REFLECTIONS ON A SYNODAL MEETING IN THE DIOCESE OF FERNS

By Jim Thompson, Enniscorthy


Invitation and Welcome

Bishop Ger invited all Catholic parishes of the Enniscorthy Deanery to a Synodal meeting. This took place in Coláiste Bríde, Enniscorthy on 22nd March. In his invitation, Bishop Ger said: “The invitation is extended to young and old, to those who are regular attenders at church and those who are not.” (March 8, 2022) It was evident from the seating layout as soon as we entered the hall that the spirit of Synodality was present. Chairs had been arranged in small circles indicating that the opportunity to listen and to speak would be available to all.


This was an important synodal meeting, part of a worldwide process launched by Pope Francis in Rome last October. The facilitator spoke very little. He was not the centre of what was about to happen. He welcomed all and he gave three simple instructions: each person in the group should be given an opportunity to speak; we should listen to one another; and no one person should speak for too long so as to ensure that everyone would have time to speak, and to be heard. As in all synodal meetings, the process began with a prayer to the Holy Spirit.


Three Questions

Our facilitator presented three questions to be considered in the small groups. These were not given altogether, but one at a time, with each question being responded to in the small groups before the next question was given. Considering the questions involved sharing and listening to each others’ experiences. One person within each group took notes. At the end of each session the note taker reported the responses to the whole gathering. It was clear from the reports back that similar responses were being heard from many participants. Over and over again each group reporter said “as already reported,” or “as was said already.” Along with much agreement, there were also strong differences. As each report was read out, a member of the facilitation team recorded the reports from each group on a large flipchart.

The three questions to be shared in the small groups focused on: what has each person experienced within the Church that was good; what each person has experienced within the Church that was hurtful; and, what is each person’s dream or hopes for the Church.


Background to the three questions: ten themes from the Handbook (Vademecum)

I was delighted to see that the three questions encapsulated the ten themes that are set out in the handbook (Vademecum) for the synodal process. These themes are offered by the Synodal Secretariat for exploration by all. I set out below the ten themes (titles italicised). I have placed the group’s responses to the three questions in the context of these themes. Finally, for each theme and responses, I add my own reflection.


Ten themes: responses and reflections

1) Companions on the journey: Who belongs to our Church: many expressed their sense of belonging when, for example, in the church they participate in the choir, read the Word of God, work as ushers, work as cleaners, act as Eucharistic ministers etc. The vast majority of the People of God are not included here. Reflection: We are reminded both in Luke’s gospel and in Fratelli Tutti that our table companions on the journey include all mankind.


2) Listening : We experienced on the evening the creative power of listening. It was wonderful to be listened to and respected. Listening is the first step in living in a Synodal Church. We need to create similar structured listening opportunities in each parish. These should include the young, women, and the marginalized. Reflection: At our parish meetings do we have a similar listening experience?


3) Speaking out: “All are invited to speak with courage and parrhesia, that is, in freedom, truth, and charity.” (Vademecum, 5.3) In our small group no one dominated or controlled what was said. All could speak, all were heard, and all were respected. Reflection: Do we experience this in our parish life?


4) Celebration: A strong appreciation of the Liturgy on certain occasions was expressed. For example, how much the liturgy meant for many on the occasion of funerals, baptisms, and weddings, at Easter and at Christmas. Meaningful, scripture-based, and shorter sermons were called for, and also liturgies prepared by women. The roles of deacon, priest, and bishop should be made available to women. All priests should be permitted to marry. Our five senses are important in liturgy. For example, listening to music, and sound. One person said: “I love the bells.” The rhythm of the day and year, the Divine Office, time for silence during liturgy, the silence experienced when lighting a candle in personal prayer – all these mean a great deal. The seating arrangement matters. Reflection: There is clearly a need for improvements in our liturgical celebration.


5) Sharing responsibility for our common mission: Young people, including those who do not attend church, show great sensitivity to matters of justice and injustice.

One example of sharing responsibility in Enniscorthy at the moment is the reaching out to the stranger, specifically to those seeking refuge from war in Ukraine. Reflection: Cardinal Mario Grech, General Secretary of the Synod of Bishops, communicates regularly with everyone about the synodal journey. Recently, with Archbishop You Heung Sik, he invited priests to look at their communities with a “contemplative gaze...to discover the many examples of participation and sharing” which are taking place around them. (Letter to Priests, 19 March 2022). We are all missionaries, having been anointed as Priest, Prophet, and King at baptism. The concept of the People of God is not limited to the Catholic Church. Pope Francis reminds us in Fratelli Tutti that we are all brothers and sisters, and that all creation belongs to the People of God.

6) Dialogue in Church and Society: What are our shared experiences with believers of other religions and with those who profess no religion? Time did not permit within our group a full sharing of the rich and rewarding experiences which many of us have had. Reflection: Pope Francis has often shared with us how he has been enriched by his encounters with people from other religions. What type of dialogue does each parish participate in with members of other religions, and with wider society?


7) Ecumenism: How enriching it was to experience all the Christian Churches in the Enniscorthy area coming together for a Carol service in the Cattle Mart at Christmas. It was great to be there with the whole community, including our bishop Ger as our parish priest, and the Church of Ireland Bishop Michael, as well the representatives of all local Christian churches. Also, the prayer service for peace in St. Mary’s Church on the World Day of Prayer in March 2022 was a very joyful and prayerful experience. The annual ecumenical walk through our town seems to have fallen by the wayside, perhaps because of the pandemic. The coming together for tea at the end of the walk gave us an opportunity to share with people we seldom meet. Reflection: It would be good to experience much more of this fellowship and cooperation.


8) Authority and participation: Our experience at this synodal meeting shows how effective a meeting can be. Every one participated, and responsibility for the smooth running of the meeting was shared by all. Everyone’s views were taken seriously. Reflection: Is it possible to run all parish meetings in this way?


(9) Discerning and deciding: People shared their experience of decision-making and their lack of involvement in this process. Reflection: Can we set up procedures and structures to discern and come to decisions together in our parishes?


(10) Forming ourselves in Synodality: “Synodality entails receptivity to change, formation, and on-going learning.” (Vademecum, 5.3) There was a strong call in many of the reports back for ongoing education for both clergy and laity. Many of us learned so much from the process of this meeting - for example, how to listen, how to speak, how to respect each others’ views. A need was expressed for education in the scriptures and in responding to social issues. This was frequently expressed in responding to the question on dreams and hopes for the Church of the future. Reflection: In his Pastoral Letter of January 2022 Bishop Ger identifies education of priests and laity in scripture and theology, and in the skills needed to minister in the modern world as “a central obligation of [his] ministry in the years ahead.”


A dream for the future Church

Creating structures for listening, dialogue and discernment, in which everyone can participate, and which invite the contributions of all, is essential to the synodal pathway. Cardinal Grech and Archbishop You Heung Sik emphasise the necessity for this in their letter of March 19th 2022 to the priests of the world: Quoting from the Preparatory Document he reminds them: “The ability to imagine a different future for the church and her institutions....depends largely on the decision to initiate processes of listening, dialogue and community discernment, in which each and every person can participate and contribute.”


As we left the meeting I recalled Bishop Ger’s invitation to respond to the synodal challenge. Quoting from the Preparatory Document, he urges us: “to dream about a church we are called to be, to make hopes flourish, to stimulate trust, to bind up wounds, to weave new and deeper relationships, to learn from one another, to build bridges, to enlighten minds, warm hearts and restore strength to our hands for the common mission.” (Letter March 8th 2022)


The next steps

The facilitation team will now collate all the reports given in the meeting. They will present them for comment and approval at end of May in the Riverside Hotel to all those who attended the meeting at Coláiste Bríde. This is a good example of transparency. Hopefully this transparency, so necessary as part of the process, will be apparent throughout the process as it continues from there. A synthesis of all the responses will then be prepared and sent to the Bishop. The responses from all the dioceses in Ireland will be brought by their bishops to the Irish Bishops Conference, and onwards, finally reaching Rome for the Synod of Bishops in October 2023.


References

Bishop Ger Nash. Hope in New Beginnings. Pastoral Letter, January 2022.

Bishop Ger Nash. Invitation to synodal meetings. Letter, March 8th 2022.

Vademecum (Handboook). Synod 2020-23 website. https://www.synod.va/content/dam/synod/common/vademecum/en_vade.pdf

The Preparatory Document. Synod 2020-2023 website. https://www.synod.va/en/news/the-preparatory-document.html

Mario Card. Grech, Synod of Bishops, and Archbishop Lazzaro You Heung Sik, Prefect of the Congregation of the Clergy. Letter to Priests , 19 March 2022. https://www.synod.va/content/dam/synod/news/2022-03-19_priests/220083_Lettera-ai-Sacerdoti-INGLESE.pdf