Keynote Speaker - Fr Paul Philibert - A Diocesan Synod: Prospects and Responsibilities

A Diocesan Synod: Prospects and Responsibilities


CONVENING a diocesan synod is a way of spiritually re-founding a diocese. Before changing things, a synod aims to rediscover our ecclesial identity as God’s people. God’s dream is for us to be conformed to his Son and to become icons of Jesus Christ. We are called to become Christians in the world for the world’s sake as agents, not clients of the church’s mission.

Using our bodies, our community, our actions, and our attitudes, the Holy Spirit, the great Iconographer, creates an image with God’s people that portrays the kingdom of God. The Spirit does this not by forcing our gestures or our words, our actions or our plans, but by touching us at the source of our thoughts and desires. A synod is very much the fruit of the Spirit’s gifts to us.

For this to happen, however, there must be in us what there was in Christ Jesus – an emptying out. Paul describes in Philippians 2 how Jesus let go of his privileges as God’s Son to take on the form of a servant. In this unimaginable bargain God becomes human so that humans might become divinized. For our part we too must do some emptying out. God’s plan is for a synergy, a wedding of two energies into a single new force. Out of this convergence of our Yes and the Spirit’s action comes an apostolic church. But we must want this new way of living, this synergy, with all our hearts. We will have to let go of old habits and learn new ways of living our Christian life and responsibilities. The synod will help us to name the unusable past and to aim for the necessary future.

The church is not just an old institution with rituals, but a communion of real people with many gifts. We all belong in the one body of Christ. Together we are a sign or sacrament of human communion with God, a sign of peace among brothers and sisters, a sign of passionate purpose in a futile world. [1]This doesn’t happen because we become logically convinced, it happens because the Holy Spirit ‘overshadows’ us and what is born is called the ‘people of God.’ 

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. There are not two bodies of Christ: one clerical, one lay. There is only one ‘dwelling place for God’ built of those who live in Christ. (Eph 2:22) And all those who dwell there have a voice in the synod, something to say about what the Spirit is urging in the hearts of the faithful. (cf Rom 8:26; 1 Cor 2:10-12)

The synod’s purpose is to bear witness to Jesus Christ risen from the dead. Can the diocese of Limerick, its parishes and its people, become a persuasive sacrament of the risen Lord’s presence? Christ shares his Father with us and invites us to intercede for the world around us and to sanctify it as we touch it. Through the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, God configures us to our Saviour through our new pattern of life as disciples. The consequence of this is an awakened people of God who are priestly and apostolic in every member. So first of all the synod will mean a call to rediscover the holiness and apostolic challenge of being a disciple of Jesus. It is an invitation to wake up in the Body of Christ. God needs us not only as devout believers, but also as creative agents of his mercy.

From its earliest days the church, seeking to understand its mission and to solve its pastoral challenges, came together in prayer invoking the Holy Spirit. The first synod we know about is the so-called Council of Jerusalem in 48 A.D. when Paul and Barnabas brought to Peter, James and John the unresolved question of whether the church might move beyond Judaism into the Gentile world. It was a moment of deep crisis, as Acts 15 and Galatians 2 portray it. Its resolution changed history, for Paul and Barnabas were sent back to Antioch with this blessing from the leaders of the Church in Jerusalem: ‘It has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us…’ for you to follow Christ without the burden of circumcision and the Law. (Acts 15:28) Even now, a synod gathers in confidence that the Holy Spirit will accompany, guide, and strengthen the church. At the end of the Diocesan Synod of Limerick, please God, you will say, ‘It has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us…’

Vatican II strongly encouraged the implementation of synods both within dioceses and among dioceses. The council’s decree had in mind, above all, national episcopal conferences. But legislation since Vatican II has clarified and encouraged diocesan synods – a structure that already existed in the Code of 1917. 

The present Code of Canon Law (cc. 460-468) describes the diocesan synod as an assembly that brings the bishop together with his presbyters and his people to assist him in governing his diocese. The bishop is the sole legislator; the authority for the synod’s decrees comes from his approval and promulgation. But those decrees will flow from wide consultation, pastoral dialogue with the people, and profound discernment. The synod will engage the entire Catholic population in sharing their needs and wisdom. 

Together, they will evaluate past programs and propose new pastoral plans. As the bishop and his presbyters provide the gift of their ordained service of word, worship, and governance; the priestly people provide their public expression of prophetic wisdom, their consecration of the world, and their spiritual leadership for families, workplaces, political action, and moral purpose. The re-founding mentioned before will be rooted in the synod’s success in articulating in down-to-earth language the lofty challenge of becoming a living sign or sacrament for the world. It will make the church’s ageless tradition contemporary with current needs and present culture. The re-founding will articulate the apostolic character of the life of all the faithful – a principle that is at the very heart of the New Evangelization.

Canonically, a diocesan synod is a consultative body. It is not a constitutional convention, but a new Pentecost. It invites the Holy Spirit to become visible, present, and active in the midst of God’s people. The Spirit’s action does not allow for ideological pressure, competition, lobbying, or winning or losing points. The synod process involves learning to let go, not of our convictions, but of our compulsions, so that we can find new ways to be in solidarity that transcend our grievances and our differences. Everyone must learn to listen deeply in a new way.



The bishop’s role and his leadership are crucial. He took the initiative to begin all this; in his pastoral letter of convocation he was clear about his desire to engage all the stakeholders in the Church of Limerick. He is seeking new depths of communication, new sources of insight, and new strategies for pastoral life – all coming from the concerted wisdom of the people and ministers of the diocese. This will be a gift to the Catholic Church in Ireland too, where the last diocesan synod was held in the 1950s. 

In his letter of convocation, Bishop Brendan Leahy indicated the obstacles that the synod will have to face. He referred to the ecclesial trauma caused by the revelation of horrible deeds done to children. Those wounds will need to be acknowledged, and clear changes of policy will need to be credible and fully understood. Healing and forgiveness will be on everyone’s mind. Beyond that, the practice of the faith has declined. The majority of our young adults have not settled down into the church as a spiritual home. Also not just Roman Catholics, but the Irish people as a whole find it harder to see the link between faith and culture in these changing times. 
If the synergy between our lives and the Spirit’s gifts is to be effective, then we have some emptying out to do. In recalibrating our understanding of what the church is and what our role within it must be, we must look beyond what we have long taken for granted.



The church of the future will not be the church of our grandparents. Some of us grew up with nostalgia for the ‘man of God’ who was the priest-leader of our parishes generations ago. Our grandparents and great-grandparents knew times of tremendous social and financial hardship. In those days the parish priest was sanctifier, consoler, social activist, and (sometimes) miracle worker. Even if some pastors never carried off everything that this exalted image implies, the esteem it suggested was accorded them because of their role as priests.

But exaggerated ideas of the priest’s role were not good for the ordained nor for the laity who, under such circumstances, could hardly imagine their Christian lives as apostolic. Since then, a downturn in vocations, often flawed catechesis (or no catechesis), the onslaught of pathological media, and generations tuned in to vacuous overstimulation have created a populace addicted to excitation and starved for religious formation. Although we now have vast resources for communication unimaginable to our grandparents, we have effectively lost the deep practical meaning of the Christian life. What on earth might be done about such a predicament? Hold a synod.



The synod implies a journey together, moving toward a new understanding of the nature of the church. Before Vatican II, the idea of the church as ‘Christendom’ was still part of how we saw reality. From the fourth century through the Middle Ages, European civilization was conceived as being governed by divine power. Christian kings held their governance by divine right. But their power was understood to be subservient to the power of the Pope. Through the ages there were variations in this relationship of secular and religious power, but the Reformation first, and then the European revolutions simply rejected the idea of religious (and specifically papal) sovereignty. Even when the popes lost control of those parts of Italy known as the ‘papal states’ in 1870, the idea of the church’s theocratic sovereignty lingered on in the Vatican. The implications of the loss of Christendom are important, since many of our attitudes in the church are still coloured by the ideas of Christendom. But now we are moving from Christendom to charismatic communion, from clerical control to Spirit-led initiatives.

The word charismatic comes from the Greek word charis, meaning gift. I use it here not to refer to the charismatic renewal that is structured around prayer meetings and extraverted spiritual experiences, but rather to refer to all the baptized as a people who receive directly from God gifts that sanctify and empower them even when they don’t recognize this.



In summary, the church of Christendom is a church of rituals, a clerical church in which the faithful are clients of ordained leaders, a church of spiritual comforts in which ‘sacraments’ are found exclusively in church; and a church that is afflicted with nostalgia for an imagined perfect past. In Christendom, only the clergy and religious had a full-time preoccupation about gospel and spirituality. Ordinary lay life was essentially indifferent: prayers, the Mass, the sacraments, and obeying commandments were sacred parentheses within the stream of life. Holiness was imagined as a trickle-down structure.

As Christendom was coming to an end, one wag characterized it this way: Since the time of Pope Gregory the Great, the popes have referred to themselves as ‘the servant of the servants of God’. So then, after Vatican II, will we call bishops ‘servants of the servant of the servants of God’? And priests ‘servants of the servants of the servant of the servants of God’? What then shall we call the laity? Ah, he said, I think we’ll have to call them rich people with a servant problem. The servant problem, of course, is clerics (or anybody else) who imagine that only the ordained live graced, apostolic lives.



On the other hand, the renewed ecclesial world that I am calling a charismatic communion is a church with a living liturgy that extends beyond the 60 minutes of Sunday morning Mass into a life of joyful sacrifice. In this apostolic church all the faithful in their different ways become a benign contagion to ‘infect’ the world with a transforming Spirit. This charismatic communion is not made up of people who go to church, but who are church. They receive the sacraments of the church, but so as to become, as we say in the Eucharistic Prayer III, ‘one body, one spirit in Christ’ – to become the sign-sacrament of Christ. It is a church in which everyone has spiritual riches to distribute, spiritual gifts to give away, and a vocation to witness dynamically to the way divine love changes lives. It is a church where God can be found at the family dining table as well as in the tabernacle. It is a church that is gathered by word and sacrament, but then scattered far and wide to be Christ, to say Christ, and to share Christ throughout the day, throughout a lifetime.

Using the terms of Bishop Fritz Lobinger’s book, Like His Brothers and Sisters, the church of Christendom fostered ‘client congregations’ who saw themselves as utterly dependent upon the clergy for their faith development and who imagined themselves as passive recipients of sacramental gifts from the table of the ordained. Lobinger wrote in a rural African context in which large communities of faithful Catholics have to wait for months for a priest to visit their village or town. He describes lay catechists travelling for days to procure consecrated hosts to bring back to the villagers for Sunday celebrations without a priest. 

Drawing from the theology of Vatican II, Lobinger’s book elaborated possible ways of imagining the faithful not as ‘clients’, but as ‘mutually ministering’ the living Word of God, the celebration of faith, and the works of justice in Christian community. Charismatic communion fosters not passive client congregations, but self-ministering churches who, while hungering for the Eucharistic celebration and eager to return to it, continue to live Eucharist in their lives, their work, and their community.
Independent of the serious question of a shortage of ordained ministers, there is a broader ecclesial question here. How can we foster a movement from passive, client congregations to active, mutually ministering congregations? How can an entire parish community of apostolic members understand themselves as and choose to be evangelizers? How do we move from church as Christendom to church as charismatic communion? As I suggested earlier, we have to let go of some things and learn some things.



Here are some suggestions along that line.
We will need to let go of looking at the Mass as the consecration of bread and wine surrounded by the unimportant ornamentation of readings and songs. That means letting go of Eucharist as a sacred object and entering Eucharist as a communion with God who calls us. What meaning can sacramental synergy have – this mutual gift-giving of the faithful and the Spirit – for those who bring no gift; or who don’t even know that they have a gift to bring? How will they ever understand that they are the realization of the Eucharistic mystery, becoming ‘one body, one spirit in Christ’ for the sake of the world?

We will also have to learn how to celebrate the living Word of God as an essential part of Eucharist in which God is truly present. Scripture can become a living word only if the lectors understand it, are prepared to invest themselves in it, and understand this ministry as a profound gift of themselves to make the scriptures a sacrament of divine revelation. There are two tables in the Mass: the Table of the Word, and the Table of the Eucharist. Often we do not come to the Table of the Eucharist with deep hunger or profound reverence because we have not really been fed at the Table of the Word. Often liturgical readers turn the pages and mouth the words without recognizing the voice of God. God is really present when the Scriptures are proclaimed in the church. (SC, n. 7) Yet we know when we have been fed, and, sad to say, a lot of times we are undernourished at the Table of the Word.

We must stop calculating Christian life only in terms of Masses, Rosaries, and novenas. These were the lifeblood of Catholics in the hard times, and they are due all proper respect. But we can’t think of the saving sacrifice of the Mass as something done for us but without us. What the Second Vatican Council calls ‘spiritual sacrifices’ (LG n. 10) means the self-gift of ordinary life – in the family, at work, in service, and in community-building – ‘offered to the Father in the Eucharist along with the Body of the Lord.’ (LG, n. 34) We go together with Christ in his gift of himself to the Father.
The liturgy synthesizes all of life at the Table of the Eucharist and then expands out again into life. A positive contribution of the Roman Missal III is its inclusion of formulas of dismissal that suggest the missionary nature of the liturgy. ‘Go in peace, glorifying the Lord by your life.’ ‘Go in peace: and announce the Gospel of God.’ We live the liturgy not just under the rafters of the parish church, but in the whole scope of our daily lives.

You are probably familiar with the council’s phrase that calls the Eucharist ‘the source and summit of the Christian life’ (LG, n. 11), but you may not know that the text in which this phrase appears says that the faithful, taking part in the Eucharistic sacrifice that is source and summit, offer the divine victim to God and themselves along with him.

A parallel text mirrors that, insisting that ‘priests [must] teach the faithful to offer the divine victim to God the Father in the sacrifice of the Mass and, with [him], to make an offering of their lives.’ Another Council text says that ‘the laity is given [this] special vocation: to make the church present and fruitful in those places and circumstances where only through them can it become the salt of the earth.’ (LG, n. 33) Elsewhere the Council teaches: ‘The church was founded to spread Christ’s kingdom throughout the world … Every activity of the mystical body with this in mind goes by the name of apostolate … The Christian vocation of its nature is a vocation to the apostolate as well. In the organism of a living body, no member is purely passive.’ (AA, n. 2)

These texts express Vatican II’s essentially missionary vision of the church. Without changing any fundamental teaching of the church, the council chose to let go of an image of the church modeled after Christendom, so as to give new life to the apostolic image of the church from the Acts of the Apostles and the letters of Paul.

So once again, to the question, ‘What will the Synod mean for you?’, we can say that it will pose a series of questions that will shape not only the ministry of the diocese, but the life and witness of its people. Do you want to be clients of an ecclesiastical franchise? Do you want to be observers of sacred, sacramental rites performed for your inspiration and spiritual comfort? Do you want to continue to be part-time Christians who visit churches but live in a lusty world? Or, by contrast, do you want to be an active member of a mutually-ministering community that has the world and its culture in view? Do you want to be agents of a Eucharistic community that together with its priests is constructing a credible sign of Christ-alive? Do you want to be full-time Christians who ‘preach’ at home and at work, in sickness and in health, in sorrow and in joy, always and everywhere?



Bishop Brendan stressed in his letter of convocation the importance of catechesis and study. It is essential that the faithful understand Baptism not as a ritual moment in the past, but as the door to a new life. Good Christians never completely dry off from their baptism. We still do sprinkling at Sunday Mass to remind us of that. 

By Baptism we are grafted on to the vine that is Christ’s body, we are implanted in the paschal mystery of Christ (SC n. 6), we are empowered to offer sacrifice in solidarity with our Saviour’s own gift to his Father (LG, n. 11), and we are deputed to share in the church’s mission (AA, n. 2). By Baptism we come to share in Christ’s priestly, prophetic, and pastoral office, consequently consecrating the world to God by giving everything we touch a new orientation and a new purpose (LG, n. 34). By baptism we are called to holiness: ‘All Christians in whatever state or walk in life are called to the fullness of the Christian life and the perfection of charity.’ (LG, n. 40)



The Council likewise clarified the church’s understanding of priesthood. Jesus Christ himself is the one true priest of the New Covenant – the perfect mediator between God and humanity who is both God and man. (CCC, n. 1545) But ‘the whole community of believers is priestly’, all the baptized. (CCC, n. 1546, LG, n. 10)

This common or universal priesthood includes the ordained as well, of course. For them too sanctification comes through the Spirit’s invocation (‘May those who eat this bread and wine become one body, one spirit in Christ’) and through the offering of their spiritual sacrifices to the Father in solidarity with Christ. 

The doctrine of the universal priesthood of the baptized, far from diminishing the significance of ordained ministry, helps us better understand its crucial importance. Here the ministry of bishops and priests is essential. Their prophetic ministry teaches the faithful to know their full dignity in apostolic life and holiness; their priestly ministry leads the faithful to offer themselves along with Christ; and their pastoral ministry guides the talents and gifts of the faithful toward the fulfillment of the church’s mission. How could people know their apostolic vocation and their dignity as members of Christ’s body without the teaching, celebration, and pastoral imagination of the ordained?
We are entering into an age in which ordained ministry may possess an importance and dignity unknown since the patristic era if we rise to the occasion. For this is to happen, however, we have to let go of clericalism and fully embrace the theology of the people of God.



In 1975, when Pope Paul VI promulgated his apostolic exhortation on evangelization, he summarized in very clear language the heart of the matter. ‘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, vigour and strength in order to proclaim the gospel.’ 

Reflecting the fundamental direction that Pope John XXIII gave to the Second Vatican Council, Paul VI described the new evangelization as entering into all the new structures of humanity and its cultures, all its new technologies and sciences, and all the new challenges of the global world, and ‘making [them] new from within.’ He coined a phrase used many times by Pope John Paul II: ‘The split between the Gospel and culture is without doubt the drama of our time.’ 

A year ago, Pope Francis published his own papal teaching on evangelization under the title ‘The Joy of the Gospel’. There Pope Francis says (n. 164), ‘We have rediscovered the fundamental role of the first announcement or kerygma’; and that needs to be the center of all evangelization and all efforts at renewing the church.

In the 1970s French theologian Pierre-André Liégé, O.P., pointed out the importance of the kerygma, saying:
Most Catholics today were baptized as infants. They never experienced the shock of the kerygma that was visited upon those evangelized by Paul and Barnabas.

Hearing the preaching of those earliest evangelists people must have thought, ‘Can I really believe that God became human? Can I really believe that this human God died and rose from the dead? Can I really believe that through him the Creator of the world and the Source of life invites me into intimacy with God?’ Shocking thoughts: they demand serious consideration – and a decision. A decision for faith or for unbelief.

Most of us have never had that shock. We have received small doses of catechism lessons, Sunday preaching, and possibly an occasional parish mission. But have we been taken by the shoulders and shaken; have we been knocked over the head with the astounding message of God’s love? He who is all became nothing for us; he who is the source of goodness took our sins upon himself that we might find forgiveness and know goodness.



Challenges lie ahead of you. They include forming small communities for discussion and discernment, learning lectio divina, taking part in study opportunities, coming to trust others and to expand your imagination through dialogue. There will be opportunities for study and service at the diocesan level and at the parish level. There will be opportunities for initiatives coming from the grassroots, or for grassroots leadership to mobilize members of the community. The generosity being asked of you by your bishop – and by the Holy Spirit – requires a risk. But if you do risk for the sake of the gospel, there is every chance that you will experience the payoff in these terms:
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-centered, 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 Savior and to respond from the depths of your heart with generosity and creativity.

When I ask, ‘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.

Paul Philibert is a Dominican friar from the U.S. On November 15, 2014, he delivered this address as a keynote for the opening assembly of delegates to the Diocesan Synod of Limerick. He is Promoter for Permanent Formation for his Dominican Province. He has written on church, spirituality, and liturgy – most recently, with Thomas O’Meara, Scanning the Signs of the Times: French Dominicans in the Twentieth Century (ATF Press, 2013).


. Vatican II, Lumen Gentium, Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, n. 1 (hereafter cited as LG).
. Vatican II, Apostolicam Actuositatem, Decree on the Apostolate of Lay People, n. 2 (hereafter cited as AA).
. Decree on the Pastoral Office of Bishops in the Church, n. 36.
. Codex Iuris Canonici [1917], cc. 356-362.
. Fritz Lobinger, Like His Brothers and Sisters: Ordaining Community Leaders (New York: Crossroad, 1999).
. Vatican II, Sacrosanctum Concilium, Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, n. 56, (hereafter SC); Vatican II, Dei Verbum, Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation, n. 21.
. Vatican II, Presbytorum Ordinis, Decree on the Ministry and Life of Priests, n. 5.
. Catechism of the Catholic Church, n.1988 (hereafter cited as CCC).
. Pope Paul VI, Evangelii Nuntiandi (On Evangelization in the Modern World), n. 14: (hereafter cited as EN).
. EN n. 15.
.EN, n. 18
. EN, n. 20