A Synod for the Irish Church

We’re Going to Have a Synod…A What?

Earlier this year, the Irish Catholic Bishops’ Conference announced that they were embarking on a synodal pathway for the Irish Catholic Church leading to the holding of a National Synodal Assembly within the next five years.  The word “synod” and a synodal way of working is perhaps more familiar among our friends in the Church of Ireland who are used to gathering regularly in synod to make important decisions.  But there hasn’t been a national synod of the Catholic Church in Ireland since 1927.  That said, in other centuries, there have been very significant synodal gatherings  where decisions were made which impacted the course the Catholic Church took in the years and indeed even in the centuries which followed.

What is a Synod?

For the Church it is a time-honoured way of working out together the “navigation map” for the Church at particular times.  Synodality is about the whole People of God helping each other to listen to what the Holy Spirit is saying to the Church.  This way of working has been given a new emphasis and a new urgency by Pope Francis who has emphasised that this is the way of being “which God expects of the Church of the third millennium”.  He has insisted that it is not just bishops but the whole People of God which is called to be synodal. Listening, he says, is at the heart of this way of working.  He emphasises that this is not simply a matter of discussion as in a parliamentary debate.  Rather it is primarily a prayerful spiritual time of communitarian discernment.  It is about finding the best ways forward for the Church given the challenges it faces.

So why is the Catholic Church In Ireland organising a synod at this time?

Synods usually took place at moments of crisis and transition. New ways forward needed to be found to meet new circumstances.  That is the precisely the situation we find ourselves in now as people of faith.  There is widespread recognition that the Irish Church is in deep crisis and there is a longing for leadership and a collective response. The Church system as we have known it is broken. The service model of Church which came into being as Irish society recovered from the famine, and which thrived for most of the 20th century is in free fall.  Archbishop Dermot Farrell, the current Archbishop of Dublin recently pointed out that the Church is “in the maelstrom of its gravest crisis in centuries.’

Part of the crisis has to do with participation.   Over a few short decades, participation in Sunday Eucharist, has dropped dramatically and in for some age cohorts, completely collapsed.   It is widely anticipated that the decline will be accelerated following from the COVID pandemic.   This profoundly impacts on the local Church. Numbers regularly participating in the life of their local parish communities continue to decline.  The pool of people available as volunteers for parish groups and programmes is also declining and aging.


The place of the Church in Irish society has also seen dramatic change. Whereas in the past, the Church occupied a central, respected and dominant position in Irish Society, now, in many instances, it perceives the environment as hostile and unsupportive.  In a few decades, the Irish Church has gone from having a powerful presence with influence and energy to being a much depleted, older, less energised Church, with an uncertain view of its place in Irish society.


The crisis in also apparent in relation to ministry and priesthood.  In the Diocese of Killaloe, over one third of parishes are presently without a resident priest. This trend is likely to continue as there is now no priest to replace one who resigns or is unable to continue in ministry.


The scale of the crisis faced by the Church is bigger than can be addressed by local dioceses working in isolation. What does it mean to be a Christian Community in an increasingly secular and materialistic society? How can the Gospel message be proclaimed meaningfully in this culture? Can we take seriously the call to social justice and to care of the environment as a core part of who we are called to be and not just the concern of small groups who are often marginal to the mainstream Church?  The breakdown of the clerical model of Church requires us to reimagine how we understand ministry in our Church. What forms of ministry are needed now if Christian community is to be sustained and if the Church community is to reach out to the ambient human community?


Given this backdrop, calling the whole Church in Ireland to embark on a synodal pathway towards an Assembly of the Irish Church is a brave decision by the Irish Catholic Bishops.  It’s an opportunity for everyone to be involved and to make their voices heard as together the Church in Ireland discerns its future.


Maureen Kelly is from Spancil Hill and works in the area of Pastoral Development for the Diocese of Killaloe

Clare Champion Article Friday, 20th of August 2021