Dr Nicola Brady is Chair of the Steering Committee of the Irish Synodal Pathway. In this interview ahead of the National Synodal Assembly on June 18, Dr Brady answered some of the most frequently asked questions revolving around the National Synod that the Irish Bishops announced in 2020. Dr Brady is currently General Secretary for Churches Together in Britain and Ireland.
What does the term ‘synodality’ actually mean?
The term synod comes from the Greek for ‘together on the way’. Synodality is a way of being Church, it is a spiritual practice and not just a debate about how the Church is organised.
One of the most frequently cited Scripture references in helping people to understand synodality is the Road to Emmaus from Luke’s Gospel. Two disciples, fearful, doubting and disheartened, encounter Jesus on the road, and He listens to them as they journey together. Then, having listened, He explains the Scriptures to them. Later, sharing hospitality, they recognise Jesus in the breaking of the bread. I think this is a really useful illustration of the need to ensure that our synodal pathway is inspired and informed by a Christ- centred vision.
What is the focus of the Irish Synodal Pathway?
The guiding question for the national synodal pathway is ‘What does God want from the Church in Ireland at this time?’. It is intended to facilitate a wide-ranging process of reflection and discernment in which people can bring their concerns and their fears about the very real challenges facing the Irish Church at present, but also share their hopes and what is precious to them about their faith.
How long will the process take?
The timeline envisaged for this work, leading to the organisation of some form of synodal assembly for the Irish Church, is five years. We are not simply working towards a synod as an event, but rather a long-term transformation that will see synodal practices embedded across every level of church life, helping us to be a
more listening Church, and, consequently a more responsive, and more compassionate Church, with more collaborative models of leadership and a renewed commitment to bring Christ’s healing presence to where it is most needed.
How will the synod be structured?
A Steering Committee has been appointed to lead the first two years of consultation and discernment. This phase is intended to be a period of prayer, listening and discernment.
Beyond that, we will reflect on what has come out of that process, in dialogue with others, gathering insights into the Church – past, present, future – that will
help inform the recommendations we will make at the end of the two years around how best to continue the journey at the national level.
What’s next for the Irish Synod?
The diocesan phase ran until May of this year and in June the work of synthesis will take place before submission of the findings. The work of synthesis is about prayerful engagement with the fruits of the listening process, identifying not only the strong lines of consensus, but also what are described as ‘discordant points of view’, recognising that these may also have something important to tell us. When the synthesis has been completed at diocesan level, there will be a national gathering to support the work of overall synthesis before the final submission is sent to the Vatican.
When this initial engagement with the Universal Synod is complete, we will need to create opportunities to share and reflect on what has come out of that consultation, what the experience of that engagement was like for those who participated, and how successful it was in terms of the extent of its outreach.
How does the Irish Synod link with the Universal Synod lead by the Vatican? In the short-term we will integrate our work with the preparations for the Universal Synod seeking to support and collaborate as much as we can.
The Universal Synod provides a helpful opportunity to assess how we are doing as we begin this journey of establishing a national synodal pathway in Ireland. It asks: How does this ‘journeying together,’ which takes place today on different levels (from the local level to the universal one), allow the Church to proclaim the Gospel in accordance with the mission entrusted to Her; and what steps does the Spirit invite us to take in order to grow as a synodal Church?
What will the next phase entail?
The second three year phase will be the time of planning and preparation – for putting in place whatever structures may be needed to take this forward, to support people to engage and to connect people in prayer.
This timeline allows for the work of building relationships and addressing, where we can, the factors that may prevent people from participating. This may involve trust-building work with people who feel alienated or hurt, opportunities for training and support for people who may want to engage but don’t have the confidence, and looking at how we adapt models of engagement for people who may require additional support, for example in terms of special educational needs, or language translation.
We need to be mindful of the needs of the victims and survivors of abuse, acknowledging that as a Church we owe a great debt to their courage, and we need to listen to them about how to make the synodal process trauma- sensitive and inclusive for those who wish to participate.
How can the synod help address divisions within the Church?
Some people are approaching these conversations from a place of hurt, or broken trust, and are not convinced their contribution will really count. Others are fearful that synodality will entail a secularising of the church in which what is distinctive about our Christian faith and traditions will be devalued. And there are people who have walked away and who are not engaged in the conversations happening within the Church, and will require particular, targeted outreach if we are to include them in our discernment.
Cardinal Mario Grech, Secretary General for the Synod of Bishops, in a recent address in Oxford, spoke about the opportunity through the synodal process to end the culture of silence about the problems in the Church including the most obvious example of the abuse crisis, but also the challenge of the deep divisions that exist between Catholics. He talked about differences about liturgy, about the role of women, about the desire to exclude people from the Church, and about the challenge of fractures along a liberal/conservative fault line, amongst other things. He expressed the hope that the synodal process would provide space for honest engagement about these issues, through both speaking and listening.
How can readers get involved in the process?
We want to convey to people that the invitation is open to everyone to get involved and, in the first instance, encourage people to engage with the Universal Synod.
I would encourage readers to use our website (synod.ie) and follow us on social media to access resources and keep informed about the process.
We are seeing encouraging signs in terms of the people who have volunteered their time and skills to support listening processes, those who have undertaken training in recent months and the way people are making connections across diocesan boundaries. It is to be hoped that this work will have lasting benefits that will provide a strong support to the national synodal pathway.
Engaging with people who hold views diametrically opposed to our own is one of the most challenging aspects of this process, but in the context of a world that is increasingly polarised, and where people become isolated in echo chambers, if we can find a way to model honest, respectful engagement around the issues that divide, reflecting at once both our diversity and the significance of our shared identity as followers of Christ, we have the potential for real transformation, renewal and hope.