Over 160 representatives of dioceses, religious orders and lay organisations took part in an assembly in Athlone today to discuss the future direction of the Catholic Church as part of Pope Francis’ reform agenda for Catholicism.
The National Pre-Synodal Assembly was the culmination of a process which has seen tens of thousands of Irish Catholics consulted over the past year through parishes, dioceses and organisations as well as online about possible reforms for the church.
This grassroots listening process has been described by organisers as “a milestone” and “a key moment” for the Irish Church as hot button issues such as the role of women in the church, the church’s teaching on sexuality and LGBTQ+ people, as well as the need for greater lay involvement in the church governance, were honestly and frankly discussed by bishops, priests and lay people.
It is part of the global church’s synodal process which will see a Synod take place in Rome in 2023 under Pope Francis to discuss the submissions made by national churches around the world, including the Irish church, and their recommendations on reform.
The Assembly in Athlone is also part of the Irish church’s synodal pathway which will lead to a national assembly in Ireland in 2026, which aims to bring about renewal for a church still grappling with the fallout of clerical abuse scandals, declining morale, a lack of vocations and falling Mass attendances.
Speaking to media today, Bishop Brendan Leahy, a member of the Synodal Pathway Steering Committee, pledged to publish the national synthesis of recommendations that emerges from the Athlone gathering as part of the church’s commitment to transparency.
“The final report will echo back what we have been hearing throughout the dioceses and associations,” he said.
Chair of the Synodal Pathway Steering Committee, Dr Nicola Brady explained that through the process of synodality, church members are “learning how to journey together” so as not to “silence those who hold different views to ours.”
“There is a very real awareness of the challenges out there,” she acknowledged. “We have not reached everybody that we would like to reach.”
But amongst those who engaged in the process the consensus was that it was a “really positive experience” and hope for the creation of new opportunities.
“I think we are in a major moment; it is not just an era of transformation – it is transformation of an era,” Dr Leahy said.
One of the delegates, Anthony Neville of Baldoyle parish, who is also a member of the Association of Catholics in Ireland, commented of his experience: “It is important to realise that this is the first time in 2000 years that the people of God – the laity - have had an opportunity to have our say. That certainly gives us great hope.”
Another delegate, former TV journalist, Ursula Halligan of lay reform group, We Are Church Ireland, who contributed to the Diocese of Elphin’s submission of LGBTQ+ people and the church, called for “leadership and courage” from the hierarchy to ensure a more inclusive church.
“The church is not a club – it is an open house; there are no borders; there no boundaries to the Holy Spirit,” she said. “I don’t know how this is going to go but I do believe there is good will here today,” she said.
At the end of proceedings, a closing liturgy was led by Archbishop Eamon Martin at the ancient monastic site of Clonmacnoise to pray for healing and renewal in the church.