15 Apr 2016

Limerick Diocesan Synod 2016 – A personal reflection

After what has been both a very quick but also a very long eighteen months the event which was Limerick’s Diocesan Synod has come and gone. But what has the process of synod meant?

As delegates we have walked the camino together answering the invitation from Bishop Brendán in his pastoral letter Together in Mission: A Time to begin again. With laughter, tears, moments of frustration and prayer we have worked our way through twenty three different events with many hours of efforts and prayers! Reflecting on the process of synod and what it has meant for us over the last year and a half will take time, discerning exactly what it has meant for each of us personally. As our unofficial Synod spiritual director Jessie Rogers has reminded us throughout the journey, becoming a synodal church is a prayerful process and we need to take time and space to be able to formulate where God is leading us. It has been a novel experience for Irish Catholics but something which  but over the last few days since that final dismissal at St John’s cathedral a couple of images and thoughts have been swirling around and which I thought to share.

Rublev’s Icon of the Trinity – Synod as an invitation to a dialogue of the community in communion

Back in October 2014, we had one of our first sessions or gathering of synod delegates at the Raddisson Hotel where we were introduced to the concept of being Hunter Gatherers of Hope and Opportunity as we set out on the Listening Process as part of Synod. It seems a long time since Chris Schoch lead us through the steps in opening up the synod to the wider diocesan community and showing us how to facilitate that listening process. It was a nerve wracking moment as we realised just exactly what would be involved – actually having to ask people deep questions about their faith!

At that event we are were asked to bring along some item which spoke to us about what synod meant to us and to share it with other delegates - my item was a copy of Rublev’s 15th century icon of the Trinity. This particular icon is one of my favourite icons along with the Madonna & Child from the Basilica of St Bartholomew in Rome. It is one icon which I can spend time with and each time notice something new or see something in a different way.
“Called by its traditional Eastern name it is known as “The Hospitality of Abraham.” It depicts the three angels who visited Abraham near the great trees of Mamre (Gen 18: 1-15), but has long come to be seen as an icon of the Trinity; although it must be said that it is far from clear that that the intention of the “writer” was to identify each of the three figures as a particular member of the Trinity. Tradition does however suggest that the central, and thus pivotal figure in the icon, is Jesus Christ incarnate.””[1] But in the context of Synod it was also reflective about being Eucharistic.

"The table or altar lies at the centre of the icon. It is at once the place of Abraham's hospitality to the angels, and God's place of hospitality to us". That ambiguity lies at the heart of communion, at the heart of worship, at the heart of Synod! “As soon as we open a sacred place for God to enter, for God to be welcomed and adored, it becomes his place. It is we who are welcomed, it is we who must 'take off our shoes' because of the holiness of the ground”[2].
As the blogger Paul Fromant[3] makes the point “one of the first features to draw your attention in Rublev’s icon is its inherent invitation – an empty seat at the table beckons you. But, “how”? How is it possible for us to enter into this relational mystery – to sit, as it were, at the table? How do we move from talking about God (as Trinity) to a way of relating too and being in relationship with this tri-personal God?”  And it was that idea of being invited into a sacred sharing which was one of the first things that struck me about Synod.
Each Synod encounter was to become a Sacrament of Encounter where we were ministering to each other. It sounds very theological and pie in the sky but easier said than done! Irish people tend to be forthright and when it comes to things we are passionate about like our faith and our church we don’t tend to hold back! We challenged and consoled each other throughout the various sharing’s and open forums, moments of drama and reflection but overall with patience and forbearance without any hasty reactions to see where the process would lead and ultimately to come back to being a praying community in communion with each other (more or less!).
It was very much something that Fr Paul Philibert picked up in his address in November 2015. Being on pilgrimage together brought us into contact with people who we might not readily journey with if we had a choice. It is a reminder that in synod “We journey together toward this dynamic sign from different starting points. We come with distinct roles, different talents, varied preoccupations, and diverse experiences. But we meet as peers: all of us baptized into Christ, anointed by the Spirit, and called to the work of building up the church”. And we needed to be realistic about what that meant for us as delegates in the work we were undertaking and the humility and patience we needed with our fellow pilgrims on the way recognising our mutual giftedness in the journey. It is also a reminder that baptism is the qualification for participating in synod, not whether one is ordained or not or has theology qualifications to your name.
Synod Candle – A light in the darkness? Passing on the Light of Faith
On the evening of 3rd April, Bishop Brendan Leahy officially opened the Limerick Diocesan Synod 2016 at a joy filled Mass in St John’s Cathedral. The first synod in Ireland in around 50 years and the first in Limerick in 80 years it was – as Bishop Brendan reminded us – providential that our synod would be opening on Divine Mercy Sunday in the Extraordinary Jubilee Year of Mercy and that the following day (4th April) the icon of Our Lady of Perpetual Help would be processed through the streets of Limerick.
One of the more moving parts of the liturgy for me was the lighting of the Synod candle. To be honest I don’t know why but for some reason it touched me deeply. Coming a week after the Easter Vigil I hadn’t expected it to raise so many emotions and thoughts to mind but the very act of lighting the Synod Candle from the Paschal candle seemed to bring our work over the last eighteen months into focus and to say, after all our journeying together, the initial phase of this part of the synod camino seemed to have the beginning of the end in sight.

The lighting of a candle can seem a very simple thing. In our modern world we seemed to have rediscovered the humble candle. But that simple act of lighting the candle brought to mind a kaleidoscope of personal memory and thoughts:

·         The primary one was of images of standing as godfather for my nephew at the same font which I was baptised and that line from the rite of baptism where the priest said to us “Receive the light of Christ. Parents and Godparents, this light is entrusted to you to be kept burning brightly. This child of yours has been enlightened by Christ. He is to walk always as a child of the light. May he keep the flame of faith alive in his heart. When the Lord comes, may he go out to meet him with all the saints in the heavenly kingdom.” It was a reminder why I had started out on this camino, to ensure that in our diocese of Limerick we kept that light alive and burning to hand on as we had received it.

·         Roaring bonfires at Easter vigils in many different places with Muintearas Iosa,  with the singing of seven to eight different Alleluia’s to truly celebrate Easter and mark our Easter joy which was very much my experience of an Eaglais Oige in Limerick. A reminder that I wanted other young people to have that experience of joy and sharing which has so shaped my understanding of faith and church.

·         A church yard in Khartoum, Sudan which shares a compound with the local mosque. The Paschal fire burning brightly beside a shrine to Our Lady of Lourdes to which the local Muslim women in particular visit daily. The fuel in the fire from trees surrounding the local mosque donated to the church for our festival in a sign of neighbourliness – a reminder of those for whom public profession of faith is an illegal act but that amidst the conflict community still matters no matter what. A reminder that we are part of the catholic or universal church and that this building up of the church in Limerick would be as much for my friends and former neighbours in Sudan and Uganda.

·         Finally a reminder of Paschal candles standing at the head of two coffins. In the eighteen months of this camino, I had lost two companions on the way, my grandmother and a good family friend and fellow delegate Fr Jim Noonan. One of the last things I did for my grandmother before she was taken to hospital for the last time was to give her a copy of the Synod prayer card. Fr Jim had been a fellow delegate and the debrief and discussion of all events synod related was as much part of the camino process as the preparatory commission meetings on the first Thursday of every month.

So many people have said to me lately that the world is a scary place. There seems to be an enveloping darkness around us, a miasma of despair and fatalism. Coming after the celebration of Easter we should be rejoicing and reminding ourselves that we are an Easter people and Alleluia is our song!

As the synod candle was lit it was a reminder from St John that “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” (John 1:5) Or as Isaiah reminds us, The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.” (Isaiah 9:2).  

St. John of the Cross’s poem, “On a Dark Night,” captures the invisible force of the darkness leading us to the illuminating joy of God the lover:

Oh, night that guided me,
Oh, night more lovely than the dawn,
Oh, night that joined Beloved with lover,
Lover transformed in the Beloved!
God is always calling us to the light, transforming what feels like bleak emptiness into a joy-filled abiding with God, a divine light that the darkness cannot overcome.
The psalmist reminds us that Easter means we should be people of hope, people of encouragement and that synod reminds us of that responsibility, to be messengers of hope!

“Awake my soul, awake lyre and harp, I will awake the dawn” (Psalm 57)
Or again in Psalm 41

“Why are you cast down my soul, why groan within me? Hope in God; I will praise him still, my saviour and my God”

Icon of the Transfiguration – Synod as a Mount Tabor moment

The Transfiguration is one of my favourite events in the Gospels. It speaks to me in so many ways and I have been able to reflect on it on many occasions. And for the participants of Synod, it was like a Tabor moment where we went aside with the Lord and some companions on the way. Mary Immaculate may not have been a mountain but we have walked far to get to the actual event of Synod itself. While we were there I think it would be fair to say we had a theophany or manifestation of the Lord. Not in clouds and voices from the heavens, but in the gathering of people in community and communion with one another (“Where two or three are gathered in my name……), gathered in prayer and openness to see what way the Spirit would blow and at the end echoing the words of St Peter “it was good for us to be here”.

We had our Moses figures representing the freedom of the law and doctrine as set out by previous generations, freedom in the sense of exploring the outer peripheries but in communion with those who had explored before. We had our Elijah figures representing the prophetic and the need to go to the margins, to remind us of the calls of social justice and the need to be respond to the ecological crisis which is engulfing the planet.

And while there in communion and fellowship there were moments when we could have been St Peter and the other disciples. Moments when you didn’t want to have to face back out into the hostile world. When it was pleasant to be with people of similar mind who didn’t regard you as a lunatic fringe because you regard faith as being an important and integral part of what it means to be human.

But the important part of the story of Mount Tabor is not just the event of the Transfiguration which strengthened the apostles for what was to come; but rather the important thing is to come down from the mountain and how hard that will be and what it means after coming down.

As Bishop Brendán reminded us “If the synod were to be no more than an event of a few days, it would probably be a waste of time. The risk being that it will only produce a report to gather dust on the shelf. The Synod will have to mark a real step forward, indicating a realistic pathway of genuine renewal for all of us who feel faith is important. For the Synod to be successful it will need to touch each one of us personally. It will have to be underwritten by a “soul” dimension”.

Back in November 2014 Fr Paul Philibert set out the challenge of Synod and its impact as us - what would it all mean? “When all is said and done and the Acts of the Synod are published what will it mean for Limerick that we have held a synod? What will it mean for the mission of the diocese of Limerick and its self-understanding of itself?” Fr Philibert posed the challenge to us in terms of the call by Pope Paul VI for the church to rediscover that it is called to be evangelisers in the world ‘The task of evangelizing all people constitutes the essential mission of the church.’ The church ‘exists in order to evangelize, that is to say, in order to preach and teach, to be the channel of the gift of grace’ to the world. Paul VI also insisted: ‘The church is an evangelizer, but she begins by being evangelized herself.… She has a constant need of being evangelized, if she wishes to retain freshness, vigor and strength in order to proclaim the gospel.’

Fr Paul reminded us, “You are being invited to move beyond lethargy, beyond apathy; to let go of anger and frustration; to risk going beyond pain and fear. You are being asked to become less self-centred, self-concerned, and see yourselves and everything else in a new way…....The synod could be an invitation to enter a new age of hope and discovery, a new age of joy and investment, leading to new challenges but also to deeper peace. It is a chance for a spiritual freedom that will allow you to rediscover the call of your Lord and Saviour and to respond from the depths of your heart with generosity and creativity………….I asked, “What will the synod mean for you?” The answer of course will be different in each case. But for everyone it will mean taking responsibility for the gifts that we have been given and bringing them to life. It will mean becoming Christian in the world for the sake of the world. It will mean learning how to become a sacrament of divine love.”

As Bishop Ken Kieran reminded us in St Johns, Synod is over, it is an end of the beginning, now truly the work begins.

Synod is over, let the work commence!

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