It was towards the end of October 2014 when we first sat down to discuss the announcement of a Synod in the Diocese of Limerick and what it might mean for us. It doesn’t seem like 18 months ago. And yet, here we are on the eve of the actual 3-day Synod event itself.
It has been quite a journey. A lot of work, time and energy. A massive undertaking on the part of the Diocese. And in the first instance, a courageous initiative on the part of our Bishop to embark on this large-scale consultative process which may yet yield fruit in a whole variety of ways but, bottom line, will furnish him with a set of recommendations for the future direction of the local Church which he shepherds.
Perhaps a brief sketch of various milestones on the journey thus far would be useful, especially if you haven’t been able to keep up-to-date with things as they happened. (The synod website has current and archived material at www.synod2016.com). To take it up from where we were when last I wrote towards the end of 2014 (ACI website 4 Dec, 2014), there followed some preparatory and delegate training sessions with the subsequent roll out of the listening process which was an extensive exercise in the gathering of peoples’ views and opinions on Church throughout the diocese.
A team of individuals was then tasked with collating all the various feedback forms and reports over the summer months of 2015, grouping them under 12 broad headings which were presented to the delegates to prioritise when they reconvened in early October. The resulting ‘Top 6’ were designated the 6 official themes of Synod 2016.
Working in small groups, our next task was to brainstorm, to envision the future post-synod Church, with each small group coming up with 3 ideas for action around each of the designated themes. This material then laid the groundwork for the next series of delegate meetings focusing on the task of drawing up and further developing specific proposals relating to the 6 themes, utilising a proposal template which posed the questions what? who? how? when? That phase wasn’t confined to delegates only – there was an open invitation to all to submit proposals.
At an all-day preparatory meeting held last month it was mentioned that this part of the process had resulted in the generation of hundreds of proposals. A number of individuals had been invited to act as resource persons for each of the 6 themes, an important part of their role being to collate and review the proposals, minimise overlap, and identify significant goals.
And so finally last week a Workbook was made available to each delegate providing some valuable background material but chiefly containing the 100 proposals which will form the working agenda of the Synod itself.
Running alongside all of that activity there have been a number of other strands to the synod preparation process. Like the very informative profiling of the Limerick Diocese and its various constituent parish areas based on the scientific analysis of data gleaned from the last census, the first time such an analysis has been undertaken in Ireland outside of the Dublin archdiocese. It will provide an invaluable resource for future planning and in identifying how best the Church can serve the local community.
There has also been a whole series of talks by keynote speakers invited by the Diocese to address delegates, inspirational speakers all of them, including international figures such as Fr. Paul Philibert, author of ‘The Priesthood of the Faithful: Key to a Living Church’ and retired professor of pastoral theology from the U.S., and Harry Burns, professor of global public health who has been recognised for his contribution to public service in Scotland, to mention only two.
There was also the rather novel concept of a Limerick Diocesan Sport Conference run in conjunction with the synod which proved very popular. Although it coincided with a talk given at the same venue on the same night by Fr. Seán Healy, at the invitation of the newly formed Irish Institute for Catholic Studies, on issues of social justice which I had chosen to attend. But we have been rather spoiled for choice in Limerick in recent times. The Dominican Church ran two very thought-provoking series of public lectures for the seasons of Advent and Lent, the most recent speaker being the author and feminist theologian Mary Malone, and we in ACI Mid-West hosted another wonderful and very well-attended talk by Fr. Seán McDonagh on ‘Climate Change and Laudato Si’ held during the World Environmental Summit in Paris.
It has been a very busy but a really stimulating time. From speaking to others outside the Diocese I know they look with envy on all that is happening here. For while it is generally possible for laity to meet and voice their concerns to each other under the auspices of groups such as ACI, there are many who feel that for a long number of years now their voice is not being heard or valued outside of their own grouping and how they would love a similar opportunity for inclusive engagement, a type of synod experience, i.e. of ‘journeying together’ as the word synod means.
On the other hand, there is also a residual scepticism. Those who have been let down by such processes in the past are reluctant to get involved again. That too is understandable.
This is a unique moment in the Church of the Diocese of Limerick, a significant moment of growth potential and renewal. As such it is a privilege to be part of it. Being involved requires commitment and a good deal of determination to go with it. And yes, there have already been moments of disillusion, of dejection. Although the experience of Camino has taught me to recognise that the uncomfortable times, the ‘what-the-heck-am-I-doing-here’ times will arise as part of the journey. As will the times of enrichment and inspiration which have often come from the chance encounters with others in the course of the process, each of whom has an individual experience of Church, each with their own individual challenges and individual gifts resulting in a very individual faith journey, but who have been willing to share some aspect of what has shaped their unique perspective and their commitment along the way. I have been inspired too by the unstinting work of the Diocese in supporting the Synod process and those involved in it, in pursuit of the best result possible.
So much for the process. What of the result? In some ways the conclusion of the Synod is just the beginning of another phase, the crucial implementation phase. Of course some people will say: ‘Yes – sure – there will be a glossy report in due course and it will look lovely and there will be kudos for some and lots of self-congratulation. And what then???’ There is undoubtedly potential for further disillusionment. But I choose to espouse the potential for positive change. Once you engage people in a process such as we have participated in, there is no going back. The genie cannot be put back in the bottle. This pivotal moment, this synod, will in time, I expect, come to be seen to formally mark the beginning of a new style of church in our diocese, the move from a church which Fr. Philibert characterised as a church of ‘passively dependent client congregations’ to an actively participative church of all the baptised characterised in the future by ‘mutually ministering congregations’.
So yes, this Synod is a journey of faith and trust – a bit like life itself! J When embarked on in that spirit, and under the guidance of the Spirit, there is created the possibility for wonderful things to happen and many blessings to flow. Pray that it be so.
by Ainead Ni Mhuirthile
Visit the Synod website HERE