After a three-year preparatory process, the Fifth Plenary Council of Australia kicked off last week gathering approximately 280 delegates from across the country who met virtually for their first assembly. It is the first such event since 1937 when the Fourth Plenary Council was held. For six days, participants prayed, discussed and reflected together to “discern” what God is asking of the Church in Australia today. Discussions will resume next year at the Second Assembly in Sydney
As Pope Francis launched the global synodal process in Rome, the Church in Australia wrapped up the first General Assembly of its 5th Plenary Council on Sunday. 278 designated members from across Australia – including bishops, priests, religious and laypeople – gathered virtually from 3 to 10 October to pray and reflect about the future, the role and relevance of the Catholic Church in Australian society today. Overall, over 300 people joined the event. The meeting was originally planned in Adelaide in October 2020, but due to the COVID-19 pandemic, it was postponed to this year and will be followed by a Second Assembly in Sydney in July 2022.
Most important national Catholic gathering in the country since 1937
The Council, which is the most important national Catholic gathering in the country since 1937, was convened by the local bishops in 2016, heeding Pope Francis’ invitation to dialogue with society, in the light of the significant changes that have taken place in Australia over the past decades and also of the findings of the Royal Commission into Institutional Response to Child Sexual Abuse in the Church.
The preparation process
Following Pope Francis’ approval, the preparation process began in 2018, with the launch of “Dialogue and Listening” meetings which were attended by more than 222,000 faithful across the country presenting their contributions. These helped to give a picture of the reality of the Church in Australia today, but also of the concerns and aspirations of Australian Catholics. Once the first phase was completed, the second phase began in June 2019, that of “Listening and discernment”, to identify the issues to be put on the Council’s agenda.
The contributions are summarized in the “Instrumentum Laboris”, the working document released earlier this year. Among the key themes highlighted in the document are strengthening of synodality and pastoral discernment; the call for co-responsibility in the mission and governance of the Church; renewed solidarity of the Australian bishops with the aboriginal peoples and those on the margins of society, and the promotion of integral ecology as indicated by Pope Francis in his Encyclical Letter “Laudato si’” on the care of our common home.
The final Agenda presented in June identified six thematic areas of reflection. These include: conversion, prayer, formation, governance, structures and institutions, which, to be effective, the Agenda says, must be guided by “a renewed missionary spirit”.
A new way of living as Church amid new challenges
During their six-day meetings, the 278 designated members of the Council focused on 16 questions developed as a result of the “listening” phase, which has also been a distinctive feature of this intense week of discernment to find a new way of living as Church in Australia. As explained in the final statement, interventions covered a wide range of the complex realities of the Church and Australian society in this particular moment of history.
Reconciling with abuse victims and First Nations
Delegates listened to the confronting and important voices of victims and survivors of abuse in the Church recalling the “great wounds and failures of the Church and the continuing need to discern pathways of true healing and renewal”. They also heard from Aboriginal peoples, reaffirming the need for reconciliation with Australian Indigenous communities, as well as the need for justice and for the healing of the land through an ‘integral ecology’. In this regard, discussions focused on how the Church in Australia can open, in a new fashion, to “Indigenous ways of being Christian in spirituality, theology, liturgy, and missionary discipleship”. To emphasize this aspect, the opening session of each day began with a “Welcome to Country”, the traditional ceremony where Aboriginal Australians welcome people to their land.
Leadership and governance for a more synodal Church
In responding to the Agenda questions, Members considered ways of living as Church today, focusing on what the Church can offer the world on the one hand, and on how the world can inform the ways and structures of the Church on the other. They reflected on questions of leadership and governance in light of Pope Francis’ call for the Church to be more synodal.
Going out to the margins of society
A key theme of the Assembly was missionary discipleship as well as the call to “go out” to the margins of society. Participants 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. Various voices drew attention to young people, women, single people, parents and families, people with disabilities, people with diverse experiences of sexuality and gender, and others who feel that there is no place for them in society and Church. Council members discussed how a missionary Church might connect with those who feel distant from the community of faith. They were also reminded of the needs of rural dioceses and parishes, as well as those of large cities, and celebrated the gifts that the Eastern Churches bring to the Catholic community in Australia.
The need for renewal and for “ecclesial listening”
Another highlight of the Assembly was the “call to conversion and fidelity”, as well as to “imagination and renewal”. In this regard, many called attention to the importance of enhancing the role of women in the Church. A recurring theme was also the need for ongoing processes of “ecclesial listening” which can form and inform how the Church lives its mission today.
Openness to the Holy Spirit
With the closing of this first meeting, the Plenary Council process now enters “a time of prayer, reflection, maturation” leading to the development of new propositions to be presented to the Second Assembly in Sydney. This process will involve continuing reflection by the Members of the Council, and consultation with the wider Church community, the final statement explains. In his concluding address, on October 9, the President of the Plenary Council, Archbishop Timothy Costelloe of Perth, called on its members to “remain open to the promptings of the Holy Spirit” in preparing for the next Assembly, while reiterating the importance of synodality, that is of “walking together” in this process, as requested by Pope Francis.
A slow and messy but fruitful process
In the closing Mass on Sunday, Archbishop Timothy Coleridge SDB of Brisbane, President of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Australia (ACBC), on his part, likened the process 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,” he said. “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”, he concluded in his homily.