Renewal and revival of the Church in Ireland must recognize the death of the old model, writes Garry O’Sullivan

Synodality and its process of listening has been like following a prescribed cocktail of drugs. There are all the ‘ups’ of openness, listening, hopes and joys, but there are also the ‘downs’ of “we’ve been here before”, heartaches, hurts and “will they hear what is being said? It can be difficult to step back unemotionally and gain perspective on the profound changes affecting us all as a church. A year ago, Archbishop of Dublin Dermot Farrell offered a calm perspective in his homily on the feast of St Kevin. He said that the context in which we find ourselves is that of an ever-changing Church in an ever-changing world.

“What we are experiencing today is a crisis in a particular historical form of Church. The Church, however, is more than a particular historical form.

He added: “Our generation does not easily see the outlines – let alone the final form – of what will emerge.”

It’s a wonderfully candid description of our belonging to something so much greater, something that we can only hope and believe is in God’s hands, and if God is not unduly worried, then we need to check our ups and downs throughout the process.

Archbishop Farrell also said the Church and its mission are moving from being “clergy owned” to being truly “owned” by the People of God. I’m sure the Archbishop meant what he said, but it’s hard to see any evidence to back it up. Currently, the laity have no property. Even in a parish council, the priest has the last word. Canon law supports the clerical Church every time. We lay people have nothing and are powerless.


It is therefore perhaps not so surprising that the figures obtained for the synodal “listening process” have been mostly unremarkable and, in some cases, disappointing. Traditionally, the laity had a contract with their priests, you pray, we pay – and it worked, until it no longer did.

It is clear from the results of the listening process available to date that many practicing Catholics are satisfied with the sense of parish and community and the worship they receive; they lament the lack of vocations and young people, are angry at the abuse scandals and have hope for the future. But there are few indications that they want to take ownership. They were born and raised in a service church. They want change to come from above. They also fear that “above” will not want to change and will ignore their voice.

So we have mainstream Catholics going to Mass locked in a standoff with their bishops to see if change will happen. Yet those who participated in the focus groups are only a small percentage of the “Faithful.”

This is one of the great weaknesses of the Dublin working group document, building hope. He assumes that the Church is some sort of monolithic group, with a broadly similar understanding of the faith, when in fact it is quite a diverse group, of which the Sunday Mass worshipers are becoming an ever-increasing cohort. more reduced. Despite all the rhetoric, the truth is that the voices of those who do not attend Mass regularly have not been heard.


Where rhetoric meets reality is the fact that the heavy burden still rests on the priest, caught between the demands of his traditional Catholic flock and the demands of his bishop who is under pressure to keep the show on the road and provide a vision for the difficult years to come.

building hope report was a sincere attempt to examine an ecclesiastical issue from an ecclesiastical context. And that I would also see as its main weakness. This is another example of trying to pour new wine into an old wineskin. It assumes that the parish is always a dynamic concept when in fact it is not; it lacks the fundamental possibility of vibrant Christian communities. Better people than me have said it and the theologian Karl Rahner (often quoted by Archbishop Farrell) said it 30 years ago.

In the interview “A Winter Church and the Opportunities for Christianity” in 1984, Karl Rahner, when asked about his Church-wide pastoral strategy for the European Church to face decline, says that a point strategic, and “a particularly important point for me concerns my old question as to whether the Church has an interest in maintaining its system of local parishes, or whether it would not be better, given the problematic nature of my metaphor, to create flowering oases even if there, from a pastoral and ecclesiological point of view, there would be many desert areas between the two.


He continues: “Metaphor can be misleading. But it is wiser to use an inevitably very limited amount of water to produce an oasis somewhere than to spread the limited amount all over the earth.

“I maintain that we must try calmly to create living communities, radically united, which resemble the life of the primitive Church. And I hope that out of their sense of being something special will come a strong sense of mission. Time will tell if we have created truly modern Early Church-inspired communities or just island ghettos that produce lots of hot nests that don’t warm the rest of the world at all. It would be like thermos flasks that keep what’s inside warm but what’s outside is cold.

The Building Hope report assumes that the clergy will remain a central element of a future Church when it is all too obvious that this structure is disappearing. Yet Building Hope puts vocations at the top of its priority list as if we keep wishing it could come true when the fact is that this archbishop will not see a single Dublin diocesan ordination before he retires.

And this is where the recent Dublin diocesan appointments are notable, as we see a sharp increase in the number of ‘double PPs’ – priests who are parish priests of two parishes. Donnybrook PP for example is also Booterstown PP which is in essence the de facto fusion of the two.

I can understand the necessity of why this is happening, but is it fair to the priests involved? Being a parish priest is a demanding job, being parish priest of two parishes seems abusive of the selfless nature of many priests who just want to do their best and give their all. It’s not the archbishop who abuses, it’s the structure that wants to be nurtured, the “show that must go on” at any cost. We are all accomplices. The structure that asks priests for a long time 75 years, ten years after everyone’s retirement, to continue in ministry. In one case I know of (not in Dublin) an elderly priest expressed a wish to retire but was told that if he did he would have to leave the priest’s house. He had nowhere to go so he stayed and continued to say weekly Mass. Isn’t that elder abuse?


Priests do not have wives or children, but they have families, they are brothers, sons, uncles, friends and they have the right to have a full and healthy life. Why should they take on their shoulders the burden of an institution that, despite pleas from laity, priests and theologians over the past 30 years to change and reform, has failed to do so? Why should they suffer because there was no vision among their leaders? Why should they be paid so poorly and then ask them to do more for free?

Dublin held priests’ assemblies in 1981 and 1983. Wider consultation with the people of the diocese was undertaken in 1986 by the Pastoral Development and Renewal team. The resulting recommendations included: training for lay ministry; adult faith formation; renewal of priests; greater involvement of young people; broader and continuous consultation structures; and a pastoral policy including leadership and guidelines for lay ministry.

Then in 2001, the Council of Priests recommended to Cardinal Desmond Connell the holding of a diocesan synod. A new council of priests made a similar recommendation the following year. This was supported by 90% of the priests of the diocese and by 93% of the laity. The hope was “that the synod, unlike other Church assemblies, would be a participatory and collaborative mode of episcopal governance, producing binding decrees and putting in place executive structures and resources to ensure that it has pastoral results rather than simply producing documents”. Despite overwhelming support for the diocesan synod, Cardinal Connell chose not to proceed at this stage due to his impending retirement and left the option open for his successor to proceed. However, Bishop Diarumuid Martin did not consider the time appropriate to do so and the project was therefore abandoned.

And maybe it’s too late now. More vocations are not coming, and the lay people attending Mass are a largely aging small cohort who are not trained or educated enough to take over. It falls to the already aging and often tired clergy to hold the line. Double PPs are just the start, but where does it stop? The only “water” available to the Archbishop to create a “living oasis” is the dwindling numbers of his energetic clergy. But if they are overwhelmed by a workload that essentially only keeps alive “a particular historical form of Church,” then there will be no one left to rebuild.

Renewal and rebirth in Dublin and elsewhere must first recognize the death of the old model, the painful abandonment that will be involved, and then the creative imagination needed to consider the options and possibilities for a rebirth of faith communities.

“The Acts of the Apostles describe vibrant faith communities in the dimensions of faith, servant leadership, hospitality, and social justice. The contributions to the task force consultation demonstrate a thirst for these dimensions in our church today. (Dublin Task Force Report p13).

Perhaps the last word should go to a contributor to this report: “If we want to be a big church – buildings, halls, property, then I need administrative support. If we want to be a small Church, then I need catechists, pastoral assistants, youth workers. If we want to last as long as possible, then I will need a doctor, a psychiatrist, health care”.