Members of the Irish Catholic Bishops’ Conference gathered in-person this week in Saint Patrick’s College, Maynooth, for their Autumn 2021 General Meeting.   Due to public health restrictions arising from the Covid-19 pandemic, the Bishops’ Conference had hosted its previous five plenary meetings via video link.  The main issues discussed by the bishops during their Autumn General Meeting included an the opening of the Universal Synod on 9 and 10 October and an update on the Synodal Pathway in Ireland. 
During their 2020 Winter General Meeting, bishops decided to proceed along a Synodal Pathway and, following their Spring General Meeting, announced that a new Synodal Pathway for the Catholic Church in Ireland is to take place with a view to holding a national synodal assembly, or assemblies, within the next five years.  Over 550 submissions have been received from the public as part of the initial phase of the Synodal Pathway.  Dr Nicola Brady has been appointed as chair of the Synodal Steering Committee and the vice-chairs are Mr Andrew O’Callaghan and Bishop Brendan Leahy of Limerick.
By a happy coincidence, these first two years of the Synodal Pathway in Ireland will complement the Church’s worldwide journey towards the XVI Ordinary General Assembly of Bishops, entitled: For a synodal Church: communion, participation and mission.  This weekend (9 and 10 October), Pope Francis will officially open the Universal Synod.  The Holy Father has asked that the whole Church prepare for this Synod which is scheduled to take place in October 2023 in Rome. 
In this regard, bishops welcomed the publication on 7 September, by the General Secretariat for the Synod in Rome, of the Preparatory Document which indicates the guiding principles of the Synod on Synodality.  Bishops agreed that, as the Church in Ireland embarks on its own Synodal Pathway, we can also look forward to letting ourselves be inspired by these guiding principles.
Bishops discussed this Preparatory Document, sharing in the goal of its listening process, namely, “not to produce documents, but to plant dreams, prophecies, and hopes.”  For the initial preparatory phase of the Universal Synod, the fundamental questions put before us are:
–          how does this ‘journeying together’ take place today on different levels (from the local level to the universal one), allowing the Church to proclaim the Gospel?  and,
–          what steps is the Spirit inviting us to take in order to grow as a synodal Church?
These global questions neatly complement the guiding question facing the Irish Synodal Pathway over the next five years, which is: “What does God want from the Church in Ireland at this time?”
The full membership of the Steering Committee and the Synodal Task Group for the Synodal Pathway will be published as part of the official launch in the coming weeks.
For more on the Synodal Pathway see www.catholicbishops.ie/synod and on the Universal Synod see www.synod.va
Irish Church’s new synodal pathway offers opportunity for transformation and renewal
The initial phase of the synodal pathway for the Catholic Church in Ireland, announced by the Bishops’ Conference during its Spring General Meeting in March of this year, is now underway.
The focus of this phase will be prayer, listening, consultation and discernment, as we seek to lay the foundations for a National Synodal Assembly (or assemblies) for the Church across our island.
To start the process a steering committee has been appointed to oversee its work, carry out some initial listening, analysis and awareness-raising and to offer recommendations about how this might be carried forward into the next stages of the process. This committee is supported in this work by a task group to help coordinate engagement at local level and ensure that what happens nationally is shaped and informed by the learning from recent and current processes of listening and consultation.
At the heart of our work is this question: ‘What is God saying to the Irish Church at this time?’ We will be exploring this through a process of discernment which, in a Christian context, is understood as a decision-making process in which discovery leads to action, guided by the Holy Spirit. An important task before the Steering Committee will be to identify the challenges that have inhibited the practice of discernment in the Church up to now, and discouraged people from taking a more active leadership role in the life of the Church.
One of the first challenges we face is that the language of ‘synod’ and ‘synodality’ is unfamiliar to many people in the Catholic Church. The term synod, meaning assembly, has its roots in the Greek for ‘together on the way’. In describing this new focus for the Catholic Church in Ireland as a synodal pathway, the Irish bishops, similarly to other Bishops’ Conferences around the world, have sought to convey this image of being on a journey together.
Among the most common misunderstandings we encounter in our work is the idea that synodal assemblies are parliamentary-style debates where the objective is to win votes for particular decisions. Rather, synodal processes create space for different views, and different visions for the future, but in a spirit of sharing, respectful listening and discernment, rather than argument. A priority for this initial phase will be to help people understand how this might work in practice and attempt to address any fears and apprehension they may have about the process.
As part of their preparatory work, bishops invited submissions by way of a public consultation undertaken between Easter and Pentecost this year. More than five hundred submissions were received. Unsurprisingly, we see from the consultation submissions that there are clear tensions we will have to navigate throughout this process. Some people are fearful that it will lead to the secularising of the Church and will devalue elements of their faith and local parish community that are so precious to them. Others are concerned that the process will fail to take sufficient account of the changing social context, or to engage in a meaningful way with those who feel alienated from the Church.
The initial phase of the synodal pathway for the Church in Ireland coincides with the preparations for the 2023 Ordinary General Assembly of Bishops in Rome, which will focus on the similar theme of ‘For a synodal Church: communion, participation and mission’. While the process underway in Ireland will create space to explore the questions that arise specifically in an Irish context, it will also take account of the wider global developments, with particular emphasis on the example of Pope Francis, who has consistently prioritised a focus on those who are marginalised, and those who have been made to feel ‘discarded’.
How we frame our invitation to people to participate in the Synodal Pathway will be crucial. We are asking people to join with us on a journey without knowing all the detail of the final destination, but to trust that this is a sincere effort to bring about real transformation and renewal in the Church guided by the Holy Spirit.
Through the process of the Synodal Pathway we are seeking to acknowledge the hurts that exist within our Church community and work to heal those relationships, so that the Catholic Church in Ireland can fully live out its calling to serve the wider society as a wounded healer.
Dr Nicola Brady is chair of the Synod Steering Committee

The Prayer of the Synod: Adsumus Sancte Spiritus
This prayer can be widely used throughout the diocesan phase of the Synodal Process. It can likewise be incorporated into the liturgical celebration to open the Synod in local Churches on October 17. 
Attributed to St. Isidore of Seville (560-636), it has been traditionally used at Councils and Synods for hundreds of years. The version below was specifically designed for the Church’s Synodal journey from 2021 to 2023.
We stand before You, Holy Spirit,
as we gather together in Your name.
With You alone to guide us,
make Yourself at home in our hearts;
Teach us the way we must go
and how we are to pursue it.
We are weak and sinful;
do not let us promote disorder.
Do not let ignorance lead us down the wrong path
nor partiality influence our actions.
Let us find in You our unity
so that we may journey together to eternal life
and not stray from the way of truth
and what is right.
All this we ask of You,
who are at work in every place and time,
in the communion of the Father and the Son,
forever and ever. Amen.

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