The Quiet Revolution of Pope Francis – A Synodal Catholic Church in Ireland?


 I dream of a ‘missionary option’, that is, a missionary impulse capable of transforming everything, so that the Church’s customs, ways of doing things, times and schedules, language and structures can be suitably channelled for the evangelisation of today’s world rather than for her self-preservation.(EG, 27)

Pope Francis begins his Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium(2013) with the upbeat proclamation that the ‘… Joy of the Gospel fill the hearts of all those who encounter Jesus’ (EG, 1).

However, it is well known that when Francis was elected bishop of Rome and pope earlier that year in 2013, it was at a time of little joy for the Catholic Church. In the meetings of cardinals leading up to his election many grave problems were mentioned: the scandal of child sexual abuse, suspected financial and other improprieties within the Vatican itself, the ongoing contested reception of the Second Vatican Council, the many economic and social injustices experienced by the marginalised worldwide, the role of women in the Church, disputes about teaching on sexual morality, the shortage of priests in many parts of the world, to name but some of the many difficult issues. The atmosphere was troubled. There was a sense that the Church had lost its way, was no longer a sacrament or sign for the world of Jesus Christ and his Kingdom, a sign of hope. Instead, despite the ongoing wonderful witness of so many, it seemed like almost an anti-sign, an easy target for unsympathetic enemies and unconvincing even to many of its friends.

Ireland has not escaped this sense of crisis. There has been a huge loss of moral authority due to the mishandling of the clerical child sexual abuse scandal. In addition, for various reasons, the Church found itself ill-prepared to face the growing challenges of secularisation, modernity and post-modernity. There was particular focus on the role of the Church in civil society in areas like health and education, not to mention in debates about same-sex marriage and abortion. There was, in addition, growing awareness of the shortage of priests, the silencing of some prominent clerical voices, and the neuralgic issue around how women are treated in the Church. There continues to be the ongoing haemorrhaging of young people from the Church, a sense that there is a disconnect, a lack of that ‘Velcro-effect’ that might attach the language of faith to the lived experience of life.

What became clear from the very first moments of the pontificate of Francis was that he seemed to sense the depths of the problem. It has become apparent since that he has a clear and radical strategic response. This book will explore the nature of the problem in a little more detail (Part One: Setting the Scene), and then analyse the response of Francis in its main aspects (Part Two: Pope Francis and the Quiet Revolution) and the issues which arise (Part Three: Emerging Issues). It will conclude with a reflection on how we in Ireland can best respond in a critically constructive way to his proposals (Part Four: Ireland Revisited). I have rehearsed much of this analysis in previously published articles, all of which are referred to in the bibliography.

Francis, I will suggest, has made two very significant contributions to our understanding of Church reform. Firstly, he has located the issues of renewal and reform within the more basic truth of our encounter with Jesus Christ and the missionary impulse this generates – including the joy of discipleship and the outreach to the peripheries and to the marginalised (‘a poor Church for the poor’). This outward-looking location means that reform is not simply self-referential, better organisational structures for their own sake: no, reform always functions with respect to mission. In principle at least this missionary focus can help to unite a Church which had become weary of fruitless battles between liberals and conservatives.

Secondly, and crucially, Francis has identified the institutional and cultural shape of the reform he envisages: the Church for the third millennium must be synodal, collegial, an ‘inverted pyramid’, in which the People of God are primary and the hierarchy in all its forms are there to serve the People in whom the Holy Spirit is present. Francis believes that this kind of model of Church is more suitable for our age, while being rooted in Scripture and tradition. He is well aware that liberals and conservatives will continue to disagree on many important issues, but he believes that a synodal Church, which learns how to discern communally, is more able to live through these conflicts in a way that is fruitful and not demoralising. And, more importantly for this missionary-focused bishop of Rome, he believes that a synodal Church is a more appropriate institutional and cultural place from which to dialogue with our world, which, often without realising it, has great need of the hope and good news which comes from the gospel of Jesus Christ.

This crucial focus on a synodal way of being Church has been spoken about by Francis himself as not just an era of change, but ‘a change of era’.[1]It is a paradigm shift, a fundamental change which goes beyond even important adjustments to the existing model of Church. We are speaking here of a revolution, in the sense of a radical change to an existing structure. This change is, however, non-violent, and it recalls an original cosmological and astronomical meaning of the term revolution (to turn back; revolving around a centre), in that the fundamental change is also a return to a previous way of being Church, albeit now with appropriate adjustments for changed times. This quiet, velvet revolution can easily be missed by other striking features of this papacy and by the failure of the rest of us – including hierarchies – to appreciate what is at stake. It is my hope that this book may contribute to raising awareness of what is involved, to teasing out what Francis is proposing, and assessing its suitability, with particular reference to Ireland.

Of course there is no guarantee that Francis will be successful in what he is trying to achieve. There is much opposition, and a great deal of apathy. He is in the ironic position of having the appearance to the world of a celebrity-monarch trying to abolish monarchy and celebrity. He is, instead, trying to encourage a more adult, participatory institutional model, with a leadership of service. It would be easy – and a papal visit offers the ideal but fatal temptation in this direction – to surf the wave of the papal popularity of Francis, or to applaud some particular areas of reform and still miss the wood for the trees: Francis is proposing something more strategic, more revolutionary and more durable. Along with this model of Church comes the promise of a new capacity to resolve over time the many single issues of contention which now appear intractable. It will require imagination and critical engagement from other agents in the Church if the change he envisages is to happen.

[1] Address by Pope Francis to Italian bishops in Florence, 10 November 2015 – see The Tablet, 11 November 2015.


Gerry O’Hanlon SJ at the launch of ‘The Quiet Revolution: A Synodal Church in Ireland’; which took place in Avila Carmelite Centre; Dublin on Wednesday 11 July.

Gerry O’Hanlon SJ taught for many years at the Milltown Institute, and later joined the Jesuit Centre for Faith and Justice.

He has written extensively on Church reform and the role of the Church in the public square.

The Quiet Revolution of Pope Francis: A Synodal Church in Ireland by Gerry O’Hanlon SJ. Published by Messenger Publications,

(direct link to book on website is:


The Quiet Revolution of Pope Francis – A Synodal Catholic Church in Ireland?
‘No! New wine, fresh skins!’ (Mk 2: 22)
Messenger Publications, 2018

Pope Francis wants to bring about a quiet revolution within the Catholic Church. He wants a reformed church in which the ‘sense of the faithful’, the instinct of baptised men and women, is given a role in the formation and reception of church teaching and governance. The model is one of Jesus conversing with his male and female disciples in Palestine –a walking together of the People of God, a ‘synodal’ church.

Irish Jesuit theologian Gerry O’Hanlon examines in some detail this ecclesiological project of Francis and the new roles within it of pope and bishops, theologians, and all the baptised. He notes that while many commentators focus on the direct, pastoral approach of Francis, his emphasis on God’s mercy and his prophetic writings on the economy and the environment,

Francis himself clearly believes that this missionary thrust needs to be anchored in the more long-term strategy of a changed ecclesial structure that would out-live his own pontificate.

O’Hanlon analyses the paradigm shift that is involved and the irony that it is often the more conservative among this many opponents who seem to grasp better the radical shift that is involved. Francis advocates a critical openness to contemporary culture, a culture of consultation and open debate, and communal discernment practised at every level of ‘an entirely synodal church.

O’Hanlon argues that this project offers new hope of a better reading of the ‘signs of the times’ by the Catholic Church, not least in areas of sexuality of gender.

The author applies this analysis to our situation in Ireland, where the erosion of the moral authority of the Catholic Church due to the scandal of clerical child sexual abuse, and the struggle of all Christian churches to engage constructively with secularisation are well known.

Whatever about the desirable spiritual renewal which a papal visit may inspire, it is to be hoped that the more lasting long-term effects might be the realisation of a synodal Irish Catholic Church.

Available at bookshops and at Messenger publications website –

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  1. Phil Greene says:

    “Whatever about the desirable spiritual renewal which a papal visit may inspire, it is to be hoped that the more lasting long-term effects might be the realisation of a synodal Irish Catholic Church.”

    I would be very grateful if someone has time to explain, in layperson’s language, what a synodal Church in Ireland means a) to/for the clergy b) to/for the role laypeople would play in this model of church?
    Also, is it a hierarchical structure based on the existing criteria that determines whether a person , cleric or lay, is allowed in or kept out .. is independent thinking allowed/welcomed?

  2. Dr. Aaron Milavec says:

    Dr. Gerry O’Hanlon, SJ, is right on target.

    Collegiality is not just an invention of Vatican II. Indeed, it was the hallmark of Peter’s authority in the early church and the defining character of the local churches during the first millennium as well. Papal absolutism was invented in the middle ages when authoritarian monarchs populated the European landscape. In that era, the Vatican States had to have an absolute ruler, and thus, the Bishop of Rome had to become the absolute monarch wearing the triple crown so as to be able to hold his head high in the assembly of European monarchs.

    But this era has passed away. The European states painfully discovered the wisdom of limiting the divine right of kings, and, eventually, they dethroned monarchs entirely (save for the UK and Denmark where toothless monarchs remain as a vestige of the past). Thus, the papacy represents the last of the absolute monarchs in Europe. Yet, there are those in the Vatican who want all Catholics, like docile sheep, to follow them by believing that Matt. 16:18 represents the will of the Divine Savior to establish Peter and his successors as the absolute monarchs governing the Catholic Church.

    Pope Francis adamantly disagrees with a papacy run like an absolute monarchy. In fact, Pope Francis has been promoting the reading and the implementation of Archbishop John R. Quinn’s book, REFORM OF THE PAPACY. He tells people that this book is on his night stand and that he faithfully reads a few pages before he goes off to sleep.

    This is the best good news about Pope Francis! How far and how successful Pope Francis will be in this reform of Church governance remains to be seen. One thing is for sure: Pope Francis needs to get allies for this project at all levels of Church organization. This includes you and me.

    Peace and joy,
    Dr. Aaron Milavec

  3. Gerry O'Hanlon says:

    To Phil Greene@1:
    As I understand it, Pope Francis wants to change direction with our model of church. In recent times (well, going back 1000 years, but particularly over the last 150 years) we have had a monarchical model, in which Pope and Bishops (but increasingly the Pope and Vatican Curia only) effectively taught and governed alone.
    Francis is taking on board what Vatican II said about the need for collegiality – i.e. the bishops should have effective say. Hence the more dynamic recent Synod of Bishops. But he has gone further – the wants collegiality to be extended to synodality, meaning that lay people too must have a say in teaching and governance. This is his way of trying to make real the teaching of Vatican II on the Church as the People of God, with baptism as the basic Christian sacrament.
    This means the we have to find ways to allow the ‘sense of the faithful’ to be heard in the Church. Francis quotes a well known maxim of Roman and canon law: ‘that which touches all should be dealt with by all’.
    And so there arises the need for free and open debate and discussion, consultation, assemblies/councils/synods at all levels of church life – parish, diocese, regional, universal (Rome).
    In this context all voices – Francis mentions especially those who are poor-need to be welcomed and heard.

    Where this leads to is still unclear – for example, is the role of the faithful/theologians to be merely consultative, or can it also be deliberative (part of decision making)? But what is most important is that Francis is inviting us to begin a journey and has taken the first steps ‘along the way’ himself (e.g. Council of Cardinals, consultation of whole church before Synod of Bishops on Family).
    I think this is a crucial time for the Church if it can respond positively to this invitation. We know, for example, that in Ireland and elsewhere Church teaching on sexuality and gender has not been ‘received’ by the faithful and is a source of considerable disconnect between young people in particular and the Church. The clerical Magisterium needs to listen to the ordinary lived experience of Catholic men and women in this intimate dimension of their lives and review the present teaching.

    This does not mean conceding to every modern fad. It does mean however taking seriously the lived faith of the community. When this is done the Church will teach and govern with true authority and will be more credibly in its witness to the world.

    Gerry O’Hanlon

  4. Phil Greene says:

    Thank You so much Gerry, it was very kind of you to take pen to paper to help me understand what the model meant to us. When I read your book I will no doubt be able to more sense of it all too. Many times I wish the institutional Church would just get out of its own way…
    A very nice visiting priest during his sermon asked us “did we get him?” he then asked “did we understand (his message)?” , I would have loved him to ask “do we agree with him?” It would have made for an interesting discussion!
    It seems to me that kids of a certain age will only listen to any message if the person(and the body the person represents) delivering the message is considered “cool” or is young and therefore worthy of their attention .. otherwise , as I know from my own experience these days , our messages are relegated to coming from “the olden days” and hold no sway .. at least not yet.. I remain hopeful..!! I do so love their idealism and they look for integrity in their leaders too.. when the Church proactively cleans up its act then it would help us all to have two-sided discussions in the future with other lay people and our young people..

    Thank you again

  5. Joe O'Leary says:

    Pope Francis has the right instincts, but their effective implementation has not begun, and lots of bishops and curial figures are sitting on their hands until the next pontificate.

    I didn’t find the two Synod sessions on the Family dynamic at all. A hugely expensive effort to enact collegiality that produced only a damp squib. The problem was that a bunch of elderly celibate bishops, anxious to defend their traditions, are not the ideal group to deliberate on family life. There was a widespread consultation of the laity but one would not know that from watching the Synod proceedings.

    Legally Francis is still an absolute monarch in the Vatican City State. Meanwhile there is a clash between Vatican II on collegiality and what Canon Law says (according to Mary McAleese in her “Quo Vadis?”). Are there any signs of change here?

  6. Joe O'Leary says:

    Oops, word dropped out: “I didn’t find the two Synod sessions on the Family dynamic at all dynamic.”

    The most vocal speakers were African conservatives.

    If the upcoming Synod on youth is anything like that it will be another non-event.

  7. Michael Router says:

    Over the past 18 years I have participated in 3 Diocesan Assemblies of lay people, clergy and religious in my own diocese of Kilmore and helped, along with others, to organize two of them. They were great occasions in themselves and provided a timely boost for the clergy and people involved. They always left, however, a sense of frustration as all the great questions of our day emerged – compulsory celibacy, the role of women in the church, the vocations crises, the declining attendance of the young (and indeed not so young) at church ceremonies – but in effect the proposals made could go no further. We did make some small changes at diocesan level in terms of organization and structure but they will only have a short term effect unless some radical changes are made at a National or international level.

    It would be very useful in that context to have a National Assembly of the Irish Church at least every five years consisting of the bishops, a representation of clergy and religious from each diocese and a very large representation of lay people from all walks of life. It would be incumbent upon the bishops to report concerns and suggestions to Rome and insist that they be heard. Such a National body would give impetus and life to the diocesan assemblies and help lay people in particular feel that they had a voice that was listened to.

    The Church in Ireland at present is in a very serious situation. As Brendan Hoban so rightly says the results of the recent referenda have confirmed what we have known for many years – people will not listen to the church on moral issues when they feel that the church is morally compromised itself by its handling of the abuse issue. (The case of Cardinal McCarrick in Washington is another demoralizing blow). The Church, especially here in Ireland, needs to concentrate almost exclusively on spirituality; on leading people into a deeper relationship with Jesus so that they will come to know themselves how to act and live in a moral way. To do this we need to free ourselves in the Irish church of a lot of the baggage we have taken on over the past 100 years in terms of running schools, hospitals etc. The collegial model involving all who are church, not just the upper echelons, needs to become a reality if we are to continue the mission of Christ effectively in the 21st century.

  8. Mary Burke says:

    Well said, Michael! The Church of Ireland’s system of annual diocesan synods and an annual general synod would be worth investigating. Why not make an effort to contact our Anglican friends and neighbours, and in the case of diocesan clergy, diocesan and parochial counterparts, to find out more about how the system works.

  9. Phil Greene says:

    To Michael @ 7

    You have done so much good work along with fellow pastors and laypeople.
    And you have summarised the situation on the ground in Ireland and beyond perfectly. Our pope would benefit greatly from reading it and all bishops too..

    Whilst I agree about losing the baggage of the schools, hospitals etc. I would hope that the clergy do not only concentrate on all things spiritual just yet.. it might be seen as a retreat into prayer when the people are looking for the church to show some courage in representing their wishes in changing man-made laws and rules so that we can have an inclusive church; as Gerry says above, this does not mean conceding to every modern fad.. but think of the new energy it would create if we could just see some tangible change in the right direction!!
    As you say the sense of frustration is all we feel at this present time -but neither lay nor religious can help change along alone.
    It will be a great day when we can stop sounding like broken records and have something new to talk about, and look forward to a time that,whilst people who may not wish to practise religion respect those that do.. rather than wonder how laypeople can support an institution seen as out-dated,misogynistic, child-abusing.. well you know the rest .. it gets tiring, frustrating and boring repeating it all .. time for change!

    Thank you for sharing your good works with us.

  10. Phil Greene says:

    Apologies Michael, I can see I became quite blinkered when reading your comments. You have indeed set out a path for all to follow,together.

    I really do find it difficult to comprehend why people like Brendan, Gerry, your good self and many others are not listened to .. such arrogance amongst the hierarchy is unforgivable.. and we could say the same of We are Church , the ACI , Tina Beattie, Mary McAleese etc. etc.. they are often ignored or patronised!

    Wishing you all the strength to keep fighting the good fight!

  11. Gerry O'Hanlon says:

    I think Michael Router (@7- also Phil Greene and Mary Burke)has put things well. Local assemblies give energy and hope, but that hope can only be realised if proceedings are taken to other levels – national, regional, universal. This is what Pope Francis means by a synodal church.
    We need this urgently – the awful debacle around former Cardinal McCarrick, the non-reception of Humane Vitae (whose 50th anniversary occurs around this time), the increasing non-reception around other issues of sexuality and gender (church teaching on homosexuality and women priests) all point in this direction. It is past time we returned to a (ironically) more traditional notion of church where the episcopal and papal magisterium was in meaningful dialogue with the ‘sense of the faithful’ and the advice of theologians.
    I share Joe O’Leary’s desire for progress (@5 and 6)but am surprised about his negative assessment of the Synod of Bishops on the Family. Since about 1971 we have had a period of over 40 years when Synods of Bishops were basically set-piece speeches which rubber-stamped an already pre-written text prepared by the Roman Curia. This Synod by contrast, involved widespread (if at times clumsily implemented) consultation, open debate and disagreement, the presence of lay (if non-voting) participants, real theological exchange (especially among the German speaking bishops, whose ability to resolve disagreements led to the important break-through) and a real listening to different cultures in different parts of the world. The result evidenced in The Joy of the Gospel of Pope Francis is a document which at last takes peoples’ experience of sexuality seriously and -most tellingly-allows for access to communion for divorced and remarried catholics which had been explicitly denied by Pope JOhn Paul II.

    This last point is why ultra traditionalist have been so terrified and angry in their reaction. But conservatives and liberals with a sense of history will welcome this proven way of discerning the promptings of the Spirit in response to the signs of our times.

    Of course there were disappointments – for example, the interim text on homosexuality had been much more positive about the contribution of gay Christians and this did not succeed in winning its way into the final text. But, as Gamaliel said, if it is of God it will win through….what has been said will not be wasted.

    It is puzzling in this context why the Irish bishops are not enthusiastically implementing the Francis line on this. Those of them who were present at the Synod did indeed find it dynamic and dramatic. Similarly, by all accounts, the group of Bishops at the recent ad limina visit to Rome were enthused by the dialogical mode of meeting with the Pope. Why is this not translated back into church practice in Ireland?

    To a limited extent this has happened -as Michael Router has noted. But there needs to be a much more cohesive and sustained embrace of this new/old model of Church. A culture of open discussion and debate is much more likely to appeal to younger people, and much more suited to deal with the many areas of church teaching which are not being received and are obstacles to the much deeper challenges facing all our churches around secularism in contemporary culture. These challenges, again, will only be met by an ongoing conversation within the church and with wider society which is inclusive of all actors. The days of ready-made answers handed down by Rome are over.

  12. Joe O'Leary says:

    Gerry, not “the joy of the Gospel” but “the joy of love” (Amoris laetitia).

    The interim document at the first session was indeed modern and enlightened — which is NOT reflected in what Francis says about gays in Amoris Laetitia. Michael Voris, the odious warrior of Church Militant, shot down the admirable Archbishop Bruno Forte when he presented the interim report, and it seems that Voris won. How great a tragedy this is can be measured from this video:

    I really fail to see what those two Synod sessions achieved. How have they changed anything? Even the much contested statement about admitting the divorced remarried to Communion is not new in practice, and remains opaque even in the footnote in which Francis placed it.

    The synodal procedures attempted to give some substance to the ideal of collegiality and lay participation, but the huge effort did not yield much great discussion.

    40 years of rubber-stamping synods were ghastly — of course the one in 1974 was not like that; it was divided, and handed Paul VI the task of drawing up a document, which he did wonderfully in in Evangelii nuntiandi. So Francis is getting back to Paul VI, overleaping the decades of papal monologue.

  13. Gerry O'Hanlon says:

    Thanks for the comments and correction of title, Joe.

    More than getting back to Paul VI, I suggest. There is a more explicit embrace in Francis of the People of God motif, with a synodality that in The Joy of the Gospel and elsewhere goes beyond episcopal collegiality to include that sense of the faithful, so that many of the neuralgic issues which you have often identified on this web-site and elsewhere can be tackled. That’s what gives me hope at this time of crisis for the Catholic Church,and what leads me to propose that the theological community can provide a great service to the church in these days by offering support to the agenda of Francis that is critical but constructive.

  14. Joe O'Leary says:

    Francis’s agenda is wonderful, but the bishops at the Synod did not do enough to implement it, and people even said that some or many were deliberately resisting it. It’s unfortunate that most of the bishops are conservatives appointed by his predecessors. The response to church crisis espoused by many in the upper echelons of the church today is still, “appoint more conservative bishops.”

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