The Irish synod and what it means

The Irish synod and what it means

As the Irish synod approaches, many laypeople are still unaware of many aspects of the process, from the terminology associated with it or even what the different stages of synodality mean. What change will it bring for your parish and what will it mean in general for wider Irish Catholic society? Many Irish people see the synod as another listening exercise that will go nowhere, as previous synodal pathways in other countries have shown. Contentious issues with the Catholic Church are being spoken about on the ground level and this is an important stage as the synodal reports from each parish in the country are now being revealed and their implications are being discussed by wider Irish society. Laypeople and even some members of the clergy would like to be informed enough to talk openly and concisely about the synod and how it can be used to help the Church accommodate the needs of many.

With mainstream media very reluctant to cover the synod on any level or Catholic news in general it is difficult to obtain the information needed on the process and what the repercussions this meeting of bishops will have on Irish Catholicism and Catholicism around the globe.

Professor Eamonn Conway, Eugene Duffy and Mary McDaid have co-edited a new book titled The Synodal Pathway: When Rhetoric meets Reality aiming to ease the understanding of synodality for laypeople and clergy alike, the book breaks down at every level what synodality means. This extract of The Synodal Pathway, is an easy and comprehensible break down of the terminology  from the very word ‘synod’ and its definition to the history of the discussions and meeting of bishops.

Synods and Synodality: What is it all about and does it matter?

The words ‘Synod’ and ‘synodality’ have become synonymous with Pope Francis. No other pontificate since Vatican II has been so closely associated with these concepts or has given them as much profile and attention as he has. This essay sets out to provide a basic introduction to synods and synodality that will be developed in more detail in subsequent essays in the book. It will explore how these concepts have evolved under Pope Francis and present some reasons as to why these developments are necessary.


The Synod of Bishops

The Synod of Bishops refers first and foremost to a permanent institution and office established in 1965 by Pope Paul VI and only secondarily to the periodic assemblies of bishops that the General Secretariat organises. It is not part of the Roman Curia. It is an advisory body and purely consultative, existing to assist the Pope in governance while always subject to his authority. Pope Francis’s pontificate has been a busy one for the Synod of Bishops. He has called the Synod of Bishops ‘one of the most precious fruits of the Second Vatican Council’.[1] Accordingly, he has significantly expanded it and given increased prominence to its General Secretariat in Rome.


What is a Synod?

The word ‘synod’ comes from Greek and refers to an assembly or a meeting, or, more literally, to journeying a common path. It is analogous with ‘council’, which is its Latin counterpart. In the Catholic Church it has come to mean an assembly of bishops along with experts and advisers meeting together to advise the pope, or a similar event at diocesan or regional level established to advise local bishops.

Since coming into office in 2013, Pope Francis has held two ordinary general assemblies of the Synod of Bishops: one extraordinary general assembly and one special assembly. The first assembly he convoked took place in 2014, the year following his election, and was an extraordinary synod on ‘The Pastoral Challenges of the Family in the Context of Evangelization’. Extraordinary Synods are relatively brief and small; generally, apart from experts and advisers, only one bishop from each episcopal conference throughout the world is in attendance. In contrast, ordinary general assemblies can involve thousands and are month-long events. The first of these under Pope Francis took place in 2015 on ‘The Vocation and Mission of the Family in the Church and in the Contemporary World’. The topic was deliberately aligned with that of the extraordinary synod that preceded it in the previous year and facilitated the most widespread period of consultation on pressing pastoral matters the global Catholic Church had then seen since Vatican II.  It was followed by the 2018 Ordinary General Assembly on ‘Young People, Faith and Vocational Discernment’ and in 2019 by a special assembly on the Pan-Amazonian Region.

Most recently, Pope Francis has convoked an ordinary general assembly of bishops on the topic of synodality itself. The exact title is: ‘For a synodal Church – communion, participation, mission.’ This will take place in October 2023, by which time what Austen Ivereigh has described as the largest ever popular process of participation and consultation in world history, underway since October 2021, will have concluded. The consultation is intended to shape and influence the agenda that the assembly of bishops in synod will discuss. Essentially, synods are meant to be prayerful events during which, through honest and courageous speaking, and open, authentic listening (see Introduction) the will of the Holy Spirit can come to be revealed. Synods are not parliaments, as Pope Francis has clarified on more than one occasion, and they really don’t have a secular equivalent.[2] This leaves the unique concept of a synod in the Catholic Church readily open to misunderstanding.


Was reform of the Synod of Bishops needed?

I can address this question with first-hand experience. Ten years ago (in 2012), I participated in the XIII Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops in Rome. The theme was ‘The New Evangelisation for the Transmission of the Christian Faith’. We didn’t know it at the time but this was already intended by Pope Benedict to be his final Synod and so he ensured that it focused on the primary concern of his pontificate, namely, the re-evangelisation of Europe. For Benedict, as evident from his famous Regensburg address (2006), the state of health of Christianity globally was dependent upon the wellbeing of Christianity in Europe. This was because of the decisive and irreplaceable ‘inner rapprochement’, as he saw it, between biblical faith and Greek philosophy. Yet Europe was now ravaged by secularism, which had resulted in the ‘desertification’ of its rich Christian heritage, massive decline in religious practice and widespread doctrinal relativism. John Paul II’s decade of evangelisation leading up to the new millennium hadn’t resulted in the resurgence of faith in Europe that the pontificate had hoped for. A new initiative was needed.

As advisers we were seated near the back of the synod hall and our task was to take note of the various contributions from the Synod Fathers (all bishops, apart from a handful of male religious superiors). We were required to identify similarities and differences in their presentations, report on emerging themes and topics of interest, and keep an eye out for any theological anomalies. As all contributions were scripted and, in effect, vetted in advance, it was largely a paper exercise. There was supposed time for ‘free interventions’ in the evenings, but they didn’t come across as such. An American Benedictine who sat next to me summed up the experience well: it was like ‘being on a transatlantic flight all day every day and you don’t even get to choose the movie’.  Early in the Synod, officials became concerned by bishops posting to social media from within the synod hall and so the internet was switched off, causing lengthy queues in nearby phone shops as Synod Fathers rushed out to buy data SIM cards for their iPads so they could keep posting to social media.

Professor Eamonn Conway pictured with his new book, The Synodal Pathway: When Rhetoric meets Reality.

There were only three significant differences of opinion voiced during the Synod. The first concerned the ordering of the sacraments of initiation. Cardinal Oullet, widely believed to be representing the position of Pope Benedict, favoured returning to the traditional order of confirmation before communion and was challenged by the then-Archbishop of Washington and Relator for the Synod, Cardinal Wuerl, who, without denying the theological coherence of Cardinal Ouellet’s position, nonetheless tactfully defended the pastoral usefulness of having a sacrament of initiation for celebration with older age-groups. The second difference of opinion was more serious because it had to do with power and authority, and it led to a last-minute compromise text being inserted overnight into the Synod’s concluding document to placate an influential minority. The issue was the role of the new ecclesial movements and the level of oversight in their regard that should be afforded to diocesan bishops.

The third difference of opinion was in regard to catechists. During the Synod there were several calls, primarily from Latin America but also from other regions, for the establishment of the position of catechist as a stable ministry in the Church. However, these were countered by bishops who were concerned that the establishment of stable lay ministries could diminish the distinctiveness of the priesthood, and so a firm proposal in this regard didn’t find its way into the final propositions. Just last year, in May 2021, Pope Francis formally instituted the ministry of catechist.

The small discussion groups which took place in the second half of the Synod were livelier than those on the synod floor though they too were also carefully managed. Nothing found its way back onto the general floor unless it fitted into what seemed to many of us relatively harmless and reflected already predetermined magisterial positions. Groups tended to ‘elect’ as their chair the most senior ecclesiastic present and generally members were careful in what they said. The few lay people participating had been carefully selected and, if anything, the bishops found themselves tempering the more extreme views of the laity present. For instance, in the group in which I participated one of the lay members lobbied repeatedly for the Synod on the New Evangelisation to make a clear headline statement reiterating the Church’s teaching on artificial contraception. Cardinals Dolan and Pell, both members of the group, assured the lay member of their complete acceptance of the Church’s teaching on this matter but also made clear, as diplomatically as they could, that a reiteration of the Church’s teaching on artificial contraception couldn’t be one of the main outcomes of a synod on evangelisation.

Professor Eamonn Conway presenting Pope Francis with a copy of his latest book, The Synodal Pathway: When Rhetoric meets Reality during a trip to the Vatican in April 2022.

There were a few truly memorable contributions. In anticipation of the humbler magisterial tone the Church would adopt in Amoris Laetitia the Archbishop of Manila, Luis Antonio Tagle urged the Church to ‘…learn the power of silence. Faced with sorrows, doubts and uncertainties of people we cannot pretend there are easy solutions’. To Tagle’s surprise, on the last day of the Synod, Pope Benedict XVI named him a cardinal (he is now Prefect of the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples). Along similar lines, fellow Filipino, Archbishop Villegas, said that ‘the Gospel can be preached to empty stomachs, but only if the stomach of the preacher is as empty as his parishioners’. Then-Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, said that to proclaim the Gospel in today’s culture, marked as it is by truncated understandings of what it is to live a human life, is simply to restore people’s confidence that it is possible to be properly human. ‘The humanizing enterprise will be empty,’ he said, ‘without the definition of humanity given in the Second Adam.’ Equal to Williams in insight and intellect, Pope Benedict made just one short but profound intervention during the Synod, an apparently ex tempore meditation he led at Morning Prayer to do with the beauty of the Gospel and the enduring hunger in every human heart for its message.[3] Throughout the Synod there was hardly a better or more profound articulation of the task facing the Synod Fathers than Pope Benedict’s beautiful words. Unfortunately, however, the way the Synod was conducted stifled any possibility of an imaginative or creative response surfacing to the question he had so articulately posed.

Meanwhile, as hundreds of bishops from all over the world deliberated on new strategies for evangelisation, a few hundred metres away from the synod hall, a governance catastrophe in the Church of unprecedented proportions in the modern era was continuing to unfold in the papal apartments and the secretariat of state. Earlier in the year, Pope Benedict’s butler had been arrested for stealing confidential documents, but this was only the tip of the iceberg. Anxious to bring to light the full extent of wrongdoing, Pope Benedict had commissioned an investigation headed by Spanish cardinal, Julian Herranz, the text of which would land on his desk a few weeks after the Synod had concluded in December of 2012. Although never published, its findings were to dominate the pre-conclave discussions between cardinals that would take place a few months later and cause them to seek out a pope they felt was up to the task of bringing about badly needed reform in governance in the Church at every level.

Self-evidently, at a key low point in the Church’s post-Vatican II history, the Synod of Bishops, established by Pope Paul VI for the purpose of assisting the pontiff in church governance and of sharing the burden of this responsibility with the bishops as a universal body, was in effect, inconsequential, attending to matters far removed from the pressing and serious matters immediately affecting the Church.


Pope Francis takes over

Pope Francis wasn’t at the 2012 Synod. Although he had reached the mandatory age at which a bishop has to submit his resignation, Cardinal Bergoglio was still Archbishop of Buenos Aires so he could have participated. We have good reason to presume that the Synod of Bishops as it then operated held little attraction for him. Used by then to the open debate, honest and self-effacing interventions from diverse voices and perspectives, and an underlying trust in the guidance of the Holy Spirit that characterised the synodal-type gatherings of the bishops of Latin American episcopal conferences (CELAM), it is likely that the carefully contrived Roman synods may even have scandalised Cardinal Bergoglio. Also, he could well have had little interest in a synodal agenda he viewed as primarily Eurocentric. In fact, Francis takes a view diametrically opposed to Benedict regarding the significance of Europe for the global Church by explicitly rejecting the expectation that ‘peoples of every continent, in expressing their Christian faith (would) imitate modes of expression which European nations developed at a particular moment of their history’.[4]

Within months of the conclusion of the 2012 Synod, as we know, Benedict resigned and Francis became pope. The XIII World Synod of Bishops is the only synod since Vatican II that doesn’t have a post-synodal exhortation. When Francis took over, apparently the preparation of a carefully crafted exhortation by the committee of bishops appointed for that purpose was well-advanced, but Francis scrapped it and substituted his own text, Evangelii gaudium (2013), which in effect is the charter for his pontificate. And with that, the prefix ‘new’ before ‘evangelisation’, which owed its origins to John Paul II, was consigned to the ecclesiastical history books. Instead, Pope Francis pointed the Church back to Paul VI’s Evangelii nuntiandi (1976), which he referred to on three separate occasions in the first few months of his pontificate, describing it as ‘containing words that are as timely as if they had been written yesterday’, ‘a very full text that has lost nothing of its timeliness’, ‘that basic point of reference which remains relevant’, and to his mind ‘the greatest pastoral document that has ever been written to this day’.[5] Straightforward and uncomplicated definitions of evangelisation soon started to appear on the @pontifex twitter account such as, ‘What does ‘evangelise’ mean? To give witness with joy and simplicity to what we are and what we believe in’. The Latin American response to secularism is characterised more by a call to joyful witness than to glum jeremiads about desertification. During the 2012 Synod several Latin American bishops commented upon how bishops from Europe generally seemed tired and frustrated by comparison with themselves. In retrospect, we know that this is because the Latin American Church had set a new and invigorating course for itself at Aparecida in 2007, which was already bearing fruit.

This extract is from The Synodal Pathway: When Rhetoric meets Reality by Prof. Eamonn Conway, Eugene Duffy and Mary McDaid. If you would like to read more on synodality and understand how it may shape Catholicism’s future you can pick up a copy of A Synodal Pathway via our website here.