A meeting like no other
It began with Mass on Sunday October 3 in Perth’s St Mary’s cathedral with Archbishop Timothy Costelloe SDB presiding and concluded on Sunday October 10 with Mass in Brisbane’s St Stephens cathedral with Archbishop Mark Coleridge the chief celebrant.
The Plenary Council is the first to be held in Australia since 1937. Preparation for the gathering was carefully planned, and more than 220,000 people responded to the question, ‘What do you think God is asking of us in Australia at this time?’
The National Centre for Pastoral Research collated the responses and prepared a lengthy summary document based on six themes which were concerned with a church: that is missionary and evangelising; inclusive, participatory and synodal; prayerful and eucharistic; humble, healing, and merciful; a joyful, hope-filled and servant community; open to conversion, renewal and reform.
The organisers of the Plenary Council chaired by Archbishop Costelloe asked for volunteers for discernment and writing groups based on these six themes. All volunteers were interviewed, as were their referees. They then met several times to be formed for the process and each group was asked to write a document of about 5,000 words.
From personal experience, I can say that writing a document with twelve to thirteen people was not an easy process, but after several drafts these documents were accepted and uploaded to the Plenary Council website on the feast of Pentecost in 2020.
A group of four (Archbishop Costelloe, Council President, Rev Dr Kevin Lenehan, Master of Catholic Theological College Melbourne, Dr Trudy Dantis, Director of the National Centre for Pastoral Research and Mr Daniel Ang, Director of the Sydney Office for Evangelisation) were asked to collate these texts into a single working document for the consideration of the Plenary Council members.
The agenda was then formulated as six topics: conversion, prayer, formation, structure, governance and institutions which called the members of this Fifth Plenary Council of Australia “to develop concrete proposals to create a more missionary, Christ-centred Church in Australia at this time.”
This headline agenda was followed by sixteen carefully formulated questions that addressed each of these topics and invited the members to listen to the voice of the Spirit as they reflected on the possibilities and implications of each question.
The Plenary Council gathering had around 300 participants of whom 277 were members, along with theological advisers, staff, and facilitators. However, unlike the last Plenary Council eighty-four years ago every diocese now has lay representatives. The names of the members and details of this lengthy and continuing process can be seen on the Plenary Council website (https://plenarycouncil.catholic.org.au/) which gives us the documents I have noted and elements of the actual Plenary Council Meeting.
I was not a participant in the first session of the Plenary Council, although a writer in the discernment and writing phase. However, each day I followed the public sessions and also watched an evening forum hosted by Garratt Publications which sponsored online conversations on behalf of a coalition of Catholic renewal groups who considered significant issues for the gathering.
What was patently obvious is that the Council meeting was not only about necessary Church renewal in Australia, but about our commitment to being a mission-oriented Church, reaching out to the wider community in word and witness.
I applaud the facilitation team and the steering committee which coordinated the gatherings and for their use of the technology that enabled members to meet daily in a variety of forums. Some of these met in a diocesan group gathering while others met online. It was a challenging exercise, and the IT people did an extraordinary job of bringing together the members.
Phase two is scheduled for July 4-9 in 2022 in Sydney. After nine months of gestation, it is expected that the bishops – after having considered the recommendations of the Council members and the wider Catholic community who continue to be engaged and contribute at the parish level – will make decisions for the future of the Catholic Church in Australia, keeping in mind that we are a small part of a global church.
The format began each day with the celebration of the eucharist in cathedrals around the country at which various bishops presided and preached. The bishops of every diocese, together with emeritus bishops (i.e., retired), were present. The gathering included bishops of the Eastern churches in Australia who are members of the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference representing the Maronite, Melkite, Syro-Malabar, Chaldean and Ukrainian churches.
After morning eucharist, there was a public session which was available online. Each afternoon there were two sessions which were called ‘spiritual conversations’. These were not publicly accessible but meant around twenty to thirty people met in small groups. They began with a prayer which tended to be based on a biblical text and reflection on that text and involved listening to the Word of the Spirit and responding to the issues of the day. There were also a number of what were called ‘interventions’ when Council members made a four-minute public statement either in text or verbally to the gathering. Several of these interventions are available on the Plenary Council website.
Each evening, members were engaged in an examen, a process of prayerful reflection on the day’s events to detect God’s presence and discern God’s direction for the gathering. Typically, this meant becoming aware of God’s presence, reviewing the day with gratitude, paying attention to one’s emotional response, choosing one feature of the day, praying about it, and looking forward to the next day.
The process was prayerful, informative, and an opportunity for all to listen and learn about different issues and perspectives from other members of the Catholic community. It was as some people have remarked a synodal process which means a ‘walking together’. Pope Francis has a deep commitment to what he calls the synodal way and beginning in October he invited the global Catholic church to prepare for a Synod of Bishops that will meet in 2023 with the theme For a Synodal Church: Communion, Participation and Mission.
This first session of the Plenary Council was an exercise in what Pope Francis has called an ‘apostolate of the ear’. This process of listening, learning, and leadership will hopefully move the Church to a deep transformation rather than continuing defensive and sometimes negative responses to contemporary concerns and issues.
However, as a Church we are not called to acquiesce to public opinion or polls, but to maintain a prophetic critique and missionary commitment to engage with these concerns and issues for the sake of the kingdom of God and for the common good.
Some Catholics may have found the inconclusiveness of the first session of the Plenary Council frustrating, but there is great wisdom in continuing the process of listening to each other and discerning the wisdom of the Spirit as we proceed to the second session in July 2022.
We are a Church that is patient and open to the wisdom of God’s Spirit as we engage in ongoing consultation, prayer, and discernment. Nine months is a long time, but it is an appropriate time for giving birth to the renewal of the Church in Australia and further developing missionary discipleship in the lives of all church members.