Another Irish bishop calls for Synodality in the Church

Cloyne Clergy Assembly 6th November 2018, Killarney

Homily Notes   –   Bishop William Crean

In the current issue of The Furrow Fr. Pat Hannon offers a perceptive reflection on recent Referenda, the Papal visit and their implications for the Church in Ireland and what now?  he asks:

“What I’ve wanted to say in essence is that the outcome of the Referendum need not be regarded as disaster but a Kairos, a moment of opportunity in the work of witnessing to the Gospel and its values, in which Irish Catholics are moved to look at how best now to contribute to the creation of a culture of life.  We must be careful not to misinterpret the result, and careful to search for common ground, inside and outside the Church, with people who came to a different conclusion about the Eighth Amendment.  The search will be part of a larger quest, one that reckons with the changed times, and asks what the Gospel of Jesus Christ now can bring to Irish society”.  The Furrow Nov. 2018

That question what now? has been on the minds of a lot of Catholics.  It is on our minds too.  If we are to avoid wondering aimlessly, we need some focus, we need a framework which will give direction to the ministry individually and as a diocesan presbyterate.

Gathering for Eucharist on the day of festival for All the Saints of Ireland gives us an opportunity through the Scripture Readings to find inspiration from our long history as well as find hope in a vision for the future.

The Reflections from the Book of Sirach encapsulates the collective fruits of former generations in our families and communities but also our predecessors in the ministry.  The positives are marked by some extraordinary legacies of fidelity, humanity resilience and fortitude.  The negatives are significant.

The long lens of hindsight enables us to identify the poor pastoral practice of many of our predecessors.  Though well-intentioned a narrow moralistic focus made for a distorted and dysfunctional spiritual vision/understanding of Christian living.  We live with both the riches and the baggage of our past.

It is now over 60 years since the conclusion of Vatican II – of which reading the “signs of the times” was a key objective.  It is extraordinary that the sign we failed to see and respond to was within – namely the sexual abuse of minors.  That failure has brought the wrath of God and the wrath of so many people down on our heads and rightly.

The twofold tragedy is the profound hurt and alienation it has led to – so much that many have chosen to walk away – for others it has served as a pretext for the rejection of any goodwill or action on the part of the Church.

The other element of the tragedy of this abuse has been the obliteration of the memory of the love, compassion and sacrifice of so many good women and men in religious life, priesthood and in families.

What now?  Fr. Pat Hannon asks.  Over these past 60 or so years since the Council so much has, in good faith, been invested in renewal of pastoral practice, religious education, pre-sacramental education, liturgy and spirituality.

To what effect?  Very mixed indeed.

Many bemoan the failure of religious education to convey moral values and a sense of faith.  In doing so they deny the complexity of the changed cultural environment.  It is a cliché to remind ourselves of the shift from the experience of authority to the supremacy of the authority of experience.  With new experience comes a new understanding a new language – a new way of speaking.  Listening recently to a lady who has lived to a ripe old age she reckoned that her language and experience was five generations old!  She felt a stranger in a foreign land.

As church we can easily feel that such is our plight.  Not if you listen to Pope Francis.  He appeals because he speaks a new language that is marked by simplicity and humility – it is down to earth.  Part of his challenge to those in leadership is to be close to the people, to value their experience and wisdom as they seek to live in a good, peaceful and just way.

He is suggesting to us that an effective Christian communion requires that we embrace the concept of Synodality in the everyday life of the Church.  It is both the concept and reality of journeying with people.  It is to trust in the “sensus fidei” of which Bl. J.H. Newman spoke so eloquently in the late 19th century.  Summed up in his observation of the Laity and the Church “that we would look rather foolish without them!”  Pope Francis has spoken in detail recently on the reality of Synod/Synodality – first on the 50th anniversary of the 1st Synod called by St. Pope Paul VI on 15th September 1965.  More recently he has approved of a substantial document from the International Theological Commission on Synodality in the life of the Church.

All this reflection is the distillation of how in practical terms we give expression to the Church as a Pilgrim People, the Church as a people of “Gaudium et Spes” a people of Joy and Hope, the Church as Lumen Gentium a light to peoples, to the nations.

This has been a challenge for all of us in leadership.  Because it calls for a different way of offering guidance, direction and support as spiritual guides – for that is what we seek to be spiritual guides / directors of those entrusted to our care.

Did not Jesus remonstrate the religious leaders of His day?  Woe to you blind guides … (Mt. 23:24) who miss the essential truths and focus on peripheral details.  The way Pope Francis challenges and critiques clericalism is disconcerting for us.  If we apply the critique of Jesus to ourselves, we too may well be in the fold of blind guides.

Do we recognise what Pope Francis is saying when he condemns clericalism?  Do we or can we recognise it in ourselves?  And what is it anyway?  A mindset, a mentality, that is closed and rigid in its extreme form.  It is a perspective on the world that serves as a form of darkness rather that light.  It is a kind of existential pessimism that has not embraced the Good News of God’s love and mercy.

It calls for a deep conversion of mind, heart and spirit on our part if we are to serve as facilitators and guides.  And surely that is the essence of our priesthood to serve as spiritual guides to people.

The concept of Synodality challenges us to reach out beyond our comfort zone to those beyond our circle, those who do not or may not agree with or support the parish community.  Having parish pastoral councils is a basic and essential step in this work.  As a diocese we need to broaden the dialogue and engagement.  It calls for taking risks, casting out the nets again though we have fished all night and caught nothing.  It calls for education and formation in faith which is embodied in the way we engage with people.

The vision is clear

Blessed are you who are poor
yours is the Kingdom of God.

Blessed are you who are hungry now
you shall be satisfied

Blessed are you who weep now
you shall laugh

Blessed are you when people hate you, drive you out, abuse you, denounce your name as criminal on account of the Son of Man.

Rejoice when that day comes and dance for joy for then your reward will be great in heaven

This is the way they treated their ancestors the prophets.   Lk. 6:20-23.


We ask the intercession of All the Saints of Ireland as we step forth on the road less travelled.

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  1. Sean O’Conaill says:

    When an Irish bishop declares not only that clericalism is an evil and synodality a necessity, but that canon law institutionalises clericalism and that the privileging of ordination above baptism by canon law is where clericalism begins – and then refuses to attend any more exclusive quarterly episcopal huddles in Maynooth until parish assemblies are given the canonical power to elect parish councils – wake me up!

    Given the ACP’s inability to admit that the Irish Catholic Church is a far larger reality than the observant church I am not even sure where that organisation stands on clericalism. Its last letter to the bishops implied that if clergy disappear the church ceases to exist, an essentially clericalist position, given the huge alienating effect of massive clerical dysfunction and the complete absence of representative structures.

    Or is there already an ACP statement calling upon clergy to abjure the clerical monopoly of power in the church required by canon law?

  2. Paddy Ferry says:

    This is truly an amazing homily from Bishop Crean. Remember, this is the man who fairly recently banned Tony Flannery from speaking in Fr. Tim’s parish. I was really interested in this bit:

    “It calls for a deep conversion of mind, heart and spirit on our part if we are to serve as facilitators and guides. And surely that is the essence of our priesthood to serve as spiritual guides to people.”

    He seems to have experienced a really deep conversion recently !!

  3. Soline Humbert says:

    In his address to members of the clergy,bishop Crean says”For that is what we seek to be,spiritual directors/guides to the people entrusted to our care.”And:”that is the essence of our priesthood to serve as spiritual guides to people.” This leads me to wonder :Is bishop Crean aware that the ministry of spiritual direction/guidance/accompaniment is not synonymous with the ministerial priesthood? The charism is not tied to ordination.Many spiritual directors are actually lay people,women and men,as shown by the membership of the All Ireland Spiritual Guidance Association and Spiritual Directors International.We minister alongside religious,females and males,and ordained priests.This ministry has been radically de-clericalised in the last decades.Come and see!

  4. Sean O’Conaill says:

    Note also, Soline, the continuing claiming of the ‘pastoral’ charism by bishops, almost as exclusive clerical property – symbolised by the wielding / flaunting of the shepherd’s staff, the ‘crozier’ – despite centuries of institutionalised disobedience of the ‘feed my lambs’ parting directive of Jesus to Peter, in the case of clerical child abuse.

    Is it merely coincidental that the same crozier resembles the symbol used to indicate a question in the Latin script? Do bishops have any sensitivity around that – to the possible interpretation of their ceremonial presence as a question to all of those present: does anyone here know what the purpose of my existence could be?

    There were, of course, occasional great bishops with a genuine pastoral charism: Romero was one, and Diarmuid Martin has a genuine claim too. However, most of the ‘caring’ has always been done by women, so why think of bishops per se as even typically ‘pastoral’ nowadays? And how can Irish bishops who drag their heels on ‘smelling the sheep’ claim to qualify? The huge Irish gulf between clergy – bishops especially – and the neediest of the sheep speaks for itself.

  5. Eddie Finnegan1 says:

    Here we go again! A brace of relatively new bishops (Ossory and Cloyne) put their heads above the parapet and show their readiness to row in behind Pope Francis or to put out a little into the deep even if they have been fishing all night in the dark and only caught a cold. And what do they get on this site? A bucket of cold water from Sean and two half buckets of lukewarm whataboutery from Paddy and Soline. Look lads and ladess: is it not possible to rejoice over a pair of shepherds who may have been lost but seem to have found a path again through the thicket and whin bushes for themselves and their co-pastors and flocks (syn-‘odos)? Metanoia is for us all. But first rejoice over the positives before highlighting the negatives or proving once again that we ourselves are well ahead of the game and have known it all long ago. An omniscient lay commentariat is just ONE of the main reasons why bishops and most priests are not going to be caught dead on this site.

  6. Sean O’Conaill says:

    Whose ‘parapet’ is it Eddy, that discourages bishops from sticking their heads up?

    At the rate you are so tolerant of we will all be long dead before Lumen Gentium 37 (1965) is reflected in Catholic Canon Law, a provision and promise that should have created a common forum in the Church before we were all middle-aged.

    However, you are quite right about the need for humour at this stage. With us all knocking now on the doorway that leads to the elderly care home we shouldn’t be making enemies of the guys that, who knows, we could be at the same Christmas table with soon enough – with me asking of William ‘whatever happened to Lumen Gentium 37, do you think?’…

    … and the serving staff asking one another why these geriatrics are always asking for Chinese recipes that were never on the menu or the care home’s prospectus!

  7. Chris Byrne says:

    The Spanish have a saying “Una onza de madre vale mas que una tonelada de sacerdote.” An ounce of mother is worth a tonne of priest. Even idiosyncratic mystics like Julian of Norwich can see Christ as a mother.The most human and compassionate priests I’ve met have had the best qualities of both a mother and a father. I think it’s high time the fathers of the church sat down with the mothers, on an equal footing, as baptised members of the body of Christ. I think if Pope Francis insisted each bishop be accompanied by a parent (mother or father, old or young), nominated by the people of each diocese, at the synod in February, the results could be interesting. The archetypal mother shows unconditional love and isn’t into exclusionary categories. I think the code of canon law might have different emphases if both mothers and fathers who have had the privilege of rearing children, had had an input into devising it.

  8. Paddy Ferry says:

    Joe, you probably receive the Tablet yourself but, just in case you don’t, I thought I should share this opinion piece from this week’s edition. Very wise words from a Corkman —- I am assuming the opinion pieces are written by the editor.

    PS. I hope you haven’t seen the recent rant by the Tanzanian cardinal.
    Appalling stuff! I wonder is he one of Francis’ appointees.

    How the Pope’s latest remarks on gay priests show a shift to a conservative mindset

    Share this story

    Catholics have been on a journey these last 50 years regarding homosexuality. Attitudes have changed almost beyond recognition. It may even be possible to begin to discern a shift in the sensus fidelium under the influence of the Holy Spirit. Not everyone is on the same stage of that journey, however, and it may not be unfair to position Pope Francis himself towards the back of the pack – even though, with his “Who am I to judge?” remark when asked about gay clergy in the Vatican, he has himself helped to move the middle ground of Catholic opinion.

    His latest contribution to the debate indicates a more conservative mindset, but more by tone than substance. In a long interview just published in book form, Francis says he is worried about homosexuality in the priesthood: “In our societies it even seems that homosexuality is fashionable and that mentality, in some way, also influences the life of the Church.” Yet if shifts in attitude in society in general are partly responsible for the more tolerant view taken within the Church, that is more a gain than a loss, something to be thankful for.

    Another factor may be the decline of a flawed application of natural law in the field of sexuality, indicated by the widespread disregard of the teaching of Humanae Vitae declaring contraception sinful.

    The Pope’s comments have cheered some, who look for greater clarity and firmness in teaching that homosexual acts are sinful. But they have opened him to accusations of homophobia. What he said, in substance, was that priests with a gay orientation must remain chaste. But the same of course is true of celibate priests who are not gay. At a time when, as the Pope is well aware, there are voices trying to pin responsibility for the sexual abuse crisis on homosexuals in the priesthood, it would have been wiser for him to have said so. It would have been helpful, also, to remind us that a gay orientation, whether in a bishop, priest or a lay person, is no barrier to sanctity. It certainly does not make anyone more likely to be a potential child abuser.

    The desire to love and be loved is part of the human condition, and such love often has an erotic element. As Pope Benedict’s encyclical Deus Caritas Est points out, eros is inherently good. The integration of all these ideas into a coherent and convincing Catholic theology of sexuality is still a work in progress, and the journey referred to earlier is far from over. To this debate, gay and lesbian Catholics, priests, Religious and laity, have a key contribution that only they can make. They are not a problem; they are an asset

  9. Joe O'Leary says:

    Thanks for that excellent editorial!

    The Tanzanian was elevated by John Paul II.

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