Leaders know if change is not forthcoming, it could be ruinous
Delegates who attended the National Pre-Synodal Assembly in Athlone on Saturday described it as a “once-in-a-lifetime” experience.
However, for most Catholics, the question is: can it actually deliver much-needed reform and if so, what might that reform look like?
Over the past 30 years, the Irish branch of the church has been in a spiral of decline which has seen vocations, mass attendances and more recently, thanks to Covid, finances plummet.
The reasons for the decline are numerous, but clerical sexual abuse and abuse in religious-run institutions undoubtedly have been the primary factors.
Despite this, hope managed to bubble up at the Athlone assembly.
The 160 delegates sensed change is in the air and that there is an opportunity for the church to reinvent itself. Saturday saw open and honest discussion of the call for “urgent change”.
Feedback from the 10,500 participants in Dublin showed concern that the synodal process would end and that the decline in priest numbers and young people would continue, and there would be no change in the role of women. If change doesn’t happen, “the children of tomorrow will never experience church”, they warned.
One of the 15 themes discussed on Saturday was the need for new ministries to ease the workload of priests, many of whom are ageing.
There is a recognition that the current model of parish is no longer sustainable.
Fr Brendan Hoban, co-founder of the Association of Catholic Priests, a group that has never shied away from criticising the church hierarchy, attended as a delegate from the Diocese of Killala in Co Mayo.
Afterwards, he described the assembly as “a very special day” which showed the desire for a new way of being that is “a people’s church”.
The sense of history which so many delegates from across Ireland felt was due to the fact that they believed they were “breaking new ground”.
For the first time, lay men and women were consulted by the church and “the joy and the happiness in the room was palpable”, Fr Hoban told Faith Alive on Mid-West Radio yesterday.
Bishop Paul Dempsey, a member of Synodal Pathway Steering Committee, acknowledged that if nothing happens after all the talking and listening, it would be a disaster.
“That has happened in the church over the decades. Now is the time to work with the spirit, to work with one another so that we can try and move on these issues,” he said.
The question members of the Irish church are now asking is: what next?
“We are still not entirely certain but we are open to what the Holy Spirit might be saying and to a quiet and gentle renewal of the faith,” admitted Dr Eamon Martin, Archbishop of Armagh and Primate of All Ireland.
Speaking to the Irish Independent at the ancient monastic site of Clonmacnoise, Co Offaly, he noted that the sixth-century settlement had once been a vibrant ecclesiastical centre, but that chapter had come to an end.
“In order to make space for something new, we have to accept that there is no point in trying to maintain a particular form of the life of the church which was for a different time. We are moving from maintenance to mission,” he said.
Dr Martin knows that without young people, the church has no future. He recognises that they “are living in a very different space” and realises that the church could play an important pastoral role among a disaffected youth.
Feedback to the assembly revealed “a despair among a lot of our young people, a lack of hope, and a lack of a sense of purpose” and at the same time “a belief in faith, in hope and in love”. This, he said, is “what we are trying to rekindle in the life of the church”.
Former TV journalist Ursula Halligan, who attended the assembly in Athlone on behalf of the lay group We Are Church Ireland, said she was “heartened” by what she heard at the gathering.
However, she stressed that meaningful change on the LGBTQ+ issue will only come about through leadership and courage among those in positions of influence in the church, namely the hierarchy.
Bishop Dempsey was critical of the mainstream media for focusing on just two themes that emerged in the process, notably women’s role in the church and the church’s outreach to LGBTQ+ people.
“I don’t think that is fair to the process. Fifteen themes came through from the reports. We need to listen to all of those themes, not just the headline issues,” he said.
For Dr Nicola Brady, chair of the Synodal Pathway Steering Committee, not every aspect of the national synthesis will resonate with every person who took part.
Church members, she explained, were “learning to journey together” so as not to “silence those who hold different views to ours”.