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PROCESSES FOR COMMUNAL DISCERNMENT: DIOCESAN SYNODS AND ASSEMBLIES Eugene Duffy* Some years ago the English theologian, Nicholas Lash, reflecting on belief in God in contemporary western culture, repeatedly used the image of a school when referring to the Church.At one point he said, “this, . . . is the kind of school the church exists to be: a place within the wider culture in which contemplativity, attentiveness, openness to truth, all truth, might—even in the present darkness, conflict and confusion—be learned in patient labour waiting on the ending of God’s utterance, God’s word of peace.”1 The Church at every level is a place of attentiveness and learning, a place of discernment and response to God’s word, calling people into communion of life with one another and ultimately with the community of life that is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Every effort at reform and renewal in the Church has to be grounded in attentiveness to God’s word revealed in the Scriptures, in the life of the whole Church, and in the wider world. Therefore, a diocesan synod or assembly as an exercise in reform and renewal must listen attentively to the promptings of God’s Spirit and in the light of this effect the necessary reform. In the Irish context, within which I work, there have been no diocesan synods since the end of Vatican II; but practically every diocese has had some form of assembly since the early 1980’s. It is these, rather than synods , that have been used to effect renewal at the diocesan level. I suspect that, consciously or otherwise, the assemblies were deemed to be more flexible and possibly more effective instruments of renewal and reform than synods. As Giles Routhier has observed, a formal synod is not necessarily always an expression of the synodality of the Church; nor is synodality confined to the convocation of formal synods.2 Obviously, from a juridical perspective they are different realities. Nevertheless, the 1997 The Jurist 71 (2011) 77–90 77 * Mary Immaculate College, University of Limerick, Limerick, Ireland 1 “Among Strangers and Friends: Thinking of God in our Current Confusion,” in Finding God in all Things: Essays in Honour of Michael Buckley, SJ, eds. Michael J. Himes and Stephen J. Pope, (NewYork: Crossroad, 1996) 62. 2 See comments by Giles Routhier, “Amérique du Nord. Pratiques synodales au Canada,” in Synods and Synodality: Theology, History, Canon Law and Ecumenism in new contact. International Colloquium Bruges 2003, eds. Alberto Melloni and Silvia Scatena (Münster: Lit Verlag, 2005) 345–346. 78 the jurist Instruction on Diocesan Synods does suggest that the principles governing synods should also in general govern other diocesan assemblies.3 However, their pastoral outcomes and effectiveness in a local church can be very similar. In this paper I propose to review, firstly, but briefly the theological nature of the synod and assembly, as this work has already been more than adequately done by others. I then propose to look more extensively at the nature and theological significance of the discernment process. Finally, I will suggest that this process is one that may provide some compliment to the juridic accent normally associated with synodal gatherings and their processes. What is a Diocesan Synod? The Directory for the Pastoral Ministry of Bishops describes the diocesan synod as “a consultative gathering or assembly, convoked and chaired by the Bishop, to which priests and other faithful of the particular Church are called . . . so as to help the Bishop in his task of leading the diocesan community.”4 In summary the same document states: “[I]t is an act of episcopal governance and an event of communion.”5 It is a means for assisting the bishop in advancing “the good of the whole diocesan community.”6 The synod provides an opportunity for the bishop to exercise his teaching role in the Church, “discerning, instructing and correcting ,” so that all may know and share in the same ecclesial faith. Already, these statements with their emphasis on the role of the bishop could easily obscure the fact that a synod or a diocesan assembly is not simply the affair of the bishop but is an event that...


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