The return of the Bishop of Northampton, Rt Rev Peter Doyle to his former parish at Winchester to talk about his experiences at the Synod on the Family, together with Fr Daniel O’Leary’s reflections on family spirituality, attracted huge interest. 110 delegates packed into St Peter’s Pastoral Centre at last Saturday’s day conference hosted by the Catholic movement – A Call To Action ‒ the first time that a bishop has attended a major ACTA event.


What next for the family? opened with a note of support from Portsmouth’s Bishop Philip Egan and in prayer. Listening and sharing with each other was a theme that infused the day. As Bishop Peter put it, in discussing the Synod, ‘Listening to each other where we both have something to learn’.

The audience were delighted by Bishop Peter’s account of how, having survived the VIP lounge with Cardinal Nicholls, and having been taken by private car to the steps of the plane, they then took their economy seats to Rome. Bishop Doyle said he found the experience of the Synod ‘unique, exhilarating and exhausting’. He had read pre-Synod representations made to him but found it hard because of the often ‘diametrically opposed views’ that had been expressed. He had found himself in discussion group ‘D’ which became nicknamed the ‘dogma’ group because of some of the trenchant views expressed. In his allotted 3-minute speech he exhorted his colleagues to be merciful, asking ‘Have none of you had to experience mercy in your life?’

He said that the Pope had been very approachable and encouraging asking delegates to ‘speak honestly, without deference and to listen with an open heart.’ Adding ‘Don’t worry about the unity of the Church. That’s my responsibility.’

Dealing with the huge cultural differences was ‘a challenge’ and Bishop Doyle noted a certain tiredness in western Church delegates compared with a more lively enthusiasm from some of the Asian and African delegates.

The emphasis throughout was on a focus on the Holy Spirit and of building synodality, but the time was short and this was reflected in the fact that there was insufficient time to cover many issues. Passages of the final document were voted on electronically. Paragraph 86, dealing with access to communion got through by one vote. In not giving a direction on access to communion for the divorced and remarried, Bishop Doyle felt that this left open the possibility of communion against a backdrop of the year of mercy.

Other outcomes were an emphasis on support for marriage between one man and one woman, a renewed focus on preparation for marriage and support post-marriage, and an overall theme of accompaniment and discernment.

Bishop Peter was conscious that ‘some expectations would not be met’. ‘Perhaps’ he added, ‘LGBT issues need a forum of their own.’ Bishop Peter’s presentation was followed by a talk from Fr Daniel O’Leary, who emphasised the importance of recognising God through our everyday lives. ‘God needs our hands, our senses to work through us.’ He said that we need a shift of mind set. Rather than focusing on the distinction between the sacred and secular, we need to see how ‘every experience is a meeting with God’. If we fully understand that ‘the whole divinity of God came through the body of a woman, we could overcome our anxiety and fear of women in leadership roles and ordination.’ Likewise, Fr O’Leary argued that the rule of celibacy as an obligation for the clergy was inappropriate ‘Do we think compulsory celibacy has a higher level than marriage?’ It is ‘in the love of one another that we touch God’s face.’

The conference received a short presentation of ACTA’s research, The smell of the sheep. Andrew Hornsby-Smith said ‘There was an overwhelming call for a more merciful and welcoming Church to those in so-called “irregular” relationships, He added that what families found most helpful were opportunities to meet, to build friendships, to become “an intimate Church”. The supersizing of parishes threatens this. We need a step change in the way we think about lay and clergy ministries.’

The conference had a lively question and answer session, and concluded in prayer. Andrew Hornsby-Smith said that ‘it is wonderful to be part of a Church that is open to dialogue and listening. The success of the day is a reflection on the openness and insights offered by the speakers. We owe Bishop Doyle and Fr O’Leary a great deal.’

Andrew Hornsby-Smith

Photos: Jennifer Taylor

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