Chris McDonnell, writing recently in the Catholic Times, said of the U.S. mid term elections, “What of the future? How will the Democracy of Immigrants that forms the United States rebuild trust and civility, what is required of each and every citizen?”
We wonder when we hear a President speak of ‘beautiful barbed wire’ being strung out along a border.
Chris also adds “Just as there is this fracture in our public life, for not only the US but other Western Democracies are also under threat, so too within our Christian community are fault lines and tensions apparent.”
“Pope Francis has been clear that Synods are not instruments to change Church teaching but rather help to apply Church teaching more pastorally.”
(Irish Bishops Conference website on the Synodal Pathway)
So, this synod is dead before it starts. Why bother and most people will not?
I was involved as a general lay person with the Limerick synod. For me, it began as something which had a lot of energy behind it and a lot of enthusiasm. The meetings I attended, starting some two years before the actual synod itself, were fairly lively affairs although I have to say that about fifty percent or more of our discussion time seemed to end up circling around the discussion of women in the church.
It was clear that the organizers worked very hard to collect information from a wide variety of people in those initial phases and to widen the debate beyond that one issue of the role of women though my sense at the time was that it was the driving issue for a lot of the people I heard at the meetings.
As the time of the synod approached, the energy provided from the floor seemed to grow less. The sheer amount of data which had been collected required summaries and crystallization but the processes behind that seemed to become more and more centralized over time. I remember being disappointed that the extensive work with children which led to a discussion about love of and for pets seemed to disappear in its entirety which I thought was a shame. Equally, the large number of vocal and passionately enthusiastic women seemed to diminish in number as the months went by and I was very struck by the large size of a rather older cohort of both men and women who seemed to predominate in the hall during the days of the synod itself.
The synod itself spent a lot of time again summarizing and reducing topics down to individual motions (a process which involved individuals chosen by the synod organizers making their own selections from papers and notes which groups of people sitting at tables had pinned on the wall arising out of discussions). We then voted on those formulations after short general discussions. In the immediate aftermath we each got a large volume of motions that had been passed.
Since receiving that volume, I have heard nothing more. I have no real sense of how the synod impacted on the diocese but it has not had a lasting impact on my own relationship with the Catholic church. My sense from talking to people, both delegates and non-delegates, is that many found the ultimate outcomes disappointing but that is my impression – it is something of a lost opportunity, I feel, that people who volunteered so much time and effort over so long a period were not subsequently canvassed for their opinions of the processes involved and that no discussion of the synod by all of those who took part ever took place. I represented a particular group within Limerick and not a parish so I do not know what happened with parish representatives and whether any subsequent discussion took place within their own parochial communities.
I also feel very strongly, from the publicity which I have seen to date, that the model which Limerick originally set up has been adopted wholesale by the Irish bishops. Many of the themes mentioned are very similar to those which figured during the initial years spent in preparation for the Limerick synod. I am getting no sense that the people promoting a national synod have learnt what worked well in Limerick, what didn’t work and what ideas and approaches, absolutely valid in themselves, left people feeling somewhat flat, disappointed and let down at the end of it all.
Instead, my sense is that this is a grab for an idea, which from the perspective of people who only knew it from afar, was a complete 100% success. Very few human ideas are that, especially when they take place over so long a period and involve so very many people. As an exercise which cost a very considerable amount of money to run for a single diocese, I would be happier if the Irish bishops had conducted rather more research into what its longer term impact has been on the trust of ordinary Catholics in the institutions and decision-making of the church.
As it is, the decisions about this national assembly taken to date seem to me to reflect internal politics and power structures amongst those with responsibility for running the church in Ireland. I see no evidence that the voices or experiences of the 400 odd who eventually took part in the Limerick synod (and the far greater number who contributed to it) has had anything to do with the planning for this new national assembly in so far as that is available to read in the newspapers. To me that seems antithetical to the whole concept of a modern synod, as its proponents explain their conception of it and it does raise questions in my mind about what the long term possibilities and hopes for this new national assembly are.