Personal Reflections on the Synod of Bishops with lay women and men in Rome October 2023

Many of us in our parishes in the Diocese of Leeds had an opportunity before the October Synod 2023 to discuss some of the issues facing the Catholic Church.

Our feedback was sent to the Diocese to be considered, to go forward ultimately to the Synod. So, instead of being a top- down process, it started at the grass roots around the world and responses were synthesised – all brought together – at diocesan, Bishops’ Conference and Continental levels. Our Bishop Marcus Stocks along with John Wilson, the Archbishop of Southwark, represented the Bishops’ Conference at the Synod, and a number of lay people, including Professor Anna Rowlands of Durham University, went to Rome to take part in the Synod. This inclusive approach was promising.

Preparation did not happen in some parishes, but it is not too late to become involved now and encourage others to do so. The Synod Part 2 meets in Rome in October 2024. Inevitably some ideas in October 2023 got diluted or left out during the synodal process, but I think us older people have become accustomed to knowing this is what can happen in all walks of life, and to continue to concentrate on the important things – and not to give up.

I hope that if you read through to the end of this Reflection you might find some aspects to feel engaged and optimistic about…

What relevance does this all have for us older people? I think it is important for us to be involved in this worldwide consideration of the future facing the Church for a number of reasons. 

The Synod Part 2 takes place in October 2024 so there is not much time. There are a number of worthwhile issues to consider that were raised last October – to feed back to Rome in the autumn. The Synodal process has emphasised the importance of priests and people listening, speaking and working together, which is key for the future.

I know many of us acknowledge the future of the Church will be in the hands of younger generations, but we have a voice too…and hugely valuable experience to impart! Older people have years of experience in our families, parishes, charities and church organisations and encouragement to offer to younger people during this synodal process. We are the ones who have experienced the reforms of Vatican 11 in the 1960s and can see what still needs to happen.

A Summary Report of the First Session of the Synod was written, and I quote from its 41 pages below.


It was proposed that “each local church equip itself with suitable and trained people to facilitate and accompany processes of ecclesial discernment.” (page 8.) “Among all the baptised there is a genuine equality of dignity and a common responsibility for mission, according to each person’s Vocation. By the anointing of the Spirit who “teaches all things’ (1Jn.2:27) all believers possess an instinct for the truth of the Gospel, called sensus fidei,” (page 9)…which can lead to a consensus of the faithful (consensus fidelium),” as at the Synod, “which is a sure criterion for determining whether a particular doctrine or practice belongs to the apostolic faith “(page 9.) Stated at the beginning of the Report, this potentially allows for inspired thinking at every level from lay people and clergy. It is encouraging for the future but we need to act on it now.

Throughout the Report references are made to more decision making in the future at diocesan level, rather than in Rome. Pope Francis has previously said this e.g. over pastoral decisions being permitted at diocesan level about divorced and remarried Catholics receiving Communion. It seems to me that he has continually been trying to devolve decision making during his papacy. Here it is reiterated and timely for inspired, sensitive to culture, inclusive, localised thinking. In my view we need to encourage our Bishops and people to work together on these ideas.

Women in the Church

It was stated (page 21) that “women constitute the majority of those who attend churches.” However, “clericalism, machismo and inappropriate use of authority continue to scar the face of the Church.” (page 22). There is a hint of considering inclusive language in liturgical texts (Page 23). Research on women deacons is to be continued and hopefully results presented next October.  There have already been two Commissions which have not yet agreed to women deacons. (I know of many women who support women as deacons, while not wanting to clericalise the diaconate.) Women being included on theological programmes, seminary teaching and women judges in canonical trials are proposed. (page 23.) If we agree with these ideas, we can continue to voice them.

Seminary Training

Seminary Training should be more “linked to the daily life of communities,” so there was some mention of reform (page 25.) The Report says compulsory celibacy needs to be further discussed. I have been told that  married priests are mentioned once, in the 41 pages of the Summary Report but I cannot find the reference. 

Clerical abuse

The potential conflicting difficulty in abuse cases where a Bishop is both father and judge was raised (page 28.) However, dealing effectively, promptly and consistently with clerical abuse has to be continually tackled as it is so damaging and is a top priority to people of all denominations and faiths.

Attentive listening

Synodal working and the more transparent and active relationships between the Roman Curia, Cardinals, Bishops ” and more attentive listening to the voice of the local churches” was raised (page 29.)

Formation of all

Education for all, including lay people was mentioned and is a theme that, in my experience, is expressed all the time in meetings. How to listen to each other, especially with complex issues including painful excluding issues, was also raised.


For me, one of the most promising pointers from the Synod was that Bishops, women and men met in small groups to listen and speak in turn at round tables. This was instead of sitting in serried rows at previous Synods to listen, as spectators. There were some speakers in October, but apparently people remained at tables. This, to me, was a powerful symbol of the Synod.

So, where does this leave us older people? 

A lot of preparatory work, offered to all parishes, but which included some of us, was undertaken, and the feedback we got from the first parish sessions was useful. We didn’t get feedback from our second parish sessions, I understand this was because the administration of it became overwhelming.  However, feedback would have been useful for each of our parishes who took part.

Those who attended the Synod in Rome worked hard at a large number of issues. Christopher Lamb, until recently Rome Correspondent at The Tablet, described it as a consultative rather than a deliberative assembly. This might account for the numerous proposals raised, rather than decisions made. Is there time in our Diocese to come up with draft action plans for some of those proposals by next October for the Synod Part 2?

I think many of us over the years have raised the need for more adult theological and pastoral education locally and globally. There are some courses available but they are expensive, at a distance and few locally. Let us hope this situation changes soon as there are fewer Priests and Religious working in the Diocese, and an ever greater need for more lay people (paid and voluntary) working at all levels.

Mention of the role of women and the presence of around 40 women attenders with voting rights was, personally to me, very welcome. Ideas of how to include more women at all levels were not clear but is happening in some of the Departments in Rome. However, yet again the proposal for women deacons was, for the third time, deferred for more discussion. Deciding how women can be assimilated into the current clerical structures has to be worked out without adding to clericalism, but decisions need to be made soon either way. Many younger women, with this kind of calling, accustomed to equal opportunities in secular life are walking away.

The use of exclusive language about ‘men and brothers’ in liturgical readings to congregations with a majority of women, in my view, has to change now. Many of us already make inclusive language changes but this needs to be approved officially and the sign it would give would be powerful.

To conclude, for many of us these issues have been raised before.  For us older people we have the life experience and some acquired confidence to encourage our parishes and priests to discuss and act on these issues. This can be done formally at diocesan level, Parish Pastoral Councils, parish meetings and in homilies. It can also be raised informally wherever we are at: after Mass at coffee, at prayer groups, with friends and people we don’t yet know around us. We have now been given the opportunity to speak and listen to each other, and to try and give some feedback to parishioners, priests and our Bishop about what we think and feel. 

What do you think?

Pippa Bonner, GOG Trustee January 2024

The Synodal Process – a response from Growing Old Grace-fully

As well as being involved in each of our parishes, the trustees of Growing Old Grace-fully wanted to highlight the voice and needs of older people in this listening process.

A group of the board members got together and drew up a response on the relevant topics in the framework, this is what we submitted:

Growing Old Grace-fully – response to the Synod listening exercise in the Diocese of Leeds

Growing Old Grace-fully is an independent charity based in the Diocese of Leeds and have been working in the diocese for over 10 years.

Our aim is to:

To enhance the spiritual, emotional, and physical wellbeing of older people across the Catholic Diocese of Leeds through raising awareness, inspiring and supporting responsive action in parishes.

We are making a separate submission based on our substantial experience of listening to older people in our parishes.

The term ‘older people’ covers a very wide age range and several life stages: in our society, younger older people (60+) may enjoy (depending on their life chances) 20 years or so of active life with good health, when they will volunteer in their community including the parish, provide childcare for grandchildren and may be supporting older relatives and friends, at the same time. For many, this will be followed by a period of declining health when support from family or agencies is needed before death.

Longer life is a great blessing for individuals and families and for wider society but the later stages of life present challenges to the individual, to those who love them and to wider society, as health declines and the need for support and care increases.  Life expectancy is increasing in most countries in the world and different issues arise depending on the relative proportions in the population of younger and older people.

Longer life expectancy – a sign of our time – needs to be pondered to discern what God is saying to us and how we should respond. A theme of Growing Old Grace-fully’s work is the vocation of later life: ‘Called to be Old’.

(Another feature of our time is the decrease in the number of priests and religious in the local church, many of whom are themselves older people. How can we ensure that they continue to be included, supported and able to contribute their wisdom and experience?)

Who are our journey companions and who is marginalised?

Older people often have a wide network of friends in the parish whom they have known over many years and take for granted that these people are their companions in life and in faith. There may not be explicit faith sharing unless people belong to a group which prays, reflects and acts together but there is an implicit bond.

As friends die and perhaps the composition of the parish changes, older people are likely to feel more isolated. If they become housebound, they are likely to lack companions on their faith journey especially if their family members have lost connection with Church.

If people go into a care home, they may become completely cut off from their worshipping community and from the support of the sacraments.

We need (formal and informal) ways to follow up people who ‘disappear’ to find out if they wish to stay in touch with the parish and what support they would like. Quaker meetings appoint members to roles of responsibility – overseers – for a given term: 2 periods of 3 years. Their ‘task is building a community in which all members find acceptance, loving care and opportunities for service.’  Other denominations have ‘pastoral stewards’ and of course often in parishes the SVP can play this role.

We have developed a specific model to formally ensure a more systematic approach to ensuring that our older people are still included in parish life.

A Lay Chaplaincy for Older People in parishes and/or deaneries would fulfill this role. The chaplain will be there to provide a listening presence, companionship, and one-to-one pastoral support for older people in a parish. Their person-centred approach will help them deliver support with warmth, compassion, humour, mutual respect, strength, and hope, aiming to inspire and provide stimulation. More specifically, working closely with relevant parish groups such as the SVP and supported by the Parish Priest, the Lay Chaplain’s role will be to help get to know older people in the parish and particularly those who have mobility issues or other conditions that make them at risk of being isolated.  The Chaplain will be the first port of call for ministering to older people in the parish, particularly at times when sustained spiritual support is most needed.  They will be able to inform the priest when and if sacramental care is needed.  If appropriate and possible, the Chaplain will aim to build a group of volunteers to help to support the work. (we have a small amount of funding to pilot this model).

NOTE: Read more about this model HERE

Listening and speaking out, how might the RC church listen to lay people, women and minorities and those who are not respected?

This question is framed in a way that reveals an underlying assumption that lay folk are not ‘church’.  We believe that ‘we’ are the Church.

Housebound older people and those in care homes are a marginalised group without a voice. Older people have expressed concern that church concentrates on young people and ignores the needs of older members.

In 2018 we asked some of our supporters about their experience of parish life, this reinforced our concern that there is too much reliance on informal connections and that older and other vulnerable people slip through the net and become marginalised.

They also said that church stands out as a place where generations mix at Mass, but there’s less evidence of more structured opportunities for support/learning.

Programmes addressing the spirituality of ageing or taking ageing seriously are not available.

There are not enough structured programmes to help support people in bereavement, or anything specific that helps people cope with the varied losses that can come with long life.

Listening and speaking out are interdependent: people speak out when they are listened to; otherwise they won’t bother. Intergenerational structures are needed through which people can express their needs, share their insights, listen to the experience of others, and discern how they can contribute and work together for the common good of church and world. (see later response)

Older people have a wisdom, experience and skills that they can share, whether developed from their working life or through being part of the parish community.  We hope that their experience of listening, dialogue, creating and celebrating liturgies, experiencing lay leadership and years of co-responsibility in different ways in their parishes and dioceses, and navigating change in the past will be valued as we journey through the synod process.


The closure of churches in the early part of the pandemic opened opportunities for us to experience liturgies celebrated across the world as well as locally, provided that we are digitally enabled. Some older people who have participated in on-line liturgies would like them to continue; this would be a boon for housebound people as well as those who still do not feel confident about returning to a crowded church.

However, we recognise that most people want to be part of a community that is physically present to each other, for the social interaction as well as celebrating Mass together.

We also need to be aware that some older people are not digitally confident and may feel excluded by too much reliance on online participation

(Some) Older people have also expressed a wish for occasional community celebrations of the Sacrament of the Sick and Reconciliation.

Co-responsibility in mission

The experience of Growing Old Gracefully is that as well as those older people who need additional support, many older people are active in their parishes, taking on a range of tasks and running parish groups. They and others may also be active in and/or leading local action: supporting asylum seekers and refugees, homeless people, food banks, isolated older people, looking after vulnerable neighbours, contributing their time, energy and skills (and money) to charities caring for the vulnerable and to campaigns for justice such as development in the global South, combating the climate crisis and many other good causes. They may see these actions as being part of being good citizens; they may know that their involvement springs from their faith and love of neighbour and is part of the Church’s mission. This involvement needs to be recognised and affirmed.

Dialogue between the generations

Pope Francis’ message for World Peace Day 2022, outlined three paths for building lasting peace. One was the “dialogue between generations as the basis for the realisation of shared projects.”

He noted dialogue demands trust between people who need to listen to one another, share different views, reach agreement and walk together. This he says is especially important between generations: “between the keepers of memory – the elderly – and those who move history forward – the young.”

The Pope’s words can apply to international, national and local groups. Within dioceses and parishes who are rebuilding activity after periods of Covid lockdown, different generations are working and praying together, listening to each other and moving forward together. Inter-generational working is key for our religious organisations and churches as we journey through Covid, towards the Synod and beyond.

Some examples of intergenerational dialogue include

  • the older person mentoring younger people in ways of serving their parish. The list can be endless but includes parish ministries, liturgy, prayer groups, and other parish groups and activities. Many older people have experience of lay leadership and co-responsibility with the clergy and are often willing to encourage others to gain confidence and experience as “they pass on the baton.”. 
  • One older parishioner has become friendly with a mother who has spirited young children. She affirms the mother, sits with the family at Mass and helps the mother take them up for a Blessing at Communion. She also lights up the room at parish coffee time. This example will be replicated elsewhere.
  •  Some older people are prayer sponsors, take an interest in younger people and model strength, determination, and humour.
  • Other older parishioners accept help from younger people, accept lifts home and older people also offer lifts to those younger than themselves! At a parish exhibition of photos and reminiscences from past wars older people participated with reminiscences from previous generations about war experiences and helped younger people to hear about the effects of war on local people.

This contribution is based on our work of listening and responding as older people with other older people in the diocese over the last 10 years and we hope that it highlights the gifts that older people bring to the Church and to the needs of the most marginalised.