As it gradually became evident during the earlier years of the pontificate of Pope Francis that he was determined to restore the teaching of the Second Vatican Council, and that he was using the process of synodality as his modus operandi, over time it became clear to me that he was on to something very different, and quite radical. 

We knew about synods. After the Council there were one or two interesting ones while Paul VI was still alive, and though they were exclusively a gathering of bishops, there seemed to be some free and interesting discussion going on. An effort was being made to follow through, to some extent, on the topics and the spirit of the Council.

Two things put a stop to this. First, Humanae Vitae, the encyclical banning artificial contraception, which proved that no matter how much discussion, and how many different views there were, in the end the Pope decided, and also did so without listening to the large majority of those who had studied the subject.

Next, along came John Paul II, and under him, while meetings of the Synod of Bishops happened on occasions, there was no real discussion. The agenda was fixed, and all the indications were that the findings were also decided even before the meeting happened. There was no synodality in the synods. They were largely meaningless.

What Francis is attempting to do is, in my view, very different. Synods are no longer just for bishops, but are now open to at least some lay people. This is acknowledging a fundamental aspect of our faith, that the Spirit is available to all believers, not just to those in the clerical and episcopal state. Rather than having a fixed agenda in advance, they are more open and allowing for freedom of discussion. And probably most dramatic, the process involves prayer, listening, silence and what he calls discernment. He asserts that it is only when the gatherings are conducted in this way will there be real opportunity to be open to the promptings of the Spirit.

A fair bit of disappointment has been expressed by the fact that few decisions were made at the recent Synod in October, and that a number of the really contentious issues, which figured prominently in the pre-Synodal gatherings around the world and very much so in Ireland, did not feature in the final report. I would share some of that disappointment. But I am also aware that Francis’ agenda is different. He was more interested in the process, and I expect he felt that there was a better chance of having a good experience of the process if it avoided trying to decide difficult issues, because that would be where divisions and rancour would be more likely to emerge, and to put paid to any possibility of real discernment. He is more interested in embedding the Synodal system as he has outlined it into the authority and decision making processes of the Church as a whole. This would be an enormous change. If he can succeed in this before his papacy ends (either in retirement or death) he will have left behind him a system where real change will continue to be possible. That would be radical, and I hope and pray that he will succeed. The challenge for him will be next October, when the next and final gathering takes place. If that passes off also without real decisions being made it will be hard to resist the conclusion that the whole thing was a waste of time. But, using his understanding of ‘discernment’ is it possible to make difficult decisions? I don’t know.

In the meantime we have ten months or so to move the process forward here in Ireland, and to provide good input to next October in Rome. Two U.S. cardinals, Cupich and McElroy, stated that after the experience in October there could never again be a Synod of Bishops again without the full involvement of lay people. I hope so. But if synodality is to be the way the Church operates in the future, it cannot be only in Rome, it has to be at all levels of the Church. Also, it seems to me to be very important that some efforts to implement this new way of being Church have to be seen to happen before next October.

  • Can the Irish Conference of Bishops continue to meet in Maynooth or elsewhere without the presence of lay representatives? I don’t think so. That won’t be an easy change, and the choosing of lay representatives will be complicated, but it must happen. At the very least between now and next October the Irish bishops must publicly commit themselves to making it happen as expeditiously as possible.
  • Can diocesan priests councils continue to meet while excluding lay people? Absolutely not. It would be completely contrary to Francis’ idea of Synodality. Even if it might not be possible to implement that before next October, it will be important that the Irish Church makes clear that it must be the way forward.
  • What about Parish Councils? Up to now they been purely consultative, with no power to make decisions. That remains completely in the hands of the parish priest. But it has to change, it is not synodal. Decisions at parish level from now on need to be made, using the process of discernment, by the whole council.

All of this will demand big changes. Lay people will need to change, and be willing to get much more active in the life of the parish, and to take responsibility, with all the demands that will involve.

It will be especially difficult for priests. We are mostly old, we have been trained, and lived the bulk of our lives, in a very different system of being ‘church’. We are used to making decisions, and exercising power. The handing over of power is one of the hardest things that can be asked of any human person. The very system has led us to accept that women are secondary. It doesn’t surprise me to hear from people who have worked closely in the Synodal process up to now that they believe that the biggest block in implementing this new way of doing things will be the priests. I understand their difficulty, and I sympathise with them. I am glad I am not a parish priest at this hour of my life. They are being asked to do probably the hardest thing of their  whole life, and something they have not be trained or prepared for. It won’t be easy. The temptation will be to keep their heads down and carry on as normal. 

I am aware that, because of my present situation, I am somewhat on the outside, and I can state what changes should be made without having to in any way be part of implementing the changes.

It is a fascinating time in the Catholic Church, one I never thought I would live to experience. I hope and pray that through our openness to the working of the Spirit real fruit will emerge.