Australians search for answers to Plenary Council’s questions

National Catholic Reporter

So far 220,000 Australians have answered the Plenary Council’s question, “What do you think God is asking of us in Australia at this time?”

In 2015, Australian Archbishop Mark Coleridge says he was asking himself something similar. There was a government-mandated investigation into sexual abuse in the church and Australian Catholics were leaving the faith.

Coleridge says the answer to his question came to him “from the Holy Spirit” while he was in Rome for the Synod of Bishops on the family.

“For the first time — certainly at a Roman synod — I saw discernment in action,” Coleridge says.

“It was messy and unpredictable; at the halfway mark it looked very unlikely that we would achieve anything worth achieving. Yet at the end we did produce something which wasn’t the last word, but which was a real contribution to the ongoing journey of the church.”

It was there he decided it was time for the church in Australia to move toward a plenary council.

Several years and much planning, committee work, Vatican approval and — perhaps most importantly, listening sessions — the first of two Plenary Council assemblies began on Sunday.

Synodality is at the heart of the Plenary Council’s purpose. Pope Francis has also announced a synod – the 2023 Synod of Bishops on synodality.
Preparations for this begin near the end of the Australian assembly.

Francis says the synod on synodality “is not so much about deeper reflection on this or that theme as it is about learning a new way of living as church.”

Francis says the church must adopt a style “marked at every level by mutual listening and by a pastoral attitude, especially when faced with the temptations of clericalism and rigidity.”

This would have helped combat the clericalism that the Australian Royal Commission often heard blamed for decades of covering up abuse cases.

The government investigators’ call for a change of culture was echoed by Catholics participating in the Plenary Council’s listening sessions.

“So much of what we heard during the council journey related to this concept of ‘conversion’ — personal conversion, communal conversion and institutional conversion — with an ever-deeper renewal in Christ,” says Archbishop Timothy Costelloe.

“Through the Plenary Council, we are being called to consider how we can be a church that goes out to the peripheries, that welcomes all into our communities and shows the face of Christ to the world.”

This will be Australia’s fifth Plenary Council; the last was in 1937. Rules for a plenary council are outlined in canon law. Although laypeople are among those who may be included, this is the first time they have been members of a plenary council.

The daily programme involves gathering for Mass, prayer, formal proceedings and large group dialogue and smaller virtual group discussions. Discussion summaries will be submitted the following day.

Offline time provides for people to pray and discern over two questions. One is about abuse and the other about being a missionary people.

Coleridge says the results of the assemblies will go to Rome for papal approval.


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