I have been privileged . . . to be an observer at the Second Session of the Fifth Plenary Council of the Church in Australia. The previous council was held in 1937. It has been wonderful to be here for these days, as the assembly reflected together on the vision for the Church in Australia to become “a graced, missionary and synodal Church”.
This session of the Plenary Council began with Mass at the Saint Mary MacKillop Centre in North Sydney. This was also Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders Sunday, but it was a good day to ask for the prayers of St Mary of the Cross MacKillop. It was profound, and reminded me of the time in 2007 when we brought the World Youth Day Cross over from New Zealand to begin it’s year-long tour of Australia, that tour which was dedicated to the then-Blessed Mary MacKillop.
All consultative voting was completed electronically with immediate results, but when it came to deliberative voting these votes were recorded on paper and then physically counted. Deliberative voting was done by bishops only, which is a canonical requirement of a Plenary Council. However, it is true to say that, as the week wore on, the bishops were taking more notice, and listening more, to what the assembly had voted.
Mass on Monday in St Mary’s Cathedral was celebrated by the Ukrainian bishop and other Eastern Rite Catholic Bishops. It was a wonderful sign of support for people of Ukraine, and a very good way for many people to experience an Eastern Rite Liturgy. The fact that this was arranged was seen as a generous and appreciated gesture by the members of the Plenary Council.
At the first gathering at North Sydney (Mary MacKillop’s Chapel) on the Sunday evening, the first action was the Aboriginal Smoking ceremony and acknowledgement of the land. At the beginning of every day, someone acknowledged the land and the Aboriginal ancestors, and reminded everyone that we were gathered on sacred land. This acknowledgement of land and the original owners is now regular practice and is very much appreciated.
The first council session on ”Reconciliation, Healing Wounds, Receiving Gifts” was about relationships with Aboriginals and Torres Strait Islanders.
The session on “Choosing repentance, Seeking Healing” was preceded by a time of prayer, a very profound time as we all joined in The Prayer of Lament. Prayer was interlaced throughout the whole session, which meant that this was not just a topic to be debated and voted on, but one where every heart was touched.
The whole session expressed profound sorrow that children, young people and vulnerable adults have been abused by clergy, religious and lay workers of the Catholic Church, and that leaders have failed to act sufficiently to prevent or respond to abuse.
Each time the groups went into “spiritual conversations” they were asked to reflect on the question; “How do these motions and amendments help us to become a more missionary and Christ-centered Church?
The idea of having a Plenary Council was first spoken of about ten years ago, and the Australian bishops knew that something had to be done, and the Church needed to change in some way. They had worked for a long time preparing for the Plenary Council and consulted many thousands of people all over Australia. I have been very impressed at how they have adapted the processes they already had in place when Pope Francis asked the world to prepare for a Synod on Synodality. The prayerful discernment and listening processes have become part of the way this council has operated. As one of the invited observers, I have been very impressed at the way every day has had a Scripture passage to be the focus of the day, and every session has included “spiritual conversations”. This brought about careful and respectful listening before votes took place. An overall theme has been “Listen to what the Spirit is saying…”. In my mind, there is no doubt that is what the 260 members of the council have been doing, as well as the many thousands of people who made submissions.
During the week, “pereti” – theological advisers – have been available to speak with any members who wished to speak with them to clarify issues or gain deeper insights into what has been proposed. To me, this was a thoughtful and inspired gesture.
Wednesday brought a halt to the Council process when there was real dissatisfaction with the deliberative vote on the “Role and participation of women in the Church”. This was about looking for new ways for women to participate in ministries and roles that are stable, publicly recognised and resourced. In the deliberative vote by the bishops, that did not pass. There was immediate disappointment for women and men, frustration was expressed, and the steering committee immediately acknowledged that the programme could not go ahead as planned with this dissatisfaction and anger being acknowledged. After some time, people agreed to go back into their groups and to enter into “Spiritual Conversations”. This was an acknowledgement that they could not move on “as normal”, and as if nothing had happened. Needless to say, there was a lot of energy in the conversations, but I believe that this “discernment” enabled people to move ahead. The bishops decided to meet during the lunch break to discuss the voting process, which had become a problem. There were many opportunities for participants to talk together and to feed back how they were feeling. I thought it was a day with great respect, and think that this has been an important day for the life of the Australian Church.
While Wednesday was a difficult day, it was also one of being led by the Spirit. Instead of moving on quickly in order to get through a set agenda, the Steering Committee changed the whole process and gave time for groups to meet and talk, to listen reflectively, and to search for a way forward. For me this was a sign of synodality at work. The People of God had expressed discontent, they needed to be heard, and the Steering Committee ensured that this happened.
The eight topics for voting came from the submissions sent in over the last few years, and much work had to be done to synthesise all the submissions in order to decide on the eight topics. They were:
1.Reconciliation: Healing Wounds, Receiving Gifts
(Focusing on relationships with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders)
2.Choosing Repentance – Seeking Healing
(Focusing on damage of sexual, emotional and physical abuse by clergy and religious – and moving forward)
3.Called by Christ – Sent Forth as Missionary Disciples
4.Witnessing to the Equal Dignity of Women and Men
5.Communion in Grace; Sacrament to the World
6.Formation in Leadership for Mission and Ministry
7.At the Service of Communion, Participation, and Mission: Governance
8.Integral Ecology and Conversion for the Sake of our Common Home
There were several paragraphs written on each of the above topics, provided in the material made available to the members. Information was also available on-line. These paragraphs were spiritual and theological material on the topic, and had already been accepted at the first Session of the Plenary Council in October, 2021. As well as this material, a different theological adviser would have a brief introduction to the topic. All were excellent and informative inputs in preparation for the “spiritual conversations” which followed – these were prayerful discernment processes before the voting on the topics took place.
Is the group “consoled” or does it have “some disquiet?” This was a question asked many times over the days, and stood out for me as a sign that the discernment process that Pope Francis has invited us to engage in is being embraced in the life of the Church. I believe the Pope would be very pleased to know that the deep, prayerful, respectful listening is truly happening, and even I would say is already bearing fruit.
The interest in synodality is high, and I think people see that it gives great hope to the Church, in the sense that it is a way to enable all the People of God to have a voice. One of the proposals voted on was that a working group would be established to develop a Roundtable structure to foster, assess, and report periodically on the development of synodal leadership. This was accepted, and for me it was a sign of synodality already in action.
For me this has been a very interesting and informative time. I have been very impressed with the way the organisers made adjustments to the processes in order to introduce prayerful discernment on each of the topics. The council members consisted of a very wide cross section of the Church in Australia, with a deep concern for the future for the Church, and a genuine desire to create and build an inclusive Church, open to all, giving hope to all, and especially to those who struggle in different ways.
- Photo: People participate in the Second Assembly of the Plenary Council of the Australian Catholic Church in Sydney July 5, 2022. (CNS photo/Fiona Basile)