LEICESTER, United Kingdom – Ireland’s Catholic bishops have announced they will embark on a “synodal pathway” for the Church and hold a National Synodal Assembly within the next five years.

The bishops made the announcement at the end of their annual Spring Meeting, which took place virtually due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The prelates called it a “pivotal time” for the Church in Ireland, and acknowledged they were “acutely aware of the huge challenges to the faith over the past fifty years from the rapid transformation and secularization of society” on the island.

Once one of the most Catholic nations in Europe, revelations about clerical sexual abuse has left public confidence in the Church at its lowest level in the history of Ireland.

Not only has Mass attendance dropped significantly over the past quarter century, the Irish people have increasingly rejected laws seen as rooted in Catholic teaching.

In 2015, the Republic of Ireland held a referendum on same-sex marriage in which 62 percent of the voters backed changing the constitution to allow the practice. An even larger number – over 66 percent – voted to change the constitution to allow legal abortion in 2018. The Irish parliament is currently debating a bill to legalize physician-assisted suicide.

Northern Ireland has also seen the legalization of same-sex marriage and abortion imposed by the Westminster Parliament in London, although without strong opposition from the Northern Irish political parties traditionally supported by Catholics.

The bishops will begin their synodal process with an initial two-year phase allowing individuals and parishes, religious orders and to share their insights into the Church in Ireland – past, present and future.

This process will focus on several key points, including secularization; the impact of the scandals caused by clerical sexual abuse and the sometimes-harsh conditions in institutions run by the Church; peacemaking, especially in light of the 100th anniversary of the partition of Ireland; the efforts to create transparency, greater participation and accountability in the Church; the renewal of faith within the family; connecting with young people; and the acknowledgement of the contribution of women in the Church, “to hear their deep concerns, to formally recognize their roles and articulate new models of co-responsibility and leadership involving all lay people – women and men.”

Next June, bishops said they intend to establish a task force “to plan and oversee the first steps along the synodal pathway. They said this group will be made up of bishops, priests, religious, and lay women and men.

“We encourage reflection, study and research on the theme of synodality at parish, diocesan, regional and national level and we invite writers, theologians and lecturers to prepare papers for sharing and discussion in the initial two-year phase,” the bishops said. “As we embark on the synodal pathway, we ask for prayers that this may be a time of renewal, reform and new hope for all the People of God in Ireland.”

Synodality has been a major theme of the pontificate of Pope Francis, and he has dedicated the 2022 Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops to the theme, “For a synodal Church: Communion, participation and mission.”

The announcement of the Irish bishops comes as the Church in Australia – which has also suffered a huge backlash from the clerical abuse crisis – is preparing its own Plenary Council for 2022.

However, the Vatican has not always reacted favorably to “synodal” initiatives at the local Church level.

In 2019, the German Church began a “synodal path” of Church reform in which the bishops say will be “binding” and discuss issues such as the morality of homosexual relations, clerical celibacy and the ordination of women.

The same year, Francis wrote the German prelates warning against purely structural changes meant to adapt to the times.

“Each time the ecclesial community tries to leave its problems alone and focuses exclusively on its forces or its methods, its intelligence, its will or prestige, it ends up increasing and perpetuating the evils it was trying to solve,” Francis said.

In their statement, the Irish bishops emphasized that the synodal process is “not simply a matter of discussion as in a parliamentary debate.”

“Rather it is primarily a prayerful spiritual time of communitarian discernment. It is about finding the best ways for every baptized person to fulfil the Church’s mission of proclaiming to the world, God’s love and salvation in Jesus Christ,” the statement said.

Follow Charles Collins on Twitter: @CharlesinRome