Over 3 days in late March 2022 I was a participant in a symposium hosted by Campion Hall, Oxford, entitled The Road to a Synodal Church: Insights and Experiences. I’d like to share some reflections on the experience which may be of value for our own synodal pathway in Ireland.
There were about 40 participants at Oxford, mainly leaders of the synodal processes in the dioceses of England and Wales, lay and clerical, women and men, including a bishop and priest from the Episcopal Conference. Keynote speakers included Cardinal Mario Grech (Secretary General of the Synod of Bishops) and Austen Ivereigh (papal biographer and organizer of the symposium). The foremat was a combination of inputs, panellists and a facilitated discernment process in which we mulled over what we had heard, and what they had experienced in the consultative phase of the English/Welsh synodal process to date. There were reports from the process in other countries and regions – Latin America, Italy, Australia and Ireland, to name but a few.
Among the reported experiences in England and Wales were: disappointment at the often low attendance rates at parish consultations, difficulties in reaching out to those ‘on the peripheries’, some scepticism as to whether the bishops were really committed to the process, excitement at the energy generated by those who did participate, gratitude from senior citizens who typically said: ‘This is the first time in my life anyone in the Church has asked me for my opinion’, and an overall sense that this is the only show in town and that ‘this is happening’!
There was a palpable sense of faith among the participants – faith above all in the presence of the Holy Spirit accompanying this whole process and, with it, a willingness to suspend reliance on programmes, plans, strategies and allow for an open-ended journeying without too many fixed mile-stones. The energy was infectious.
The English/Welsh process is, chronologically, about 3 months ahead of our own in Ireland – they are already processing the results of their consultation into a synthesis paper, whereas we look forward to doing that in June and through the summer. But the similarities and learnings are clear: a courageous naming of lights and shadows and, for those who expose themselves to the process, a real sense that something historic and game-changing is happening, and that we are learning by doing – a willingness to make mistakes, to fail from time to time, and yet to carry on in faith and hope.
An important part of the learning is around unity and conflict. We are familiar with injunctions around avoiding a purely parliamentary process, a debating contest in which participants expect to win or lose. But we sometimes forget that Francis himself described the Amazonian Synod as ‘a rich and necessary parliament’ while regretting that it did not yet reach the threshold of discernment. Similarly he has often urged us not to avoid conflict, to speak openly and honestly, and, commenting on the Acts of the Apostles, says: ‘Would that we could argue like that! Arguments are a sign of docility and openness to the Spirit’. In truth, disputation was a favourite method of medieval theology (Aquinas et al), it is through the cut and thrust of argument and dialectic that our thoughts become clearer, the requisite ‘indifference’, ‘detachment’, or spiritual freedom that are basic conditions of discernment cannot mean simply denying or even putting to one side my deeply held, intellectually grounded, convictions which are gifts offered to the Church. What is involved however is a recognition in all humility that I am not God, that I am willing to offer my thoughts and convictions to the judgement of the whole church, that I am willing to even accept that what I continue to passionately believe as the right way forward may not yet, in God’s own time and plan, be what the group can accept. I submit myself, therefore, to the discipline of communal discernment and consensus (neither unanimity nor simple majority rule) in the belief that this is how I honour my membership of the group and the presence of the Holy Spirit, guardian of the unity of the group. In this I am sharing in what Jesus himself experienced when his own passionately held way of life was rejected and resulted in a different kind of passion, but ultimately in that ‘overflow’ and joy of Resurrection which released a torrent of energy and love into our world in a surprising way that could not have been anticipated by human logic.
There will, as Cardinal Grech said in his homily at Oxford, be a time for speech and a time for silence, we need to speak especially about the internal issues that divide us and break our culture of unhealthy silence. And, we could add, there will be a time for debate as well as for discernment, the two need to be integrated, and we can be confident that this will happen as our own process develops here in Ireland, particular issues are identified and studied at greater depth, and decisions are arrived at.
In the meantime we can take hope from the significant stirrings on the ground that are already occurring on our Irish synodal pathway and from that great Pauline (1Thess. 5: 19) injunction: do not stifle the Spirit!