation has fractured many of the relationships we previously took for granted.

However, while the suffering caused by the pandemic has been immense, the greatest wound inflicted on the Body of Christ has been the revelations surrounding clerical sexual abuse, institutional abuse, and the subsequent cover-up by Church leaders.

We have learnt, with sickening horror and disbelief, of the abominable crimes perpetrated against the most innocent and most vulnerable, by those who ought to have been the most trusted. This, more than anything else, knocked the evangelical energy out of the Church - paralysing us with shame.

Austen Ivereigh, biographer of Pope Francis and a leading commentator on the Catholic Church, spoke about Pope Francis's synodal vision when he gave the annual St Brigid's Day lecture in St Brigid's Church.

A further challenge confronting us is the fact that, in this social media age, so many of our young people are losing touch with the faith, and particularly with the practice of the faith. This is a deep concern for so many of us, and, truth be told, we are not quite sure how to check this reality as there does not appear to be a simple response - but respond we must.

Additional concerns are the decreasing number of priests, and the increasing age profile of the remaining clergy. These realities force upon us many practical questions, but chief among them, is that of how to maintain a witnessing Christian community in our locality.

Pope Francis, who now invites the whole Church to journey on the synodal pathway, prays that, "The Holy Spirit guides us where God wants us to be, not to where our own personal ideas and tastes would lead us."

The implication is how we listen is more important than what we say - how we listen to the Lord as he speaks to us in the scriptures, and how we listen to one another as we share our experiences of church and faith.

When we really listen, we are not thinking about what we might say next, nor are we listening to respond - we listen to understand, without making judgments.

The synodal process has been welcomed with joy and enthusiasm in many of the African, Latin American, and Asian countries, but it must be admitted that the response in the West has been reticent and muted.

While many perceive the synod as a crucial moment in the life of the Church - an opportunity for conversion and renewal - there is also a certain mistrust, even cynicism, among both some clergy and laity concerning it.

There are those who doubt that their contribution will really be taken seriously. There is the concern that the synod will end up as some kind of parliamentary debate, seeking merely a majority opinion. There is the danger of becoming inward looking, fixating only on problems, or on the so-called 'hot-button issues', risking discouragement and cynicism.

It is possible too to focus only on Church structures and to forget what Mother Teresa once said when asked by a journalist: "What needs to change in the Church?" She answered: "You and me."

May we now set out on this synodal pathway praying:

"Holy Spirit guide us where God wants us to be,

not to where our own ideas and personal tastes would lead us.

Holy Spirit breath afresh on us."


Fr Eddie O'Donnell is parish priest of St Brigid's Parish in Belfast.

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