Western People 28.6.2022
The gathering in the Sheraton Hotel in Athlone on June 18 of bishops, priests, religious as well as delegates and representatives of varied Catholic associations – 162 in all –was, as we say, something else altogether. It’s even difficult to find words that exaggerate its importance.
The word ‘historic’ is not out of place in that it never happened before in the long history of the Catholic Church in Ireland, not since the Protestant Reformation in the sixteenth century, not since St Patrick came to Ireland, not ever. We had expected that, after the Second Vatican Council (1962-5), the focus on becoming a People’s Church would have led to a multiplicity of such gatherings when, to implement the vision of the council, such gatherings seemed both necessary and inevitable.
But it was not to be. It was a devastating failure to trust the voice of the highest teaching authority in the church – the bishops of the world gathered in general council, mapping out the future of the Church. It needed nerve to overturn centuries of tradition, to learn from ‘the signs of the times’, to hold in appropriate esteem and focus the vision of a People’s Church. It was too a supreme failure in leadership, looking back instead of looking forward, listening to those in love with the past rather than trusting those able and ready to live in the present and to shape the future.
So, 60 years after the Second Vatican Council, the reforms intended by that council were truly launched when, as part of Pope Francis’ challenge to become a People’s Church, a representative gathering of the Irish Catholic Church met in Athlone recently.
As expected on the day – a day longed for and yearned for by so many for so long – there was a huge sense of expectancy, even nervousness, that the occasion would not deliver or that, after being used to being told what to do, the spirit of openness that Francis was encouraging would not be translated into this first, crucial test. If for so long we had become used to thin gruel, would we be able for more satisfying food?
We shouldn’t have worried. I met Fr Tony Flannery on the way in. There was a delicious irony in the fact that Tony had been ‘silenced’ and his ministry as a priest taken from him because he had written about most if not all of the issues now on the Athlone agenda.
When Tony entered the room, Archbishop Eamon Martin rushed over to welcome him. The gesture set the tone for the day. Everyone was welcome and everyone seemed happy that everyone was welcome. We were, I felt, like children arriving at a party to which for years we had longed to attend but had never been invited. And we stood there looking around us, not quite believing that (i) it was happening and (ii) that we had the pleasure of being there. There was a sense that, after all the work and the talk the synodal pathway was opening out in front of us.
The challenge – represented to the Catholic Church by the vision of the Second Vatican Council – was at last on the table as we listened, discussed, prayed to discern God’s will and, effectively, decided on a process that would involve a journeying together of lay Catholics, bishops, priests and religious. The goal of that journey, we could all see, was nothing less than embracing a different way of being church, a People’s Church.
As I looked around the gathering, groups of eight, usually comprising a bishop, a priest, laywomen and lay men, discussing issues that pre-Francis priests like Tony Flannery and others were called to account for by the congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in Rome, I had to almost pinch myself that it was actually happening. Even more extraordinary was the energy in the room, the sense of united, respectful purpose, a gathering enthusiasm, even at times a feeling of pure joy and a hope that our withering Church, battered and bruised for within and without ,might yet become an effective conduit of the gospel message of Jesus Christ.
Every one of the 26 Irish dioceses had sent a report of a listening process to the Irish bishops and a national committee analysed them and summarised them under 15 headings: predictable ones like youth, family, faith but also sexual abuse, the equality of women, co-responsible decision-making, sexuality teaching, LGBTQI+, and questions related to priests – liturgy, mandatory celibacy, etc.
The Athlone meeting was to check with the 162 delegates whether the committee in reviewing the 26 reports had missed out on some important issue and such amendments will be included in the final document to be sent to the bishops. The document to Rome, which will become part of the Roman Synod in October 2023, will be published in August.
After the experience of the Athlone meeting, the clear effect is that the Catholic Church in Ireland has been firmly pointed on a synodal pathway and Archbishop Eamon Martin made it clear in his closing words that there’s no turning back from synodality now. In effect, the Second Vatican Council is back on track.
June 18, 2022 will, I believe, stand its ground as a red-letter day for Irish Catholicism. Of course, it creates huge expectation of change that may not be easily realised as becoming a People’s Church is more than the work of a day or indeed a year. But we’ve come a long way in a short time. We may re-find our voice and our confidence, albeit respectfully of all. We may find that some of the many who have disengaged may reconsider. We may even engage the doubters that change is real.
I say that because we know, if there’s nothing else we know, that this is for the Catholic Church in Ireland, probably the last chance we have for getting things right. Not moving forward now on the synodal pathway, as Bishop Paul Dempsey has said, would be a disaster.
A good start would be to bring Tony Flannery in from the cold.