Synodality 3: Participation – Making Space for Grace

Columban Fr Paul McMahon is a counsellor at the Survivors of Trauma Centre in Belfast, which he describes as “a safe environment in which to heal, grow and encounter. A place where our traumas can be transformed through making space for Grace”.

The theme of the upcoming 16th Synod of Bishops in October 2023 is, ‘For a Synodal Church: Communion, Participation, and Mission’. Reflecting on the theme of participation, I believe it is an invitation to the worldwide Church to ‘create the space for Grace’, where we can heal, grow and encounter. To give voice to our thoughts through a period of personal reflection, discussion and expression. Here we are encouraged by the words of Jesus, “Where two or three meet in my name, I shall be there with them.” (Mt 18:20)

Just as a gardener doesn’t just observe the pretty flowers in their garden but gets their hands dirty in examining the soil and gives time to nurture their charges, so, we too are called to play our part, to dig deep and examine what we love and appreciate in our Catholic faith. As Pedro Arrupe said, “What you are in love with, what seizes your imagination, will affect everything.”

Any member of a Church will participate to the extent that they feel they belong to that Church and that their contribution will be appreciated. But what can really stop us from participating is not only our own negative experience of Church but even the stories we hear of how others were excluded and not valued. Therefore, let us not be afraid of the difficult topics. A human body, in order to be healed, must first acknowledge its wounds. It is the same with the Church.

I know from counselling that when affected by shame, we can fall into one or more responses. To ‘withdraw and deny’, to ‘blame others’, to ‘blame oneself’ or to ‘avoid the issue’. Therefore, to participate well, I would suggest some spring cleaning of our assumptions and presumptions. To create a level ground on which to participate. For example.

  1. Name our present feelings about our Church. Do we have enthusiasm, disappointment or apathy. Emotions are like a compass that tell us what direction we are going.
  2. Gather to our awareness all our assumptions, prejudices and biases.
  3. Apply critical judgement. Are they true? Where were they born? Are they helpful?
  4. Transformation – what needs to change in my perception and what may need to change in the Church?

It may also be helpful to acknowledge, ‘What stage am I at on my personal journey in life?’ We know from psychologists like Joan Erikson that as we get older we can lose our positivity, creativity and desire to engage socially. Our age may hold us back from getting involved and participating as we might have done at an earlier age.

But as Joan Erikson advocates, try to nurture ‘basic trust’ in ourselves and others. So, let’s trust in ourselves, trust in our Church and trust in the Holy Spirit. This allows us to move on to a more expanded participation, the ‘discussion stage’ with others. As we know thoughts and ideas are the origins of many a good deed but thoughts shared with others have an even greater strength and potential.

Such participation needs to be inclusive of our multicultural society. For our Church community has become enriched by Catholics of varied cultural expressions of faith. But we also need to reach out to those on the fringes of the Church. As we know from scripture, Jesus’ life on earth was bookended by him identifying with those on the margins of his community. Like the shepherds at his birth and the thieves at his crucifixion. He also encouraged the participation of those on the edge, “Go therefore to the ends of the roads and call everyone whom you find to the wedding feast.” Mt 22:9 (Aramaic bible).

Having reflected personally and discussed with others, we move now to the ‘expression stage’ when we put voice to our thoughts by sharing with our respective parishes and dioceses. To bring the ideas we have discussed in the park, the pub or the post office to the priest. To ask our parish priest or parish Sister, “to whom do I write or email? When can we meet? How can I play my part?”

Just as the mighty oceans are made up of tiny drops of water, so each one of us has a significant part to play by participating in the Church Synod and its implementation afterwards.

A challenge for our Church leaders is how best to encourage participation in preparation for the Synod. Will it be the ‘come and see’ approach characteristic of the gentle start of the Gospel where all was familiar, or will it be with the vitality, excitement and danger characteristic of Christ’s last words to the disciples to go and show, “to the ends of the earth” Acts 1:8.

As we prepare for the forthcoming Synod, I find it helpful to see such participation as a personal invitation from Pope Francis, “Will you journey with me?” Any journey does take effort and indeed trust but as the Chinese proverb says, “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step”.

Paul McMahon is a Columban Missionary from Belfast. He has worked in Pakistan. A trained psychotherapist and supervisor, he is now based in Ireland.

First published in the May/June 2022 issue of the Far East magazine. Please subscribe here:

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