How to revitalise the Catholic Church beset with obvious problems?

The Irish Catholic bishops have announced they will initiate what they call a synodal process and this move seems to have fairly widespread support.

Many of us have only vague ideas as to what is involved but have experienced some different types of assemblies at diocesan level.

The focus of these groups is the revitalisation of the Catholic Church in Ireland. The process has involved written questionnaires, local and diocesan meetings.

My experience of such processes is that, at parish level, all aspects of church life, liturgy, Mass attendance or non-attendance, teaching on sexuality, role or non-role of women, the relevance of sacramental preparation are open for discussion.

However, my experience also tells me that gathering the views of the parishioners has not led to any real change in our church.

This leads me to question how exactly this synodal process will be any different.

The problems facing the Irish Catholic Church are fairly obvious.

  • The people who attend Mass are largely over 60.
  • Our parish schools are “Catholic in name only”.
  • Most young people consider the church’s teaching on sexuality to be derisory.
  • Most significantly, our parishes have very little connection with the people who are on the economic margins of society – apart from work done by the St Vincent de Paul society.

Yes, at national level, some church figures are prominent in service to the disadvantaged but there is a feeling that people who are poor do not find much succour in the local church.

Can a synod revitalise the Catholic Church in Ireland?

While some people believe that it is too late to turn the tide, others think that it would be best not to attempt such a task.

There is a view out there that the church lost its way sometime back around the time that it was adopted by the Roman Empire.

My own belief is that this synod process is worth a try but that its success is dependent on two major conditions.

It is absolutely necessary that it be led by lay people because, at present, the balance of power in the church is totally tilted in favour of the male clergy.

This is not a condemnation of priests, many of whom are very tired and who have suffered a lot of undeserved reputational damage in recent years.

It is just a fact of life and is enshrined in canon law which states that decision-making in the church is the preserve of those who have been ordained.

While most parishes have pastoral councils, these bodies are consultative and this is the view of Vatican II.

Convoking a synod that is led by laypeople will make demands on both clergy and laity.

None of us finds it easy to step back from power in any organisation and continue to believe that we would do a better job than the present incumbents.

Lay people are often averse to taking on responsibility in parishes because with decision-making comes criticism.

Secondly, the synod and all preparation for it will have to be an inclusive exercise and that will not be easy.

The church in Ireland is made up of very diverse groups and the distance between these group is comparable to that between the Brexiteers and the Remainers.

Yet, a meaningful synod will demand that we all sit down together, listen to each other, really listen, and not just hear what the other side is saying while we prepare our own defensive response.

It will demand mutual respect and that will challenge those of us who are called to come out of our own comfort zones.

Finally, if the hope of those who call for the synod is to reach out to those on the margins of the church, those very people must be invited to be at the heart of the proceedings.

Realistically, we must remember that those who are deemed to be on the margins may be more than happy to remain there.

  • Margaret Lee is a member of the Newport, Birdhill and Toor Catholic parish in Co Tipperary.
  • First published in the Irish Times. Republished with the permission of Margaret Lee who in return asks if people might consider making a contribution to the Association of Catholic Priests in Ireland.
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