Parish Plenary Update
PARISH PLENARY UPDATE
SOME CONCLUDING OBSERVATIONS OF THE FIRST PLENARY ASSEMBLY
Listening to the Spirit at the Plenary Council
Fr Quyen Vu SJ, Australian Jesuit Provincial and member of Australia's 5th Plenary Council reflects on its First General Assembly. Fr Quyen shares the ways in which, for him, the week was a journey of spiritual encounter.
The first General Assembly of the 5th Plenary Council of Australia took place from Sunday 3rd October and concluded with a Mass on Sunday, the 10th of October.
What I took away from the Plenary Council was that all the members were very honest and open in listening to one another with a deep trust in discerning how the Holy Spirit was at work throughout the week. Spiritual conversation allowed members to voice their concerns for and with the Church. The members are people with passion, who have and are continuing to contribute to the life of the Church in Australia.
As a member of the Plenary Council, I was incredibly pleased with the process of the Council. What was special and significant about this Plenary Council was the inclusivity of all the members: there were bishops, priests, religious as well as the laity, both young and old represented. This is a positive sign for the Australian Church – a sign of hope. Members had the opportunity to share their own experiences, background, context, ideas, as well as hopes and dreams for the Church in Australia.
The six themes that formed the agenda were taken seriously by each group, in-depth and with few issues left untouched. Members were able to speak openly without fear or judgment. It seemed that members listened deeply to each other with respect and an attentive ear.
The whole week was a spiritual journey for me. I am grateful to the Plenary Council for the insightfulness and depth in the sharing; for the wisdom imparted by members and the respect we had for each other in our great diversity; for the sharing of rich spiritual experiences and the wonderful spiritual journey of the week.
Before attending the Plenary Council, I heard criticisms that the direction and agenda had already been settled. I was skeptical before entering the Plenary Council; however, there was no one dictating or directing how the Plenary Council took place. There was no faction or a majority pushing their own agenda. We were open to the guidance of the Holy Spirit from the start and the Spirit led us to the end. There were moments during our small group sharing when we did get off track; however, members in the group were able to remind us to listen deeply to what the Spirit was drawing us toward. We were able to refocus and allow the spirit to guide us. This was God working through each of us. The spiritual conversation enabled us to reach a consensus each day and achieve communal discernment together.
It was a blessed week for me, and I am honoured and grateful for the opportunity to be part of the Plenary Council. I appreciated the openness and readiness of all the members to engage in it fully and wholeheartedly. “We have walked together these past few days,” as Archbishop Timothy Costelloe SBD said in his closing speech. This journey of walking together has shown us how “synodality” works. We are not walking alone, or only with those who are like us, but with others toward the Kingdom of God, together as God’s people.
Scripture scholar and Jesuit priest, Fr Brendan Byrne SJ, was appointed as one of twenty "periti", Latin for “experts”, for the Plenary Council. He shares his experience of the First General Assembly, held online last week.
About a month before the first session of the Plenary Council of Australia (3–10 October, 2021), I was appointed, along with nineteen other experts in various fields, as a peritus(Latin for “expert”) for the meeting. Canon law allows for the appointment of such advisors for officials assemblies of the Church, the most significant of which in recent times has of course been the Second Vatican Council. So I found myself, along with fellow Jesuit, Fr Frank Brennan SJ, among a group of scholars, women and men, drawn from a wide range of expertise and experience—administrative, canonical, social, but predominantly theological. Alongside me as a Scripture scholar was long-standing colleague and friend, Fr Frank Moloney SDB.
The prospect of having the meeting and all personal interaction conducted entirely in digital format was daunting. It took a day or so to find one’s way through the technical challenges but a superb facilitation team in this respect meant help was always at hand. After a while one did have a sense of community forming. In fact, one of the things I found most moving each morning was the “checking in” process, of over 300 hundred participants, from all over Australia, usually beginning with an acknowledgment of country from where the member was joining. Each day’s first plenary session also began with a formal acknowledgment of country lasting up to fifteen minutes, with an emphasis on young people.
As advisors, we attended all the Plenary sessions, including those closed to the public. We did not participate in what was really the “heart” of the process—the small group reflection sessions in the afternoons that followed the Ignatian discernment process that Br Ian Cribb SJ had introduced to the bishops. However, we heard the reports from the groups and also direct three-minute interventions by members towards the end of the plenary sessions. These gave an overall sense of the meeting as it proceeded.
Our role was a rather passive one at this stage of the overall process. We did not offer interventions off our bat. We were there to offer advice in areas of our specialty when it was asked for. Only once did an advisor make a public intervention in this session. This occurred when Richard Lennan, an Australian theologian currently based at the Jesuit School of Theology and Ministry at Boston College (Boston, USA), was asked to give a brief, seven-minute input on “The Church as Mission”, which he did superbly. Our role will become more active, we were assured, in the months following the meeting when proposals arising out of it are being drafted for presentation and enactment at the second full session in early July 2022.
After each morning’s session, the advisors “met” (digitally) as a group to reflect on what we had heard. Granted the quality of the expertise present, from a variety of perspectives, these discussions, ably chaired by Adelaide theologian James McEvoy, were very engaging,
On the whole, I found the whole process of the Plenary “edifying” in the traditional sense. The witness of discipleship and commitment to the Church that came in from so many regions of our vast country and from such a variety of people—young and old, women and men, lay and cleric—was truly impressive. Of course, people were coming from different perspectives, different ecclesiologies. Achieving an overall unity will be a task for the Holy Spirit. But, having long had misgivings about the wisdom of holding a Plenary Council at all, I am now more hopeful that, under God’s grace, something will be achieved.
WHAT DO THE USA CONSERVATIVE CATHOLICS THINK WE ARE UP TO DOWN HERE?
I have left the First Assembly of the Plenary Council optimistic that change is coming. What that looks like is unclear. Plenty of balls have been tossed in the air. Resolutions have been crafted somewhat hastily. But the Show is moving and the collective imagination has been ignited.
Councillors have been positive and constructive. The magnitude of the task is dawning as the diversity of views and appreciations of the role and purpose of the Church percolate through the discernment groups reports and the interventions from Members. I assumed that this was always going to be the case. The organisers deliberately designed a process that would elicit the varieties of ways Catholics understand their faith, their practice and their Church. So, to that end, the Assembly has done its job.
Yet, the real job is to confront the crisis the Church faces. A crisis that is both of its own making but also one that asks squarely what is the value of religious faith in our world today? People have left the Church either through disgust with the history of abuse scandals or because they no longer could relate to it for various reasons. Certainly, on the latter, it seems Pope Francis wants the Church to make the shift from its usual propositional stance to one of mission. A shift that emphasises mercy and compassion before seeking to engage in a dialogue of ideas and philosophy.
When it comes to the abuse scandals, the Church has nowhere to hide. The civil authorities did what the Church could not do for itself. That is, fess up! The culture of the institution is ingrained with a self-protective instinct. There are endless excuses why those in positions of authority and influence did not discharge their duties morally and legally. There is an almost knee jerk submission by the laity to senior clerics that stifles honesty and perpetuates secrecy and concealment. Church leaders and their advisors take an "institution first" risk management approach to victims' complaints and abuse allegations. This is a culture that is prepared to set itself up against the world to the very point that it paid lip service to the laws of the land and the dictates of human decency.
It is this culture that must change and change quickly.
Calls for improved governance come straight from the Royal Commission's damning finding on the Church leadership. Calls for increased participation of women in governance and ministries, like the diaconate, come from revelations at the Royal Commission over the toxic influences of clericalism. These are just two areas that must be addressed upfront.
Let's not kid ourselves; with all the best will in the world, these issues will be strongly contested. That contest will be held within the context where Councillors are grappling with the balance between a restorationist/rehabilitation instinct and a reimagination/reformist instinct. It's time for a "Catholic Third Way" in order to triangulate these tectonic plates on which the Assembly teeters.
In a structure as conservative as the Church, gradual change is in itself a major step forward. However, some steps have already been laid out clearly by the Royal Commission findings and they must be implemented in full and seen to be. Otherwise, the same instinct to dismiss criticism as unwanted and misguided will only further entrench distrust and have the Church itself dismissed and unwanted.
Fortunately, there is a considered and intelligent roadmap available. The Light From the Southern Cross Report, commissioned by the bishops and religious leaders, published in 2020, outlines measures to improve Church governance within the confines of the Canon law. It addresses the findings of the Royal Commission and instils contemporary standards of accountability and transparency. It offers solutions to the paucity of formation of Catholic adults and it suggests measures for the renewal of seminaries. Frankly, it has done the work but awaits the nerve from church leaders to be implemented in full across the whole Church.
Councillors could do themselves a big favour between now and next July's Second Assembly. They could read it!
The Plenary Council has been a masterclass in avoiding the real problems in the Catholic Church.
By Paul Collins
Oct 11, 2021
The present model of the Catholic Church has far outlasted its relevance. The time has come for all Catholics to tell Rome loudly and clearly: the monarchical model isn’t fit for purpose and has to go.
Despite Brisbane archbishop Mark Coleridge telling us some months ago that “We [bishops] can’t put up a sign saying business as usual,” last week the Plenary Council organisers managed to get the 278 members participating in a process that guaranteed just that. At the same time, they marginalised the issues that were highlighted as most important in 17,457 written submissions made in a nationwide, year-long consultation process.
It’s not as though anything revolutionary was being proposed. I studied theology during the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965), was an active priest for 33 years in the post-Vatican II church and have been involved actively in Catholic renewal movements for more than 45 years, yet here’s the Plenary Council still debating the same issues that have been highlighted since 1965.
These issues were around long before some of the Plenary Council members were born!
I’m not blaming them for their birth date, just highlighting the fact that we’re still debating the role of women, authority in the church, appointment of bishops, moral values and gender issues, adopting genuine values from the wider world, like equal acceptance of rainbow people, all because many of the bishops appointed by John Paul II and Benedict XVI, supported by small reactionary coteries of clergy and laity, have become past masters at endlessly marginalising these issues.
Personally, I’ve found the Plenary Council an utterly frustrating process to observe.
While there were people inside who tried very hard to shift the discussion to important questions, the Plenary Council organisers, either consciously or unconsciously, used the process to side-step the issues they wanted excluded.
One way they did this was by using a much-used word in Catholic circles these days, “discernment”. The idea is derived largely from spirituality to describe a process involving the contemplative weighing-up of options, a thoughtful, quiet search for the truth. In theological terms it’s seeking to find God’s will, the way in which God is leading either an individual or community.
Another fashionable term the Plenary Council used is “deep listening” which is all very good when you’re a counsellor and have plenty of time to spare, but it can totally preclude reaching a conclusion, especially on difficult or contentious issues within a short timeframe.
The Plenary Council used discernment and deep listening as smokescreens, ways of slowing down processes and getting through the week before a consensus was articulated around unwelcome issues. It may have been unconscious manipulation, but then I’m a suspicious character!
The COVID-19-determined, multimodal, online process also stymied discussion. If you are not physically present to others, its hard to form coalitions and influence agenda and outcomes, as would happen in normal person-to-person meetings. Running the meeting online gave the organisers excessive control of the process.
What’s come out of the week? Another management master-stroke. After an indicative vote by the Plenary Council, the organisers have shunted the issues off to a steering committee that will formulate proposals to be put to a definitive vote by the bishops in July 2022. Their vote will then be sent to Rome for review and approval. Pope Francis notwithstanding, it will be non-Australian hacks in the Roman bureaucracy who will make the final decisions about the future of Australian Catholicism.
But, thank God, not all is lost. It was the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse that jackbooted the Australian bishops into calling the Plenary Council, and here its processes actually worked. This was helped enormously by the presence of Francis Sullivan, chair of Catholic Social Services Australia and former CEO of the Truth, Justice and Healing Council, the bishops’ response during the royal commission.
Last Wednesday was devoted to confronting abuse in Catholicism. Sullivan says: “Confronting the shameful history of abuse is vital. That history is alive today. It is something we carry as a Church, and it must shape us as a Church. Unless all the implications of the sex abuse scandal are faced head-on, I fear the Church will struggle to be identified for anything else in my lifetime.”
This reflects the words of the prominent Czech sociologist and priest Tomáš Halík who says that clerical abuse is a symptom of a disease of the whole ecclesiastico/clerical system which can only be cured by profound reform (Tablet, October 2, 2021).
Another achievement of the Plenary Council was highlighting First Nations’ issues and support for the Uluru Statement from the Heart. There was also a conscious effort, at least in terms of presentation, to place women front and centre.
There has been one fundamental question missing from the whole process: the question of the very nature of church itself. Again, Coleridge was right last month when he told the ABC’s Religion and Ethics Report: “I think the monarchical exercise [of episcopal control], that gathered to itself that culture of secrecy … that was so brutally exposed [in] the royal commission, has got to go.”
That’s the nub of the problem facing the universal Catholic Church. The fundamental problem is that Catholicism is operating out of a model of church that has long passed its use-by date. No matter what changes are made in governance, transparency or accountability, it will still be patching-up the old system, putting “new wine into old wineskins” as Jesus said (Mark 2:22).
Let’s be absolutely clear: Jesus didn’t set up a monarchical hierarchy. He established a community of equal disciples, women and men, to carry on his mission.
But over the centuries as it dealt with various social and political realities, the church has adopted and operated through various governance models. The church before Constantine (313AD), facing intermittent persecution from the Roman state, was very different to the 17th-century establishment Catholicism of Louis XIV’s France. Historically, no model of the church is absolutely normative.
The core problem the church faces today is that its governance model has far outlasted its relevance.
The present model comes from the 16th century post-Reformation era and the political theory of divine right absolute monarchy. It was given definitive form in Robert Bellarmine’s three volume Controversies against the Protestants (1593). Bellarmine, Galileo’s nemesis, claimed that the pope was essentially the “divinely instituted” monarch of the church. This notion was enshrined in the decrees of Vatican Council I (1870).
If Bellarmine felt free to apply the then-contemporary notion of absolute monarchy to the church, we should not be afraid to use models from our time; we have a tradition of election, accountability, transparency and democracy. But these characteristics of good governance are meaningless in an absolute monarchy model. The time has come for all Catholics to tell Rome loudly and clearly: the monarchical model isn’t fit for purpose and has to go.
Otherwise, the Plenary Council has been so much hot air.
NO 9 Sunday 10 October 2021
SYNODALITY UNTESTED ON RESOLVING DIFFERENCES....
Solemn High Mass at St Stephen’s Cathedral in Brisbane with Archbishop Mark Coleridge has brought to a close the First Assembly of the Plenary Council. What direction are we heading? What is our Catholic identity? Did we come as far as could reasonably be expected?
These questions first need context. The church reform community shares characteristics and aspirations but remains diverse.
Some members are ensconced in the mainstream church; others are hanging on by their fingernails; still others have left. Some have been badly hurt by the institution; others have been more fortunate. Some reformers have been journeying for years; others have just joined in. Some want radical change quickly; others are happy enough with slow, incremental steps.
There will be many different perspectives on these big questions. My immediate answer is that this ‘window of opportunity too good to miss,’ is still open. But the hardest work is still to come.
Panoramic answers are hard to formulate, given the style of the Assembly. The small groups are hard to characterise. Their internal dynamics will become clearer as informal and/or diocesan networks debrief over coming days. The individual Interventions, which often had more passion and power than the group work, often did not connect directly, if at all, with the group deliberations.
The agenda questions sometimes became a straight-jacket and some omissions, like the failure to tackle questions of gender and sexuality head on, remain a stain on the church in Australia. The official advice during the formation sessions that these sixteen questions were broad enough so that any issue could be squeezed between the cracks proved misleading, because such issues could then be characterised by another member as peripheral to the core task of the group.
The outcomes can best be categorised issue by issue.
My impression is that on child sexual abuse and safeguarding the Assembly will insist on zero tolerance and enduring repentance and generosity towards survivors.
On two big social issues, recognising Indigenous culture and spirituality, and ecological conversion, both with internal and external aspects, the Assembly wants both internal action and stronger external leadership by the church in wider society.
On the role of women in decision-making within the church there is also a clear appetite for inclusion, accountability, and equality. This is driven, despite some cultural and theological objections, by widespread acceptance of synodality and co-responsibility. Religious women and PJPs are strong advocates.
On governance reform there is widespread support too, though it is a topic on which discussion can be easily diverted by resource concerns. The need for diocesan and parish pastoral councils are almost universally accepted.
Sexuality, including justice for LGBTQI+ Catholics, is the elephant in the room. It can’t be avoided, though authorities try hard to do so, because through many families and children it touches most of us across various divides within the church. Most young Catholics can’t abide church hypocrisy towards the LGBTQI+ community.
Women in ordained ministry remains a tough battle. Here there are not just theological questions but the Australian Church’s sense of itself comes into play. Tackling Rome remains daunting for many, especially the bishops. There is a common ‘little Australia’ syndrome.
My hesitation to get too excited relates not just to diversity and polarisation within the church, however, but to the Plenary Council process itself.
Our attention should turn now to the key committees, including the steering and drafting committees, which will progress the passage of prospective resolutions towards the Second Assembly. Neither the council members nor the wider Catholic community will accept again the closed and unaccountable process which led to the flawed Agenda Questions for the First Assembly. They are now feeling so empowered that the authorities would try this on again at their peril.
The First Assembly process turned out to be too compressed and rushed, especially over the final 36 hours. We started slowly and finished with a disturbing ‘helter-skelter’. This led key elements, such as the final group papers and the final communique, to proceed without proper examination. This too must not be repeated.
Finally, the method used to resolve differences of opinion remains unexplored, because we took no substantial votes in either small groups or plenary sessions. This is where synodality remains untested. Pope Francis hopes for surprising overflow by which contrary positions may come together. But this outcome must not be reduced to a lowest common denominator position, or it will be to the detriment of the church across Australia.
PLENARY MATTERS: GERALDINE DOOGUE INTERVIEWS:
ABP MARK COLERIDGE
FR GERRY GLEESON
The Craven and Gleeson interviews were Geraldine at her best; the interviewer who chooses just the right words and the liberated tongue does the rest.
SR. JO BRADY RSJ FINAL ASSEMBLY UPDATES
Good morning all
I trust that you are enjoying the first day out of lockdown as we enter the post Assembly period.
I am attaching several media releases relating to the end of the Assembly – the closing address, the closing Mass and homily and the time between the Assemblies.
Thank you again for your prayerful support of the Assembly and ongoing prayers for the Plenary Council.
I look forward to further contact with you.
May God keep you safe in the days in ahead.
The First General Assembly of the Plenary Council
The Journey so Far
As we conclude the First General Assembly of the Fifth Plenary Council of Australia, the process of discernment continues. From the opening Mass to the closing of the Assembly, our prayer has been ‘Come, Holy Spirit.’ The call to hear afresh the Good News of Jesus Christ through a spiritual posture of ‘deep listening’ has been a central element of the preparation of the Plenary process and a distinctive feature of this week. We adopted a regular pattern of prayer and spiritual conversation throughout each day. This slow process of deep listening allowed space for still nascent dreams and visions to come to greater maturity.
The opening session each day began with a Welcome to Country, spoken from various regions of Australia. Indigenous voices, both young and old, paid respects to Elders past, present and emerging, welcomed the Members of the Plenary Council to the day’s gathering, and invited all of us to a time of quiet and prayer. As Members offered their reflections day by day, they regularly acknowledged the Indigenous peoples of the land from which they were speaking.
Over three hundred participants gathered for six days, meeting virtually across five different time zones, with many more people following the opening session of each day online. The gift of listening to one another has planted promising seeds and raised important questions for us. Many described the small group conversations and reports as the heartbeat of this First Assembly. Our process of discernment requires time and space for mature reflections to emerge, and further spiritual conversations will be necessary in our considerations of what God is asking of us in Australia at this time.
As the many personal interventions demonstrated, there is no shortage of passion and charisms among the community of believers. These interventions covered a wide range of the complex realities of the Church and Australian society in this particular moment of our history. They expressed personal wisdom and aspirations that have been a gift to this Assembly’s deliberations. Many elements of the Council’s Agenda were carefully considered. Discussion of other issues, including some not formally on the Agenda, was initiated, and will require more time.
As participants in this Assembly, we have experienced and expressed the range of emotions that come with facing profound issues together, holding in tension diverse interpretations and expectations. Through prayer and reflection, we have been called to be patient with the process, with each other, with the Church and, most importantly, with the Holy Spirit.
We listened to the confronting and important voices of victims and survivors of abuse in the Church. They reminded us of the great wounds and failures of the Church and the continuing need to discern pathways of true healing and renewal.
The plain speaking of First Nations people has brought into even sharper focus the need for reconciliation with Indigenous communities, as well as the need for justice and for the healing of this land itself through an ‘integral ecology’.
In responding to the Agenda questions, we considered ways of living as Church today. Many affirmed what they value about their Catholic faith: spirituality, community, prayer, liturgy and sacramental life, and service through the vocation of all the baptised. Members spoke of the ministries of pastoral care and education, health and aged care, and the many social services and advocacy the Church provides in the Australian community. These are great gifts to a world that is seeking meaning and more authentic living.
Other interventions expressed hopes for renewal, offering perspectives on what might be possible for a Church facing crucial questions, tensions and uncertainties. Many called our attention to the importance of enhancing the role of women in the Church. We heard the call to conversion and fidelity, as well as to imagination and renewal. We were reminded of the needs of rural dioceses and parishes, as well as those of large cities. We celebrated the gifts that the Eastern Churches bring to the Catholic community in Australia.
Often expressed through the lens of personal experience, the discernment of this Assembly has threaded together conversations about what the Church can offer today’s world on the one hand, and how the world can inform the ways and structures of the Church on the other. We reflected on questions of leadership and governance in light of Pope Francis’ call for us to be more synodal.
The missionary vision of Pope Francis has both inspired and infused all the deliberations of this First Assembly. Missionary discipleship has been a key theme, as has the call to go out to the margins. Another recurring theme, expressed in different ways, is the need for ongoing processes of ecclesial listening which can form and inform how the Church lives its mission today.
The Assembly also considered how all people might feel at home in our communities, regardless of their particular circumstances. Various voices drew our attention to young people, women, single people, parents and families, people with disabilities, people with diverse experience of sexuality and gender, and others who feel, for a variety of reasons, that there is no place for them. We asked how a missionary Church might connect with those who feel distant from the community of faith.
Each of these voices has been a powerful reminder that the Church, as a sign of the kingdom of God, has the vocation of being an image of Christ and an icon of grace to the whole human family.
With the closing of this First Assembly, the Plenary Council process now enters a time of prayer, reflection, maturation and development. This will involve continuing reflection by the Members of the Council, and consultation with the wider Church community, as we develop propositions for presentation to the Second Assembly of the Council next July. This will be coordinated with Australian preparations for the 2023 Synod, For a Synodal Church: Communion, Participation, and Mission.
In faith, hope and charity, we entrust all these tasks to the guidance and wisdom of the Holy Spirit. Our prayer remains, as always: ‘Come, Holy Spirit. Come Holy Spirit of the great South Land.’
9 October 2021
MEDIA RELEASE OCTOBER 11TH
TIME BETWEEN ASSEMBLIES A CHANCE FOR PRAYER, MATURATION
The months between the first and second general assemblies of the Fifth Plenary Council of Australia are a time for “prayer, reflection, maturation and development”, according to a concluding statement from the first assembly.
The statement, approved by the Council’s members during Saturday’s final plenary session, speaks of a week in which regular prayer and spiritual conversations, encouraging deep listening, “allowed space for still nascent dreams and visions to come to greater maturity”.
It came after 16 sessions across six days, encompassing conversations in groups of eight to 10 people, larger groups of up to 30 and gatherings of the full membership of the Council. All sessions were punctuated with time for prayer and reflection.
The concluding statement said the process of members listening to each other in those various forums “has planted promising seeds and raised important questions for us”.
“We have experienced and expressed the range of emotions that come with facing profound issues together, holding in tension diverse interpretations and expectations,” it said.
“Through prayer and reflection, we have been called to be patient with the process, with each other, with the Church and, most importantly, with the Holy Spirit.”
The statement outlines some of the affirmations of the life of the Church that were shared during the first assembly, as well as some of the desires expressed for a Church that renews itself for mission.
“Often expressed through the lens of personal experience, the discernment of this assembly has threaded together conversations about what the Church can offer today’s world on the one hand, and how the world can inform the ways and structures of the Church on the other,” the statement said.
The assembly considered the experience of some groups within the community who don’t always feel at home in Catholic communities. Those groups could include young people, women, single people, parents and families, people with disabilities, people with diverse experience of sexuality and gender, and others “who feel, for a variety of reasons, that there is no place for them”.
“We asked how a missionary Church might connect with those who feel distant from the community of faith,” the statement said.
“Each of these voices has been a powerful reminder that the Church, as a sign of the kingdom of God, has the vocation of being an image of Christ and an icon of grace to the whole human family.”
The statement said the closing of the Council’s first assembly means the journey “now enters a time of prayer, reflection, maturation and development”.
“This will involve continuing reflection by the members of the Council, and consultation with the wider Church community, as we develop propositions for presentation to the second assembly of the Council next July,” it continued.
“In faith, hope and charity, we entrust all these tasks to the guidance and wisdom of the Holy Spirit. Our prayer remains, as always: ‘Come, Holy Spirit. Come Holy Spirit of the great South Land’.”
Read the concluding statement on the Plenary Council website.
Homily for Mass for the Fifth Plenary Council of Australia
St Stephen’s Cathedral, Brisbane Archbishop Mark Coleridge
10 October 2021
Scripture: Wisdom 7:7-11; Hebrews 4:12-13; Mark 10:17-30
At the end of this extraordinary week, how do we feel? Weary and a bit ragged, because it was very hard work; relieved, even slightly surprised, because so much could have gone wrong; satisfied, because it has produced real fruit; grateful to God and to each other, because it has all been more gift than hard work; intrigued to see what happens between now and the second assembly in the middle of next year. It’s been a marvel of technology; a mountain of superb work from so many, and a maelstrom of words, insights, feelings, convictions and resolutions all with deep respect for each other, even and perhaps especially when we disagreed. But above all it has been a monument to grace and faith – God’s grace and the Church’s faith in this fraught time.
In the decision to begin the journey of the Plenary Council, in all that has happened since then and in the assembly of this last week, we have sought to be wise – though not as the world is wise. We have sought to be wise with the wisdom of God, the wisdom that comes from on high. This is no abstract wisdom, but in the Bible becomes a “she”. It is a wisdom that is not simply known and understood but a wisdom which is loved: “I loved her more than health and beauty”, we have heard, “I preferred her to the light”. It is a wisdom which takes flesh.
Christians have often seen this heavenly wisdom as the Holy Spirit, moving among us, entering the flesh of the Church and the flesh of our lives. Here in Australia we have put our faith in the fact that the Plenary Council was born of the Holy Spirit, who has accompanied and empowered us on the journey of these years and has shaped the work of this first assembly. Without the Holy Spirit there would be no Council. There may be a meeting but it would be no more than politics and ideology, the crude struggle for power. But in what we have experienced there has been much more, something more mysterious, something greater than Solomon (cf Matt 12:42).
The Holy Spirit is the breath of God which, according to Scripture, is the breath which becomes the word of God. In the beginning we first hear the breath of God moving over the dark waters of chaos (Gen 1:2). Then the breath hits the divine vocal chords and God speaks the word that brings all into being. God says, “Light!” and there is light (Gen 1:3). The darkness and chaos are transfigured, and we are on our way to Easter.
In time Christianity will come to identify this all-creating word with Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh. Like God’s wisdom, God’s word is not abstract. It takes flesh in a particular person, a particular time and place. But once Jesus rises from the dead it becomes a word for every person, time and place. Because the Holy Spirit has suffused the Plenary Council journey at every point and at every depth, so too the word of God has been everywhere in the process. It has been alive and active, as the Letter to the Hebrews says, slipping into all the secret places, judging hidden emotions and thoughts.
It is the face of Christ that we have sought to see, his voice we have sought to hear as we have journeyed on the road together. That is why we have looked at each other with new eyes and listened to each other with new ears, believing that it is only in listening anew to each other that we will hear the Word of God, the voice of Christ, in new and powerful ways. And only once we have done that will we be free to allow the Word of God to take flesh in the life of the Church in new and powerful ways, not for the sake of the Church but for the sake of the world.
Through the journey of the Plenary Council and this week’s assembly, the Word of God has come to us as a call, every bit as much as it did to the rich man in the Gospel we have heard. Rich he may be, but he is also a searcher, as we have been through this week. Hence the question he puts to Jesus, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” He’s looking for more; his question rises from a sense that this isn’t enough. Wealth he has and he has also obeyed the commandments of the Torah; but a gnawing sense of dissatisfaction lingers.
We are told that Jesus looked at him and loved him. To say that Jesus loved him is vastly more than some vapid sentimentalism. It is the call – the call which answers the man’s question. The wisdom of God which becomes the Word of God now becomes the love of God. The rich man is called to leave everything and to enter the infinite love if he wants to know the fullness of life. This love isn’t abstract: it’s standing right there in front of him. The decision to enter the love isn’t abstract either: it will mean leaving all his former securities and following Jesus on the road. It will mean giving God not just something but everything.
We are told, however, that the man’s face fell at the words of Jesus. He was unable or unwilling to enter the love; he said no to the call. He feared he would lose too much if he said yes, when in fact he would have gained everything he was seeking. “In her company”, says the Sage, “all good things came to me, at her hands riches not to be numbered”.
To all of this the man says no, and – we are told – he goes away sad. This is the sadness that always come when we say no to the call of Jesus, when we refuse to enter the love that is before us, fearing that we will lose too much. If there is a sadness in our heart or in the Church or in the world, this is the reason.
The opposite of this sadness is the joy of the Gospel given to those who say yes to the call, enter the love and follow Jesus wherever he leads. It’s the joy of those who aren’t afraid to leave behind even the things upon which their life has seemed to depend, knowing that in embracing the love they have found something “more than sceptres and thrones”, compared to which “all gold is a pinch of sand”.
The wisdom which becomes the word which becomes the love which becomes the joy: this is the way of the Plenary Council. The Council is the Holy Spirit drawing us beyond our fears into the love, so that we can find the answer to our questions, What must we do at this time and in this place to inherit eternal life? What must we do to share that life with all those to whom we are sent?
The answer to those questions is clearer now than it was in 2016 when the journey began, and it is clearer still at the end of this first assembly. But the journey is not over; the answer must grow clearer still. As we turn from this week, we look to the months till the second assembly where we will – please God – gather face-to-face in Sydney. Our discernment will continue intensely through the months of fermentation, so that the seeds sown in the first assembly may finally bear fruit in the second assembly, equipping us well for the journey beyond the phase of the Council’s celebration to the long phase of implementation of its Spirit- shaped decisions and decrees.
The facilitator of my small group at the assembly had been a midwife for many years, and at one point she likened what we were doing through the week to bringing a child to birth. The process is slow, painful and messy, but in the end it is wonderfully fruitful and joyful as the baby is born. Beyond the maelstrom of this week and all that lies ahead may the Church in Australia come to know the fruitfulness and joy which the Holy Spirit brings from all the pain and mess, because nothing is impossible for God. Amen.
Catholic Plenary Assembly a first small step towards much-needed change
10 October 2021
The first Assembly of the Catholic Plenary Council which ended today has opened the way towards a more inclusive church relevant to modern Australia but it is only the start to the changes needed, said Concerned Catholics of Canberra Goulburn.
Real-world issues including the role of women, governance and transparency must be given more focus in developing the agenda for the Second Assembly of the Plenary Council next July, the chairperson of Concerned Catholics, Emeritus Professor John Warhurst, who attended the assembly as a council member, said.
He said this was not to downgrade the importance and achievements of the first assembly last week which did much to open the dialogue among 280 people of differing views and diverse cultures, and to hear the views of the laity, including women.
‘And we can take some heart from the words of the President of the Plenary Council, Archbishop Tim Costelloe, who said on Saturday that over the next nine months and beyond as we move forward we will have “to discern carefully in what ways and to what extent we can and must walk together holding in creative tension many different and contrasting voices, and where it might be that God is pointing us in a particular direction and we are all called to follow, together”.
‘The important process between now and July has to be much more transparent and inclusive than the closed doors process which produced the agenda for the first Assembly,’ Professor Warhursst said.
‘If the process is not more open the second time around neither the Plenary Council members nor the wider Catholic community will put up with it because they now feel more empowered.
‘Last week's assembly showed that the much-needed thrust for change had come through in important ways even if the agenda itself was not structured to support the reforms necessary.
‘This was particularly true for the voices of the women members. Even though they were in a minority and there was no formal recognition of the need to discuss a greater role for women, their voices were very noticeable.
‘Another missing issue was the acceptance of LGBTQI+ people whom the church routinely fails to acknowledge.
Another leading member of Concerned Catholics, Francis Sullivan said: ‘The next Assembly must be focused on resolutions that address the tin tacks for a more relevant and relatable church.
‘The lack of transparency is a problem if we are trying to foster a sense of enthusiasm in an increasingly uninterested church.
‘The passion that drove many of the 17,500 submissions for the Plenary Council during the consultation period two years ago had been left to wane for too long.
‘The members of the Plenary Council had to pretty much start all over again to come up with their own ideas.
‘The Council had to be kickstarted all over again because of the lack of reference to the previous submissions," Mr Sullivan said.
Professor Warhurst said that the President of the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference, Archbishop Mark Coleridge, had expressed the hope that like childbirth, the plenary process after a slow and messy process would end with a fruitful and joyful outcome.
‘I hope we are learning from the messy process so far. The People of God, including the members, were excluded from the process at times when they should have been included.
‘The consequence was that chances to make the process better were lost. We need to remedy that before the second assembly in July,’ Professor Warhurst said.
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Contact Mark Metherell 0417 603 697