The Synodal Meeting in Athlone: my report

Yesterday’s meeting in Athlone, as part of the Synodal Path in the Irish Church, was by any standards extraordinary. I certainly never thought that I would live to be part of such a gathering, or to experience such a sense of change and new life and energy in our tired and battered Irish Catholic Church. 

The purpose of the meeting was to report on the process that has been going on for some months in parishes, dioceses and among other interested groups. Each unit had sent in their report, and the central body appointed for this purpose went through them all and presented a synthesis to the gathering. They picked out fifteen main headings. Some were what one might expect, like falling church attendance, ageing clergy, absent youth, transmission of the faith, liturgy. But there were others that up until recently would not have been allowed to be spoken at such a gathering — the equality of women, including decision making and all forms of ministry, Catholic sexual teaching, especially in relation to LGBTQ and relationships generally, compulsory celibacy for priesthood, and others. 

It was acknowledged by the presenters that most of the gatherings from which these reports had come consisted of the older generation, though to be fair some admirable efforts were made to reach out to marginal groups and youth. What came across clearly was that even the older, still fully committed, people are calling for significant change. 

The majority of the bishops were in attendance, and giving their support to this process. At the end Archbishop Eamon Martin gave a guarantee that the final report, which will be put together by the same sub-committee including any additions after yesterday’s discussions, will be presented in full, and without any watering down or omissions, to the Vatican from the Irish Church. It will also be published, so that we can all see what has gone through.

I was at the gathering representing the ACP, and I sat in some amazement at what I was hearing. If you think that for years we in the ACP were unable to have any real and worthwhile dialogue with the Irish bishops, and here we were yesterday seemingly on the same page. Truly the Spirit must be working. For me, having been excluded from all Church affairs for the past ten years, it was a strange experience to be there. But it was good. When I walked in to the room in the morning after arriving the first person who came over to greet me, hand out in welcome, was Eamon Martin. I appreciated that.

It is good to be at this stage in the process, but there is a long way to go, and many of us fear that it still may fail to live up to its promise, and no real change will happen. The reality is that a good many of the changes people are calling for would involve change in Church teaching, even doctrine. Are the Vatican, even under Pope Francis, up to that? And who will succeed him?

We can only hope and pray. I know that if this admirable effort by the Irish Church fails, it will be very discouraging. But if it begins to produce some of the fruits it promises, we could experience a new flourishing in our Church.

To finish on a personal note, I think that in the spirit of what is happening now in the Church, if all the sanctions imposed on me were lifted it would add to the sense of optimism and of real change we felt yesterday. I am asking the Irish bishops and Redemptorist superiors to deal with the matter.  Please don’t just pass the buck to Rome in this era of synodality.