‘Learning to be synodal is different from learning to be democratic’

Papal Nuncio Archbishop Tito Adolfo Ylana consecrates Fr Shane Mackinlay, October 2019, as a bishop, watched by principal consecrator Archbishop Peter Comensoli of Melbourne, at left, and Archbishop Mark Coleridge of Brisbane.  Photo: Bill Conroy Press1 Photography, Catholic Weekly

New bishop Shane Mackinlay wasn’t completely surprised when he got the call, but he concedes the lead-up to his ordination was overwhelming.

As one of seven recently ordained bishops taking part in an inaugural seminar in Canberra this week, he recalls many people had said over time, “oh, you’ll be a bishop one day”.

While the week leading up to his ordination was “quite overwhelming”, the new Bishop of Sandhurst in Victoria describes the ceremony as enormously significant.

“By the end of the ceremony, I felt like the Bishop of the Diocese,” he said.

“I’d been recognised and placed and prayed for. With so many bishops in attendance, it seemed that the wider church had placed me in this position, and the Diocese had accepted and welcomed me.

“It was then a matter of learning how to be bishop and what that meant, but it didn’t feel overwhelming in the same way as before.

“I felt confident that this was where I was meant to be, and it was OK. Not every day since has felt that way entirely, but that’s true as a priest and any other positions I’ve held. So the ceremony confirmed my sense of vocation and calling to be a bishop.”

He counts himself blessed to have had more than 30 bishops attend his ordination, as it was before COVID restrictions began.

One of his experiences that is new is “being part of the Church, more broadly; for example, on a national level with the bishops conference, and an international level through involvement in an international ecumenical dialogue for the Catholic Church.”

Bishop Shane Mackinlay

Bishop Mackinlay is also one of two Australian bishops who will attend the International Synod on Synodality in Rome next year. He believes that the international Church will follow the Australian Plenary Council process with great interest.

“Learning to be synodal is different from learning to be democratic,” he says.

“It’s not about whoever gets 51% wins. It’s about reflecting together on who we are and where we’ve been and what we are being called to – explicitly in the context of prayer and in response to the scriptures. And that’s a wonderful process for us to learn and to train ourselves in.

“Our focus should not only be on how we engage on a national or international level, but how do we be synodal on a parish and diocese level. How do we make that part of everything we do?”

This week’s seminar for recently ordained bishops was the result of an external review of the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference, with bishops backing a proposal put forward in 2018.

Sessions over four days included pastoral governance, professional standards and safeguarding, canon law, synodality and media engagement.


Wordpress (3)
  • John warhurst 2 years

    Why do bishops continue to contrast synodality with a false idea of democracy? Democracy is much more than trying to win 51% of the vote. Democracy is about equality of voices and respect for all, it is also about freedom of expression and alternative voices. Let’s have a mature discussion about church renewal.

  • Paul Sykes, Melba 2 years

    In my view, there is little to be gained here by talking about democracy in the synodal context. The not infrequent saying that the Church is not a democracy – despite it sometimes being only a foil against continuing discussion on some sensitive or difficult issue concerning the Church – does have an underlying truism. Many religions, Catholicism included, worship a supreme or divine being whose accepted revelations and teachings in faith and morals guide their adherents in their communal and individual spiritual lives and mission. It is hard to see democracy – at least in arguably its most common understanding as a type of constitutional government of a secular state – fitting into the same space as religions. (This is not to say that, particularly where the state tolerates religious freedom, religions and democracy would hopefully be able to co-exist harmoniously in their separate spheres.) Obviously, all participating in a synod should be heard with respect, even where there might be anticipated disagreement. However, the impetus for this should arguably be the religious values held by all concerned, rather than any so-called democratic spirit.

  • Beth Gibson 2 years

    As is so often the case in current ways of discussing issues, it seems really easy to slide into a binary way of viewing the different ways of thinking. Does it really have to be democratic or synodal? Can’t we strive for both? There are aspects of democracy that the Church would do well to follow, at a minimum, as John Warhurst as outlined. I also think there are extra dimensions to walking and living in faith that could take us, not away from, but possibly further than, democratic principles. It is not either/or, it is both these ways of being that will lead us to genuine church renewal.