By Sean O' Leary
As a Diocesan community, we have recently completed a short period of communal discernment. This is just one small step in our collective journeying as a synodal Church. Our conversations revealed a rich fabric of deep and meaningful faith that is rooted in family, place and gathering. There are also multiple connections to the wider Church along strong yet troubled threads of belonging.
Our lives are complex and each one of us exists at a nexus of causes that are often impossible to disentangle. And so, our communal discernment to answer Pope Francis’ central question: ‘What does God want from the Church in Ireland at this time?’ begins with an adventurous personal quest, a prayerful curiosity and a leap of faith into uncertainty. Our Sacramental understanding of reality asks us to look within ourselves as deeply as we can and to look outwards with a crystal-clear vision. This journey is never easy.
Along the way, there were the inevitable disagreements. For every voice that claimed that a particular Church teaching should be rigorously defended, there was another voice who sought to alter that very same teaching. For every voice who sought a smaller and deeper Church, there was a voice who yearned for a broader and more inclusive Church. There were also the many voices who boldly envisioned renewed pastoral possibilities for our Diocese. And so, the thousand voices in our Synod becomes a balanced, harmonious and joyful symphony in the Spirit in which no voice is discordant.
Given the troubles of the Church at this time, some of which have been self-inflicted, it is tempting to adopt a siege mentality by battening down the hatches. It would also be easy to choose simplification by unwisely striving to maintain everything that we have inherited without wisely leaving room for God’s action in the world. But, this is not what emerged from our Synod.
Mutual listening was a heartfelt, messy, sorrowful, complex, hopeful and joyful experience. It is this sense of wholeness and goodness amidst the complexities of human life that assures us of the constancy of God’s presence. It also opens our hearts to the grace that forever invites us into the intimacy and harmony of the Trinitarian life.
What emerged throughout our Synod is the collective realisation that what served the Church well in the last Century is no longer possible, practical or desirable. Indeed, what once worked well may now diminish our capacity for missionary activity. To prioritise welcome and inclusion is to banish clericalism, judgementalism, triumphalism and any attempt to inflame our struggles and tensions with a misguided desire for a superficial power, an all too human temptation that blinds us to the healing presence of God’s love.
Our concerns for the world around us and especially for those who feel alienated from the Church cannot be transformed into loving actions within a Church that perceives itself to be under pressure or set in stone. Fuelled by a public culture that seeks to curtail religious influence and a media that often presents Catholicism as an undesirable problem, there is also the temptation to privatise our faith. But, our Christian faith can never be really private because the birth, life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ is expansively outward reaching.
We can learn from the resource-poor missionary drive of the early disciples of Jesus Christ. The Saints, throughout the ages, have much to teach us. The lesson is simple yet holds the potential for profound consequences. To continually welcome our baptismal gift of illumination and bear the image of God more purposefully within our souls is to experience a radical compassion for all creation.
The Incarnation of Jesus Christ continues today in prompting us towards renewed encounters with our friends, our family, our community, our nation and the entire world. The threads of belonging that mysteriously and lovingly bind us to existence extend far beyond the horizon of human life and find their source and fulfilment in God who is always near to us.
This closeness of God can be experienced when we find ourselves leaning towards the amazing appeal of the Almighty through the Son in the Spirit, when we barely glimpse the boundless beauty of a deeply connected belonging that spans heaven and earth, and when we humbly attempt to appreciate the complete connectedness of all creation that once was, is and will ever be. This all-encompassing Eucharistic truth is difficult to articulate in human terms, impossible to fathom and is too easily neglected amidst the turmoil of our lives. Yet, this illuminated and truthful vision of reality constantly invites us deeper into the mystery of our own souls, the spiritual development of the world and God’s eternal life.
More often, we experience the grace and grandeur of God in small ways, in gratefully receiving the loving action of another, in the serenity of witnessing a sunrise, in our wonder at the growth of a flower, in our curiosity at the fragile flight of a butterfly, in the joyful exuberance of a child, in the compassionate counsel of a beloved neighbour or in the leaning in of a people gathered in common purpose towards a greater good. In God’s beloved world, every manifestation of beauty, truth and goodness is filled with meaning beyond measure and so these hints of heaven echo eternity and resonate deeply within our souls.
We know that we alone are insufficient to the mission at hand but through God’s grace, we collectively see ourselves as gifted, blessed and capable of meeting the challenges ahead. This dynamic reinvigorates the People of God to work together in prayer, humility, compassion, service and a unity that can sustain a deeply connected community.
To share the unlimited gifts of the Spirit more broadly is to welcome the grace of God more fully into our Diocesan community. As such, the leadership role of women and men as well as the charisms of the youth are essential to any renewed pastoral activity in our Diocese. A renewed pastoral life is a challenge that requires an openness of heart, a spirit of possibility and a commitment to co-operation, peer support, friendship, trust and service that will not only better secure our future but offer us all a practical yet profound expression of Christ’s transformative love in our day to day lives.
There are many paths we could take in response to the signs of the times but for me, it seems that the most grace-filled path is the one where we let our unity in a troubled world be a shining beacon of our faith. Today, our God-given mission to promote the common good will grow and bear fruit from the roots of encounter, dialogue and unity.
We must not fall into a lazy evangelisation by simply proclaiming Church teachings as a set of rules as if these in themselves are enough to sustain us in the years ahead. Religiosity without relationship is inert. Instead, we must come to see our faith-filled lives as a movement, an experience and a life-giving journey that transcends tensions and generates an enduring sense of amazement at the intricate complexity of life, the wonderful humanity of our neighbour and the eternal love of God.
It is our encounters with Christ, with fellow Christians, with the wider world and with all creation that deepens our understanding of reality. This is the path of wisdom today that opens our minds and hearts to a tireless creativity that is committed to sharing integral knowledge, renewing reconciliation processes, building inclusive pathways and creating spaces for practical wisdom-seeking within our lives of faith. If unity always seems to lie just beyond our grasp, it encourages us to stay the course for this God-given endeavour extends far beyond our individual lives.
Our Synodal path prioritises dialogue, reflection and action. It is through dialogue and reflection that we come to better see our gatherings as a Sacramental sign of Christ’s presence in the world. Accepting the awkward challenge of tensions, strengthening our bonds of unity and building peace in the world with all humankind and throughout creation will come to be seen in the future as the greatest actions that we can perform in today’s world to meet today’s particular challenges.
This mission grows within each one of us, builds momentum within each of our pastoral localities and bears fruit within our Diocese and the universal Church. The practical aspects of this shared mission may yet be obscure to us, but with God’s help we can prayerfully continue to discern the small steps necessary to continue bringing the light of Christ into the world. With this mission in our hearts, no step is wasteful, no step is too small nor is any step too big.
Through grace, we receive the divine assistance to follow Christ as the Way, the Truth and the Life. We need not lament our fragility for we can take courage in the words Our Lord spoke to St. Paul: ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness’ (2 Cor 12:9).
This deeply formed faith illuminates our reason to more meaningfully encounter reality with less fear and more hope regardless of our weaknesses or the circumstances that we find ourselves in. To truly know Christ as the centre and fulfilment of all things past, present and future is to reflect more fully upon our personal history, live more wisely today and take the next steps upon our journey with courage, conviction and compassion. This really is good news and well worth sharing in a world in need of faith, hope and love.