The Irish Church’s National Synthesis report for the 2023 Synod on Synodality “points to many challenges for the handing on of the faith” in Ireland, the Irish Bishops have said.
In a letter accompanying the report, which was sent to Cardinal Mario Grech, Secretary General of the Synod of Bishops, the leader of the Irish Church, Archbishop Eamon Martin, said the synthesis acknowledges the impact in recent decades of a major decline in the practice of the faith, and in vocations to priesthood and religious life.
The synthesis report was unveiled on Tuesday afternoon in Knock by the chair of the Steering Committee of the Irish Synodal Pathway, Dr Nicola Brady.
“The issues raised are not new, but the honesty and clarity with which they have been articulated in this process offers a strong foundation to build upon,” Dr Brady said.
Describing some of the findings as “stark”, she said “many of the experiences shared are painful” but that there were “many hopeful and encouraging aspects” to the findings.
Mary McAleese, the former Irish president, described the document as “as explosive, life-altering, dogma-altering, Church-altering”, The Irish Times reported. “There's no denying these voices now,” she said. “I hope that when it is received in Rome it will be fully honoured.”
The synthesis is the fruit of consultations with tens of thousands of Irish catholics across the Irish Church’s 26 dioceses. It stresses that the lessons of the past need to be learned and describes the concealment of physical, sexual and emotional abuse by church personnel as an “open wound”.
The report says the Church is in need of inner healing at every level and calls for penance and atonement for abuse at a national level. One survivor of abuse who engaged in the consultation process is quoted as saying the Church needs, “to find a forum in which we can all heal together”.
The landmark document calls for greater transparency, greater lay participation in decision-making as well as accountability within parish and diocesan church structures.
It indicates a strong desire for fresh models of leadership to recognise and facilitate the role of women, as well as men. These include ordination to the diaconate and priesthood.
The synthesis notes that the role of women in the Church was mentioned in almost every submission received and there was a call for women to be given equal treatment within the Church structures in terms of leadership and decision making.
One submission quoted in the report states: “Women have a special place in the Church but not an equal place.” Many of the women consulted remarked that they are not prepared to be considered second class citizens anymore and many are leaving the Church. “They feel that even though their contribution over the years has been invaluable, it has been taken for granted.”
Several of the submissions called for the ordination of women to the permanent diaconate and the priesthood. Women’s exclusion from the diaconate is regarded as “particularly hurtful”.
The report also highlights how many young people cannot understand the Church’s position on women. “Because of the disconnect between the Church’s view of women and the role of women in wider society today, the Church is perceived as patriarchal and by some, as misogynistic.”
Another overarching thread evident throughout the consultation, the report notes, is that the gifts of lay people are under-utilised by the Church.
Among the 15 themes in the document, one is focused on clergy and highlights the appreciation for priests among the faithful and a recognition that they are over-worked and often feel burdened by the weight of governance and administration.
In the submissions, there is concern for the plight an ageing clergy. “The role of the priest is valued and will continue to play an essential part in communities of faith,” the report states. However, some participants were concerned that some younger priests are very traditional and rigid in their thinking and may not have the requisite skills for co-responsible leadership. There were calls for better training for clergy.
At the national pre-synodal assembly, concern was expressed that the voice of clergy was not as prominent as it might have been in the synodal process.
There were calls from both young and older participants for optional celibacy, married priests, female priests, and the return of those who had left the priesthood to marry.
Clericalism in all its forms was associated with hurt and abuse of power by participants. Concern was voiced that some priests are resistant to change, and that they feel they don’t have anything further to learn and view the local parish as “my parish” –not “our parish”.
A new model for the selection of bishops was sought and a number of participants indicated that it ought to include a wider participation of the People of God.
Elsewhere in the report, participants described the Church’s rules and regulations for the divorced and remarried as “draconian”, while there was “a clear, overwhelming call for the full inclusion of LGBTQI+ people in the Church, expressed by all ages and particularly by the young and by members of the LGBTQI+ community themselves.”
Some called for a change in Church teaching, asking if the Church is sufficiently mindful of developments with regard to human sexuality and the lived reality of LGBTQI+ couples. Others expressed a concern that a change in the Church’s teaching would be simply conforming to secular standards and contemporary culture. Others said the LGBTQI+ community should not be treated in isolation from other marginalised groups.
A submission from an LGBTQI+ focus group suggested that even though the Church rarely condemns gay people these days, it indirectly creates an atmosphere where physical, psychological and emotional abuse of gay people is tolerated and even encouraged.
Many articulated the view that the Church was not as welcoming for those who may be on the margins of society or who feel excluded because of their sexual orientation.
One submission stated: “Those who feel at home in the Church feel the absence of those who don’t.” There was unanimous desire for the Church to adopt a more welcoming and inclusive stance towards all, and in doing so reach out especially to those on the margins and those who do not engage regularly.
It was stressed that the Church is at its very best when it is close to people’s lives, speaking a language that people understand, and connecting with people amidst their daily struggles.
Adult faith development, resources for lay ministries and collaborative decision-making were flagged by participants “as poor or non-existent”. Clergy acknowledged that often they are too tired and weary to engage in these developments.
Urging the faithful to study the national synthesis document, the Irish bishops said: “Our listening process has identified the need to be more inclusive in outreach, reaching out to those who have left the Church behind and in some cases feel excluded, forgotten or ignored.”
The document recognises that the submissions were received in the context of local churches where parishioners were still recovering from the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic.
“Whilst many parishes tried to consult with young people, this proved difficult, and the absence of their voice was felt during the consultation process.” Young people mostly engaged through online questionnaires, digital means, or in school settings.
Most dioceses struggled to engage with the marginalised, finding them difficult to reach. However, a number of participants expressed a genuine appreciation that they were consulted, heard, listened to – many for the first time.
Evaluating the wider context in which the national synthesis is published, the report said that as the Church approaches the 200th anniversary of Catholic Emancipation, the dismantling of the institutions of Ireland’s Catholic superstructure in our cities and towns reflects a profound change in modern Irish identity.
“This change is being experienced, from a national identity overly dependent on Catholic culture, to one suspicious and often intolerant of its Catholic inheritance.”
Meanwhile, the Bishops’ Conference of Scotland has also published the “Final Synthesis of the Synodal Process in Scotland”, the outcome of the local phase of the 2021-2023 Synod on Synodality.
The 12-page document drew on synodal contributions from individual Catholics, parish groups and diocesan reports across Scotland’s six dioceses and two archdioceses. These reports included the Archdiocese of Edinburgh and St Andrews, which highlighted a growing generation gap between young and old within the Church, and the Diocese of Motherwell, which called for the creation of a church where “everyone has an equal place irrespective of gender, sexual orientation, or age”.
The synodal process also drew on the results of small meetings in prisons, responses amongst teachers and pupils at Catholic schools, the Scottish Catholic charity Sciaf, and input from Jewish, Muslim, Bahai, Hindu and Sikh believers. Although the pandemic was disruptive to the life of the Church, the report said, it also encouraged faithful to experiment with “new ways of being parish” through online liturgy, social action and the new “ministry of welcome”.
The document, noting that in one diocese nearly a quarter of Catholics were believed to have responded, concluded that, given the present economic situation, supporting the poor should be a priority. The synod had “planted seeds of hope”, according to the report, opening the way to find new ways of expressing “our faith without fear but with compassion and mercy”. The growth and fulfilment of the synodal process would, the authors hoped, enable the Church to “continue to grow as a caring mother, and a community of hope”.
According to the final synthesis, the pandemic saw many, unable to celebrate Mass and the Sacraments together in person, discovering new ways of being parish, whether in online celebrations, reaching out to the most vulnerable members of their communities, providing foodbanks. New volunteers have become involved in daily parish life and a new ministry of welcome was instituted in many parishes.
The document says there was some concern that “inclusiveness” should not be defined by a secular narrative and recognises that the abuse crisis “still pains all the faithful, especially survivors of abuse and their families”.
The document also reports: “It was suggested by some that, as there is a need for more priests, therefore married priests and the ordination of women should be considered. This aspiration was considered by others as a quick fix and not addressing adequately the deep crisis of vocation in our society nor reflecting the complementary gifts and talents of women and men. Equality does not mean doing the same thing.”
While every diocese acknowledged and celebrated the contribution of women in the Church there was common agreement that women must be given a greater voice in the Church, the document says.