It is 145km from Nazareth to Bethlehem. That’s almost exactly the same length as our Diocese, from Bunduff to Athlone. It would take a week to walk that far, and probably more if you were in the final stages of pregnancy. St. Luke tells us that Joseph and Mary left Nazareth to travel together to Bethlehem, to be included in the census ordered by the Emperor, Caesar Augustus. The next thing we hear is that the couple have arrived on the outskirts of Bethlehem, and the time has come for Mary to give birth. St. Luke tells us nothing about the journey. That is left to our imagination.
I found myself imagining what it must have been like for the two of them, walking together all that distance. They were newly married; starting out on a new life together. Soon they would have a baby to care for. What did they talk about on that long journey? What hopes did they share? What anxieties did they carry with them?
You may have heard some talk recently about how the Catholic Church in Ireland is starting out on a Synodal Process. The word Synod literally means to “walk together”. Over the next four or five years, Catholics in Ireland are being invited to set out on a journey together, sharing our hopes, our disappointments and our anxieties and listening attentively to one another. Like Joseph and Mary, and indeed like every newly-married couple, we are being invited to step into the future together, in a spirit of trust.
Joseph and Mary were Jewish by birth and by faith, but they lived in a world dominated by Romans. The Middle East then, as now, was a mixture of many cultures. Catholics in Ireland today need to work out how we can walk alongside people of other religious traditions and people of no faith, sharing the earth which God has given us as our common home. We need to ask ourselves what the Holy Spirit wants us to do and to be in the years ahead.
All of this will involve moving beyond our ‘comfort zone’. We may have to adjust our pace to be able to walk together. Patience and gentleness will be called for, especially when we find ourselves on ‘rough terrain’. As the Bible tells us there will be “a time to be silent and a time to speak”. Who knows where the journey will lead us?
We had actually begun a series of synodal gatherings in the Diocese as far back as early 2020 but, like many things, these were interrupted by Covid-19. Our Diocesan Pastoral Council is now exploring how best we can include as many people as possible in the preliminary conversations that will take place in the Diocese in the coming months. As we set out along our synodal pathway, there may be some unexpected turns, as there were for Joseph and Mary. But if Jesus is with us, as He was with them, and if we are walking together, isn’t that what this is all about?
As Christmas approaches and 2021 draws to a close, I want to offer my condolences to all who have lost family members or friends in the past year, and to those who have suffered other kinds of loss. I take this opportunity to say a word of thanks to our priests, our deacons and to the sisters working in the Diocese and to all the many parish volunteers who have given so generously of their time. I wish you and your families every blessing for Christmas and the coming year. God bless you all.
Bishop of Elphin