Synodal pathway for Diocese of Ardagh & Clonmacnois
(available in Document Form at end link)
There are Four Sections to this report
1. Part 1 is a short description of the main steps taken over a three-year period from early 2019 to May 2022. The diocese had already embarked on an assembly process when the globalSynodal pathway was introduced. The diocese was happy to pursue the assembly process as its synodal pathway. The core purpose of both is identical – fostering collaboration for mission.
2. As an inductive process, listening on the ground was a key component. Part 2 details the
listening undertaken by delegates both prior to and during Covid.
3. Part 3 details the steps identified in response to the listening.
4. Part 4 offers some reflections from delegates and steering group on the journey.
1 -The process used
In early 2019 Bishop Francis Duffy formed a planning committee to prepare for a Diocesan
Assembly. The purpose of the assembly was to bring together delegates from the parishes and diocesan ecclesial groups, along with priests and religious, to identify pastoral priorities and an implementation plan for those priorities. It was agreed from the outset that this process would involve
Listening to a wide variety of people across the diocese
Bringing prayer and discernment to bear on the results of the listening
Identifying a small number of priorities and a set of practical actions
Parishes were asked to nominate a given number of delegates (related to parish size) considering the
need for age and gender balance. The initial process planned for four stages:
Stage 1 – Reaching out to listen. A first gathering of the assembly in September 2019 introduced the process and initiated a listening action on the ground that had two elements. Firstly, meeting with people in the wider community to explore two questions: What would you say is the thing that is most important in your life now? What are your feelings about the church – have you any hopes or expectations of the church in your life? Secondly, meeting with the local pastoral council to hear their views on this question: What do you think is the most important issue facing the church in our diocese
that should be addressed at the 2020 Assembly?
Stage 2 – Discerning pastoral priorities. A second gathering in November 2019 did a discernment on the results of the two listening actions, leading to a vote to select three pastoral priorities for the diocese – mission to youth; mission to families; formation of lay people for mission.
Stage 3 – Exploring the priorities. This was originally intended for March 2020 and was delayed because of a national lockdown that month arising from the Covid pandemic.
Stage 4 – Assembly to determine pastoral actions. This was intended for May 2020, and again was delayed because of Covid restrictions.
It was not until May 2022 that stages 3 and 4 were completed. This involved some additional meetings by Zoom.
Zoom assembly October 2021. A one-to-one phone call survey of delegates during th
summer of 2020 expressed a strong desire that the assembly process be restarted as soon as it was safe to do so. The on-going restrictions meant that an in-person gathering was still not possible at the time, so the assembly committee opted for a Zoom Assembly in October 2020.
The purpose of that was to initiate a Covid listening exercise in the parishes to determine if
new pastoral priorities needed to be taken on board. This involved one-to-one conversations with individuals involved in the parish and wider community on the following questions:
From your involvement in the community/parish what have been the biggest impacts from Covid that you have seen?
Do you see hurt or damage in the community that needs to be
Do you see some positive things that have happened that could be built on?
Zoom Assembly March 2022 – The purpose of this was to review the results of the Covid listening and adjust the assembly priorities accordingly. The basic conclusion was to hold on to the three priorities already agreed but taking the Covid experience into account. Zoom Assembly April 2022 – This explored pastoral thinking and approaches to the three priorities in the diocese and across the country. Diocesan Assembly May 2022 – This determined strategic direction for the diocese about the three priorities and an action implementation plan. During this period the See became vacant. Bishop Duffy was translated to another diocese and Fr. Tom Healy was appointed Diocesan Administrator.
2 – Listening to the people
A core part of the process was listening to people on the ground about their generative issues, and their experience of church. The first two sections below are in the form of a report on the listening that was presented to the delegates at the second assembly. The third section is a summary of points emerging from the listening to the Covid experience two years later.
a. What are people concerned about now?
At the recent synod on the Amazon Pope Francis said this: We are here to contemplate, to understand and to serve the people. It has been a constant theme of his papacy that we can’t effectively offer the gift of the Gospel to people if we don’t first have a feel for their lives. At our first gathering in September, we asked that we first listen to people on the ground before we consider pastoral priorities for our assembly. Not just people who are involved in church, but all kinds of people who make up the population in this diocese. We asked you to listen for what is important to them in their lives right now, and whether they have anything to say to the church. And you did that. We received reports from
a total of 68 listening exercises from every part of the diocese. You listened to men and women,young and old. You listened to parents. You listened to people in urban and rural areas, people who are church goers and people who are not, people who are working and people who are not. And you listened to minority groups – LGBT, Travellers, migrants, people living alone, people living with dementia, people with disabilities, people bereaved.
What comes across most strongly is a sense of people absorbed in the challenges of daily living. And in the middle of those challenges by far the most important thing for people is their families. This is true for young and old, across all the minority groups and obviously for parents.
The three core issues for parents are family, finance, and health – trying to manage a healthy work-life balance in the face of multiple challenges – especially rearing children and teenagers in a complex and sometimes dangerous environment and supporting at the same time aging parents.
For the elderly, along with family their concerns are for their own health and independence; they value their faith and they worry about what kind of world is going to be there for their grandchildren.
For the young, the important issues are family, friends, social life and social pressures. These include pressures of exams, of finding a career path, and also pressures associated with social media.
For the various minority groups, family and community are core – they long for their families to fit in.
For people living alone, contact with family and the wider community is crucial.
For LGBT people, their chief concerns are family and relationships.
For the bereaved, the stand out issue is the pain and isolation that comes from losing their life’s partner.
For people living with dementia in their family, there is the daily struggle just to keep going with basic tasks.
For the migrants, the concern is to fit in without being discriminated against, and they worry about how their children are going to do in Ireland.
And in all this, there is a sense that people are resilient – they experience a lot of joy and can get on with their lives. But there is also the sense of the pressures they experience. Health and mental health
were frequently named as issues.
b. What do people want to say to the church?
So then to the second question you asked. What do all these people, absorbed in the daily concerns and challenges of their lives, what do they want to say to church? There are several things that come
across very strongly.
On the one hand there is certainly a sense of hurt and anger at how the church has been in thepast. This relates particularly to the abuse scandals. But there is also a widely held view that the church people grew up with was often authoritarian and out of touch with their lives. This view is not just held by younger generations, but by older people as well. This from a listening meeting with older people: When we were growing up the church was in control – the control mechanism is broken now. The pyramid structure has to change. We need a church where all are equal, no power struggles; a church where the leader works in harmony with all members. Maybe the orchestra model would be a good one for the church – a leader working together in harmony with the members. For some of those we listened to, that history has resulted in a deeply felt alienation. A single parent group report: This woman said her feeling about the church is that it is an out-of-touch institution, created by men and governed by men. So there is recognition, not just by people who are alienated by the church, but also by people who care for the church, that damage has been done.
So does that mean for people on the ground that the church is no longer relevant or wanted? At
one of the listening meetings with young people at senior 2nd level they were asked would they prefer if there were no churches, no Christmas Masses, no priests, no religion. And they said strongly they would not prefer that. They said that supporting faith is important, promoting values is important, being there for people is important, creating community is important. And the church at its best is good at all these things. And it is the same message that is coming across very strongly from the great majority of people whom you listened to. They are notlooking for the church to go away. In fact it is the very opposite. They are looking for a church that is closer, a church that
reaches out to and connects with people in their daily lives and struggles
speaks a language that people understand
brings good news rather than bad news
includes people on the margins
treats people as equals.
It’s more about building the church around the society of today rather than pulling people back into a society from 30/40 years ago. That is from a youth meeting. And from a parent meeting the following:
The hope we have for the church is that it will continue to “reach out and connect” with people – the church needs to tap into the social aspect of life. There is a strong focus on priests as core to the church. And here there is a clear call for
married priests and women priests. There are two values underlying this call. One that men
and women should be treated as equals in the church. The other is the belief that a married clergy, dealing daily with family issues, would be in a better position to understand and deal with families in the community. According to one mixed group of participants the lack of a married clergy results in a lack of identity with the congregation and their daily struggles with balancing work, family and other life responsibilities.
There is a certain tension in the feedback between wanting a church that is inclusive and
wanting a church that sets standards. For instance, one report says this: Parents should be
committed to First Communion and Confirmation. They shouldn’t be allowed to do them it if
they are not attending Mass. However, there is another voice, which seems to be the majority voice, saying that there is more to faith than regular church going: A lot of people have not lost their faith but they have lost their faith in the church as an institution and the power that went with it. This point was echoed by the listeners at an LGBT group: We observed their passion and commitment to church and when asked why… they spoke of this deep yearning inside.
c. What was the pandemic experience like for people?
This listening was conducted while there were still restrictions on gatherings. It was undertaken through one-to-one conversations with people involved in the wider community, and with people involved in parishes. There were also a set of questions for the delegates themselves about their own faith experience during the pandemic.
I. Covid experience in the wider community
22 sets of delegates conducted the listening exercise. In the community, they listened to a wide variety of people – shop keepers, GAA people, health workers, community activists, youth workers, social workers, farmers, gardai, undertakers, office workers etc.
a. Hurt in the community at large
There is a consistent view across the reports that there was real suffering during the pandemic, and several categories of people were highlighted.
People who were already vulnerable – isolated elderly, people with mental health conditions, people reliant on health and other social services, people at risk of domestic violence, people under financial pressure, people without access to social media, people with addiction risks. There was a strong sense that the difficulties these people were already experiencing were intensified by the pandemic.
People whose loved ones died, were in care, or hospitalised – the necessary restrictions
around hospital visits, visits to nursing homes, and funeral arrangements caused a great deal of distress to families and friends.
Young people – there was a strong sense that as a general category, young people were
particularly affected by the pandemic. Isolation from peers, loss of sporting and academic
opportunities were among the factors that harmed both physical and mental wellbeing.
Families with young people also felt the pressure of this.
People at work – healthcare workers were under consistent and huge pressure over the last two years. Also, people employed or self-employed in some sectors of the economy
experienced huge financial pressures.
Impact on normal life – there was also a sense that community life as a whole suffered. So much interaction at community and family level, that we had taken for granted all along, was now curtailed. There was a deep loss felt regarding the normal social contact between members of clubs, between neighbours, and even between family members. Here in particular the contact between grandparents and children suffered to the detriment of both.
b. Positives in the community at large
While the above hurts were widely experienced there was at the same time, a sense of some strong positives:
Community solidarity – there were very many accounts of people who cared for and reached out to people experiencing these hurts. This both at individual and organisational levels.
Personal space – for those who were less vulnerable there was a sense of many personal
positives. People felt they slowed down, were more present to each other, enjoyed the
environment and got a stronger sense of what is important in their lives. This had a positiveimpact on many families who weren’t under severe pressures. For many the experience of working at home and commuting less was very positive. Technology – for those who had access to and were able to manage social media there were
also many positives.
II. Covid experience of the local churches
The delegates also listened to a variety of people with specific involvement in their local churches –
readers, eucharistic ministers, choir members, members of PPCs, members of finance committees, regular church goers, clergy etc. While the questions these addressed related specifically to their local church community, their reading of the situation of the community at large is in keeping with theabove.
a. Hurts in the local churches
Personal and social loss – for regular church goers, their experience of restrictions on the
normal church services was one of personal and social loss. The sudden stopping of what they had been used to all their lives was a shocking experience. This was so in terms of their own devotional lives and their church social connections. While this was felt across all the services, such as weekly Mass and family sacraments, it was especially felt in relation to funerals. There was also a concern here for the isolation experienced by many parish clergy.
Fear of permanent decline in numbers – there is a widespread concern that many people
who stopped going to church services during the lockdown, especially from younger families, will not return.
Church finances – there is an understanding that the income stream to the local churches is well down, and a concern about the financial viability of local churches into the future.
Low profile – a sense that some parishes went into lockdown, with the priest unable to
function and parishioners left feeling on their own.
b. Positives in the local churches
Smaller scale services – in many cases the smaller scale of services imposed by the
restrictions resulted in a more personal faith experience.
Technology – the use of social media for services and other church events. Appreciation – a greater sense now of the value of our faith and church life, something that
we may have taken for granted.
Flexibility – our ability at parish level to rise to the Covid challenges.
III.Faith experience of delegates during Covid
Overall, the feedback here was positive. The main thrust was of a people who are attached to and find nourishment in their regular communal church practice, but who found faith resources within themselves when they were cut off from that practice. The main outcome of the Covid experience was a strengthening of faith and trust in God. We missed the regular routine of church activity, and the connection with other church
people. There was a real sense of loneliness in this.
We found support in the technology that allowed us to be virtually present at Mass and
We found support in our own prayer life, and prayer practices in the home. We came to a deeper appreciation of faith and church.
3. Discerning priorities and next steps
As noted, this occurred in seven steps throughout the assembly process:
1. An initial consultation by the delegates with parish pastoral councils and parish assemblies on their sense of priorities for the diocese.
2. An invitation to clergy and any other interested individuals to send in submissions on this same question.
3. A discernment and vote by the delegates on pastoral priorities at the November 2019 assembly considering the listening results.
4. A revisiting of the priorities at the March 2022 assembly considering the listening to the Covid experience.
5. An exploration of agreed priorities at the April 2022 assembly.
6. A gathering of submissions from delegates on directions and actions for these priorities.
7. A discernment and voting on directions and actions on these priorities at the Assembly in May 2022.
a. Submissions from Parish Pastoral Councils and Parish Assemblies
35 submissions were received from parishes about assembly priorities for action. These came mainly from Parish Pastoral Councils (with a smaller number of parish meetings). There were two basic elements to these proposals – a clear sense of mission, and a recognition of the need to build capacity for that mission. The missionary impulse had four elements that kept recurring in the submissions:
1. Connection with and compassion for people on the margins – a church voice that speaks out on their behalf and on behalf of the Gospel.
2. Youth – offering an experience of faith and church that attracts.
3. Family – supporting parents to promote faith in the home.
4. Rituals – the potential for our liturgies (including Sunday Mass) and sacraments to relate better and connect better.
The internal organisation and capacity building had two elements:
5. Priests – the role of the priest is seen as a key element for the future. Here the desire is to promote vocations and for many, to open priesthood to married men and women.
6. Lay roles – the role of lay people is seen as complementary to that of the priest. The desire here is to grow the involvement of lay people and to provide the necessary training and support.
b. Submissions from priests
Five submissions were received from priest-groups in the diocese. These identify three priorities that very much fit in with what we have covered.
the priority of mission, and mission that is Christ-centred rather than church- centred. It is not about trying to create the church of the past but about bringing the Gospel to a new
the need to address lay roles and lay training for this mission. the support needs of priests in the face of ‘a tsunami of change’, including support for
priests from overseas.
c. Submissions from individuals
Some 50 submissions were received from individuals. There was a strong tension in these. Some offered a range of proposals in keeping with the six priorities above – a church that connects with the people of today. Other submissions broadly expressed the view that the church needs to return to the strong teachings, certainties, and devotional practices of the past. These submissions hold that it was a moving away from the definite positions of the past that accounts today for the fall-off in church practice.
d. Discernment and vote on pastoral priorities at November 2019 Assembly
As already noted, the three priorities that emerged were: formation of lay people, outreach to youth and outreach to families. A report on the vote offered the following rationale for this. It was clear from the submissions that a core concern for all groups that we listened to was family. It was also clear that the main concern regarding our liturgies was that they should connect more effectively with young families and youth. So, it was not a surprise that the delegates opted for a concrete focus on families and youth as a means of addressing all the mission concerns. Regarding how we organise for mission there were two main areas identified from the submissions: fostering of vocations to the priesthood and religious life (including married and women priests); and the provision of roles and
supports for lay people to work alongside priests and religious. There was a strong vote that the immediate priority for the diocese should be the latter – that we should build on the opportunities and the capacity of lay people, men, and women, to support our mission to families and youth.
e. Discernment on priorities in the light of Covid
The main sense coming from the March 2022 meeting was that the three original priorities – youth, family, and lay formation – should remain the same. But they need to be addressed now considering
the Covid experience.
Young people – their distance from church; their pressures in life; issues that they are
concerned about, especially the environment.
Outreach to young families – there is a huge concern about the increased disconnection of young families from church, but there is also concern about families at the other end of the life cycle, often made up of isolated elderly.
Formation of lay people – there is a strong sense of the need for energy and urgency in developing a mission to the wider community, and this cannot be left to ageing clergy on their own. The Covid experience has further highlighted this need for lay formation. Bringing the Gospel to bear on modern living is key here, but also issues including use of social technology, and financial management.
f. Submissions from delegates on directions and actions for the priorities
The purpose of the April 2022 Zoom Assembly was to provide delegates with the opportunity to explore practical approaches to the three pastoral priorities. There were presentations made on good practice within the diocese and from other dioceses around the country. There was also a short input on the Vatican Vademecum, focusing on the three main players in the mission – Jesus, the apostles, and the ‘crowd’. Following the April meeting, delegates were invited to make submissions on how the diocese might pursue the three priorities. In a summary of the submissions for an assembly planning meeting we noted the following: There is a strongly positive reaction to the local and inter-diocesan presentations at the April assembly. There is a desire to promote further what is already going on, and to strengthen links with and learn from other dioceses as well. The initial note regarding Jesus and the crowd seems to have resonated well, with its focus on inclusive means of sharing the Good News.
The main action points from the submissions were summarised as follows:
There is a strong sense of the value of working with systems that already have connection with youth. These are primarily the schools and the families. Explore how best to tap into the capacity for peer ministry evident at the last Assembly. Maintain and develop diocesan youth programmes, including pilgrimages. Explore means of tapping into young people’s energy for social action.
Make use of key inclusive moments to share the Good News – sacraments, seasonal
Reach out to support families on key issues for them, such as relationships and
Build parish capacity for parish family liturgy.
3. Lay formation
There is a very strong sense that the time for change is upon us in the sense that we will not have priests on the ground in anything like the numbers that we have been used to. At the same time the implications of that for such things as parish liturgies may not have dawned on people.
There was a strong sense of the value of a pastoral rather than simply a theological approach to formation. Equip people for leadership. There was also a sense here of a differentiated approach that considers differing energies and capacities – some will be involved in more explicitly catechetical work, others administrative etc. There is one point on tension in the overall. For most there is a sense of the church needing to
embrace change – in the role of lay people, the role of women, how we reach out with our
Good News. For some there is an emphasis on tradition – an expectation that people should understand and adhere to church teachings as we have known them.
g. Conclusions of the final Assembly May 2022
The purpose of the May Assembly was to finalise the process considering the original
intention – a direction on a small number of pastoral priorities, and an implementation plan.
This was the first in-person gathering since November 2019. 130 delegates attended. Four
presentations were made during the day – summaries of the broad thrust of the submissions on the three priorities and a summary implementation proposal. These presentations were discussed in small groups and open forum, with a view to the delegates making amendments. The amended summaries were then re-presented to the delegates for voting. The results of the votes are recorded below along with the summaries that were voted on.
For Against Abstentions
Lay formation 129 1 0
Youth 130 0 0
Family 128 1 1
Implementation 129 1 0
Lay formation: Its purpose is so that the mission of the church can continue – sharing the Good News as Jesus did with ‘the crowd’. This will require lay people who are trained for pastoral leadership and integrated into the workings of the parish. This training needs to be relational as well as theological, flexible, and accessible to people who already have busy lives. These trained people in turn can avail of pastoral resources to take the lead in outreach initiatives. In view of the pending rapid decline in the number of priests we need to accelerate this formation so that each parish has a viable pastoral team. To have a training programme that is fit for purpose we need to flesh out in a concrete manner the following:
A common approach in the diocese that identifies how parishes will work together into thefuture, how all parishes can move together on this and how this will be communicated to the people.
A clear outline of the roles for lay people in this new situation; how they will be recruited; the skill sets required; the gifts required – and here faith and teamwork are crucial.
Youth: The task is to share the Good News of Jesus with the new generations. We recognise on the one hand the distance of many young people from church. But on the other hand, we recognise so much good in their lives. There are many challenges but we remain hopeful and confident that God’s Spirit is fashioning a future we cannot yet see. We can build an outreach to youth working through key avenues and utilising a variety of already available resources. These resources emphasise the importance of listening to and engaging with what is most important to them in life. The avenues to youth include their schools, their families, committed young people, social media, and their concerns
for justice and the environment. There are many youth ministry resources in this diocese and others that can be utilised on these avenues, including John Paul 11 Awards, pilgrimages, youth liturgies, social and environmental actions etc. These can be connected to provide an on-going outreach to youth. We have seen how involvement in youth programmes has sparked a desire among some young to engage in peer ministry. Diocesan and parish programmes for youth can deepen and equip this desire, creating pathways to peer ministry.
Families: We have opportunities at popular seasonal and sacramental moments to reach out to a great many families. We need to utilise these opportunities to listen to their experience of life and church and share the Good News in a language they can understand. There are already existing resources including liturgical and sacramental that can be provided for parishes for this outreach. These can offer a basis for follow-up. We can also work to support families in need, cooperating with agencies already in the field.
Implementation: We need to put in place now a mechanism for following through on this assembly. The original desire expressed by Bishop Duffy was that this process would produce some pastoral priorities and an implementation plan. While we are awaiting the appointment of a new bishop we can begin the process with some initial actions, and then engage with the incoming bishop for longer term developments.
1. Prepare a report on assembly process for the end of this month to be circulated.
2. Establish this Summer, a diocesan pastoral development committee with three sections – youth, family, lay formation, seeking the participation of delegates nominated by parishes.
A proposal on how this can be done will be circulated by the steering group.
3. Prepare feasible action plans for 2022-2023 under the three headings, drawing on assembly report and available programmes and resources.
4. Engage with the incoming bishop on the assembly report, and longer-term strategic questions arising from that report.
4. Assembly committee and delegates – our sense of the journey
A short questionnaire was distributed to delegates and committee members following the May meeting. Some 35 responses were received at the time of writing. The main points were as follows:
The synodal process was itself a very positive experience – people coming together from all parts of the diocese to explore together a future for church and faith. The organisation of that process was also well received – the variety in the sessions, the prayer, the accounts of good practice, the respectful listening, and the use of Zoom. The disruption caused by Covid and the resultant drawn-out process was a strong negative.
Another low point highlighted was the loss of our bishop mid-process. While the final
assembly vote was a vote for change there is concern about resistance on the ground to such change.
The strongest point emerging regarding the future was the translation of the plans into realistic actions in a synodal spirit. The steering group met in the week after the assembly and reviewed its experience. The feedback here
reflected much of the above.
A strong positive was the engagement of the delegates in an inductive process. They shaped the agenda arising from their own listening on the ground. There was a great satisfaction at the capacity of the local church to organise such a complex inductive process, both in terms of logistics and facilitation. Our contact with the delegates showed a sense of gratitude for the synodal spirit, especially among women. With the Covid experience and the loss of the bishop there was real anxiety in the steering
group that the process would stall. The final (Zoom) session in April and (in-person) assembly in May were a source of relief. Our sense is that the follow-through is going to be challenging. But failure to follow-through
would fatally undermine confidence in any synodal process for the future. We see the need for a much stronger engagement with modern technology – the contrast between what is the technological norm in schools compared to parishes is obvious. We noted a tension throughout the process that will need to be engaged with going forward. In seeking a way of church engaging with wider society some look first for the church to pay attention to people, while others look first for people to pay attention to the church. We also noted the challenges for clergy in the emerging situation