thoughts on a plenary council

Vatican FamilyIt is a great honour to join other Catholics from a diverse range of backgrounds, experience and perspectives on the Executive Committee for the Plenary Council of the Church in Australia marked for 2020. The role of the Executive Committee will be to provide advice to the Bishops Commission for the Plenary, with details of membership here.

While the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference awaits for approval from Pope Francis for the Plenary Council, the pontiff’s placement of synodality and instalment of discernment at the heart of the Church encourages the Church in Australia to grasp this once-in-a-century opportunity to integrate the varieties of Catholic expression, spiritual experience and faith of the faithful, the pressing challenges and urgent opportunities toward a renewed missionary impulse.

On a personal note the assisting Committee will be a tremendous experience of conversation and collaboration with leaders of ecclesial movements, religious, theologians, lay leaders with experience in local parishes and dioceses, as well as those in education, in service of the national dialogue about a course for the future.

The potential scope of a Plenary Council, to the best of my knowledge, is as broad as the Church itself, with the stated purpose to ensure the pastoral needs of the people of God are provided for, to determine whatever seems opportune for the increase of faith, to order common pastoral action, and for the direction of morality and the preservation, introduction and defense of common ecclesiastical discipline. These categories, generously abstract in canon law, furnish room for an immeasurable array of themes both ad intra and ad extra, from the emboldening of the baptised to live as missionary disciples, the leitmotif of Pope Francis and the process that delivered the Aparecida document, to the need of the Church to engage the world in faith, as it really is in Him.

In the wake of Pope Francis whose evangelical thrust has expressed itself not narrowly through the culture wars but through the peripheries and by his ability to personalise the Church, through to the searing grace of the Royal Commission whose recommendations must enter deeply into the Plenary deliberations, the conditions are ripe for the reform of the Australian Church.

Of course the word ‘reform’ is not ecclesiologically innocent. One only has to consult the work of historian Fr John O’Malley to be awakened to the varieties of ways in which the word can be engaged.[1] For some it will refer to a process whereby something is corrected which was in error. For others reform has the character of growth or development, which assumes an underlying continuity or unfolding of providence. Ecclesiologies shape the understanding of change within the Church, and each ecclesiology informs a historical consciousness – the classicist sees the Church as a doctrinal society moving through history largely unaffected; primitivists see the pattern of history as cyclic and look for norms in the past that will enable rejuvenation or revival in the present; or those with an ‘organic’ consciousness see the present as a reflection of where the past naturally tended, and so development is ahead of us without rejection of what has gone before. Church reform, then, can be practically engaged by excision, by addition, by revival, accommodation, development or a combination of these approaches.

VIIIn deliberations over reform, Vatican II will and must be a touchstone for the Plenary Council in style and substance. The trials and tribulations of the post-conciliar era are in part a consequence of the absence of operating paradigms of reform at the time of the Council. In contrast, the Plenary will be able to benefit from and indeed extend the example, insights and challenges of Vatican II as an instance of reform in recent memory. The varying loci receptionis, or various contexts of reception, is but just one lesson we have learned from Vatican II, the recognition that we are as a community of communities extraordinarily diverse and that this will impact upon the translation of deliberations into real life.

With the encouragement of that Council, now fifty years young, it is hoped that new participative models of ecclesial life and modes of discourse will emerge that engage the sensus fidelium here in Australia. The meaning and implication of Lumen Gentium 12 and that active capacity or sensibility by which all the faithful are able to receive and understand the ‘faith once for all delivered to the saints (cf. Jude 3)’ calls for reflection and then concretisation in the processes and structures of the Church into the future. Hence, the Plenary Council and its processes will need to engage the continuum of a great tradition in which the Holy Spirit has spoken as well as the living faith of the pilgrim people, the ‘universality of all believers’ as Bellarmine put it, that has a capacity to discern the truth of faith.[2] This is no small task.

It is only together that we will have the best view of things, including an intelligible account of where we are and how we have arrived at this juncture as a Church, naming those antecedents that have shaped and misshaped the mission and culture of Australian Catholicism. Reflection on this past does not always provide pat answers or easy solutions but it does put the Church in a better position to make decisions for the present and future. Synodality is a mode of governance, as Pope Francis intimates, which involves listening to each other and also to the Spirit in our past and present to discern what he ‘says to the Churches’ (Rev 2:7). Synodality has the potential to connect tradition with fresh questions, expresses the journeying of the whole Church through human history, its dynamism of communion, and a practice that can inspire decision through the fidelity of the entire people.[3]

pastplan_097On the point of process, which I anticipate to be the foundational consideration of the Executive Committee, there is much to imbibe from Pope Francis’ well-worn expression, ‘time is greater than space’ (EG 222-223; LS 178; AL 3, 261). While seemingly obscure, the point Pope Francis seeks to make, with direct relevance to the Plenary, is that it is more important to initiate processes than to occupy positions or possess spaces. Pope Francis notes that we can often be dominated by short-term goals which result in ‘madly attempting to keep everything together in the present, trying to possess all the spaces of power and of self-assertion’ (EG 223) without due attention to longer term processes for the development of the Church’s life. This ‘life’, to draw from the Pope’s theology, is found not in ideas but in the faith that really dwells in the hearts and hands of God’s people, a faith that grace wishes to bring forth and keep alive as a sign and reality in the world.

As a result, processes of dialogue and development will not be marked by human ‘neatness’. However, the messiness of discernment can enable a deeper penetration of our faith than would otherwise be possible. Take the two phases, those of 2014 and 2015, that comprised the Synod on marriage and family for example, phases which encouraged the ferment of ideas and the maturity of proposals, even if the process opened up difficulties that we as a Church must continue to wrestle with rather than ignore in the pursuit of meaningful, and not merely cosmetic, answers.

On a sociological plain, it’s worth acknowledging that ‘process’ can suffer both from the critique of impatient detractors and the obsession of nit-picking devotees. On one hand, process can be experienced as an unnecessary impediment to progress, a devourer of already-meagre time and a redundant obstacle that holds us up from achieving our objectives. Forestalling everything from home renovations, bank loans to public infrastructure, process can appear too much like the grinding wheels of bureaucracy that turn too slow. With numerous demands already making claims on our resources and commitment, process can be suffered as a mechanised and impersonal series of practices that most often serve an agenda and timing other than our own. In other words, process can seem to stifle rather than enable, to smother rather than energise.

On the other hand, individuals and communities can at times be fixated with process at the expense of larger goals, ensconced in the kind of hair-splitting that destroys the vitality of pursuits. No doubt we have all endured an unproductive meeting or two. ‘If you want to kill an idea, send it to committee’. This facetious one-liner well captures the reputation that process can attract.

A A A A Priest-1052933Paradoxically, however, I would suggest that these misgivings about process sit alongside another experience, which is that process is essential to our identity and life together. In various spheres of human activity – including but not limited to education, politics, economics and religion – we recognise, even implicitly, that the way things are done matters at least as much as what is achieved, if not more. Indeed, for the Church a synodal and collegial mode is not simply a means or technique for a particular outcome but a deepening of the Church’s own nature as a communion. Hence Pope Francis’ citation of Saint John Chrysostom who avers, “Church and Synod are synonymous”.[4]

In considering the way of ecclesial development ahead, I think again of Vatican II as it planted seeds that enabled the post-conciliar developments from which we benefit today. An obvious example is ‘lay ministry’ which was never defined or discussed by the Council itself. Indeed, when we consult ‘ministry’ in the index of the Council documents we find only ‘see Clergy, Priests; etc.’ However, in giving rise to a renewed baptismal consciousness within the Church, Vatican II did enable and embolden lay participation and eventual leadership that would then gain explicit papal support in 1972 when Pope Paul VI established the lay ministries of lector and acolyte (cf. Ministeria Quaedam). The rest is ongoing history. While the participation of the laity in the life and decision-making of the Church is far from settled and calls for address, the development of lay ministry following the Council did underscore that the occasion of ‘Vatican II’ extended beyond the four years of its sessions but includes as well the history of its effects. This may well prove true for the Plenary Council as well.

Much remains to be clarified in these early days of the journey. What I am sure of is that the prayerful, impassioned and earnest conversations about the Church and its mission sparked by the Plenary Council will bear enormous fruit for our life and mission. It will involve a Church both learning and teaching, engaging with the wider culture as the occasion for Christians to become aware of the totality of our mission, and the politics of dialogue in a very healthy and fruitful sense, involving the exercise of compromise, the juxtaposition of often-conflicting viewpoints, the naming of ambiguities, the formulation of resolute proposals and above all trust in the Holy Spirit as the abiding counsel of our Church in twenty-first century Australia. The whole Church will be presented with new demands and prospects for our time and future, most essentially a new interior spirit and an outward commitment to a total opening up to the world in bold, catholic and apostolic faith.

References:

[1] John O’Malley, “Reform, Historical Consciousness and Vatican II’s Aggiornamento”, Theological Studies 32 (1971): 573-601.

[2] International Theological Commission, Sensus Fidei in the Life of the Church (2014), n.32.

[3] Pope Francis, Address of His Holiness Pope Francis Commemorating the 50th Anniversary of the Institution of the Synod of Bishops (17 October, 2015).

[4] Pope Francis, Address of His Holiness Pope Francis Commemorating the 50th Anniversary of the Institution of the Synod of Bishops (17 October, 2015).

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2 thoughts on “thoughts on a plenary council

  1. Congratulations, Daniel, on another insightful and incisive piece of writing. Reception of these three first-cousins – collegiality, subsidiarity and synodality – seem to be far from mature in the post-Conciliar Church. So much appears to have worked against their being taken up. Let’s hope that a grace of our time – from the Holy Father’s prompting and the initiative of the ACBC to conceive the concept of a Plenary Council the way it has – will do much to rejuvenate and re-vision the Australian Church. The Plenary Council could do worse than tap into the very rich intuition and wisdom of “chapter” that has been in the DNA of the consecrated life (in just about all its iterations) since the time of St Benedict. Blessings on you and all on the Executive Committee as you guide our preparation.

    • Hi Michael, thank you for your kind words, and for the recommendation too which hasn’t been on my radar. Is there a good read on the theology and practice of the chapter I could access? Sounds a worthy theme for a ressourcement! Thanks again, Daniel

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