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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accompaniment in a ‘change of age’

Crowd-People-Walking-Business-BlurryOne of the catchcries of Pope Francis’ vision for a renewed missionary outreach by Christians is the concept of ‘accompaniment’. It is a word that might be familiar to us in the context of music, in which one part adds, supports or complements another, or else in the sphere of gastronomy where wine is said to ‘accompany’ cheese. In fact, a quick Google search reveals the third highest query for the term ‘accompaniment’ relates to the most suitable garnishes for fish!

However, what does Pope Francis mean when he refers to accompaniment in the life of faith? Complementing his role as shepherd, Pope Francis has served the Church well as spiritual director, diagnosing our condition as Christians and as a Church, preaching as a cure of souls. He does so by instruction, sermons and admonitions, fraternal correction, by his sanctifying deeds and constant invitations to recognise God’s mercy and involvement in our life.

Significantly, I think what Pope Francis is doing is subjecting our concepts of mission and evangelisation to empirical scrutiny, drawing the Church’s attentiveness to the untutored and unscripted experiences of human life to which the Church is called by Christ to respond. This is not a neat process by any means and does not yield results that predictably fit in to our ideas.

As Fr Thomas Rosica points out when he reflects on the implications of Pope Francis’ papacy, at times our zeal and deep desire for others for their change, repentance and conversion overshadow the necessity that people have to be accompanied through the deep valleys and darks nights of the human journey. We cannot get away from this form of personal accompaniment as an integral dimension of evangelisation, even if our culture as a Church is not altogether well practiced at or versed in this ‘art’.

synod4We find a few scant references to accompaniment in Pope Francis’ exhortation on marriage and family Amoris Laetitia, especially in relation to those in the early years of marriage and those who have experienced relationship breakdown or divorce (AL 223, 241-244). The concept is most fully elaborated, however, in Pope Francis’ first Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium (‘The Joy of the Gospel’) where we find four articles dedicated to what he describes as the “art of accompaniment” (EG 169-173). These references are in the third chapter of the Exhortation, under the fourth section entitled “Evangelization and the deeper understanding of the kerygma”.

Pope Francis rightfully suggests that exercising accompaniment is more difficult today than in previous generations. Journeying with others in the life of faith is a delicate task but it is made particularly challenging because we are part of a contemporary culture that “[suffers] from anonymity and at the same time [is] obsessed with the details of others people’s lives” (EG 169). As Fr David Ranson has observed, we can yearn to be seen but perhaps do not want to be truly known. It is the Facebook phenomenon of living publically though with the fear of somehow being exposed. Individuals in our culture can feel radically unaccompanied but too estranged from one another to walk together through life. This disconnectedness from each other expresses itself in crises of personal meaning.

If accompanying others towards the Gospel is a priority, then it will be helpful to further name the ways that the wider culture is changing and how the people in our pews are changing, how the overall context for our mission as Church is different from previous generations, and to chew over the implications for our pastoral practice and planning.

Change in the Wider Community

Social media icons on smartphonePope Francis has commented that we in the twenty-first century live not simply in an ‘age of change’ but in a ‘change of age’. He sees, as we do, the shifting ground of global politics, the movements of people around the world, including a disastrous refugee crisis, and the changing nature of how people communicate and relate to one another (to make the point, each day the equivalent of 110 years of live content is watched online while development such as OTT apps have essentially turned messaging services into a new form of communications infrastructure).

The winds of change have also been felt in the increasing disillusionment with traditional institutions in the West. We only have to bring to mind ‘Brexit’ to see the change in notion of where and how people belong. There is widespread alienation from political parties, financial systems, as well as the Church. Today there is wide scepticism of authority, especially authority that has not been earned but simply ascribed. Additionally, there is a craving for personal and national security that ironically has only caused a rise in uncertainty and anxiety. All of this suggests the passing of an old situation into a new.

Closer to home, we are experiencing change in our Australian community with implications for our Church and outreach. This includes our increasing diversity. Almost half of Sydney’s population has been born overseas with increasing migration coming from China, India, the Philippines and Vietnam.

The situation of families is radically different. Ex-nuptial births (the birth of children outside of marriage) now account for more than a third of all births – 34% – compared to just 3-4% in the 1960s. This is a trend we can expect will continue to rise, especially as marriage itself comes under threat as an institution and comes to mean effectively everything and nothing at the same time.

A ‘sign of the times’ includes the rates of domestic violence. Domestic violence contributes to more death, disability and illness in women aged 15 to 44 than any other preventable risk factor. Violence against women is the single largest driver of homelessness for women and results in a police call-out on average once every two minutes across the country.

Cohabitation is becoming a social norm, with 76% of marriages now preceded by couples living together, and 75% of Australian marriages are civil celebrations (and only about 8% are Catholic marriages, involving at least one partner who is Catholic).

There is also a greater degree of mobility among households. For example, in my own Diocese of Broken Bay, in parishes such as Manly-Freshwater, Lower North Shore, Warringah, and the Hornsby Cathedral Parish less than 50% of Catholics in these communities lived at the same residential address five years ago. ‘Preaching to the parade’ can become more frequent as people come in and out of our communities of faith. On the Central Coast as well we are seeing increasing development and shifting needs as well, reshaping the life and planning of local communities.

Change in our Church

SB048Turning from the wider community to our Church, our own community of faith is also changing and this can felt at the front doors of our parishes – in the variety of people we now encounter with different situations, questions and expectations than in the past.

The plain fact is that Mass attendance and identification with the Catholic faith are in seemingly interminable decline. And yet we know almost 60% of Australians still believe in a personal God or some sort of spirit or life force. In fact, over a quarter (28%) of Australians reported having had some sort of mystical, supernatural or transcendent experience (Local Churches in Australia: Research Findings from NCLS Research).

So while fewer Catholics today are engaging with Church and some indeed choose to disassociate completely from the Catholic ‘brand’, a majority of Australians still hold some sort of belief or spiritual sense or experience. They are, as it is said, “spiritual but not religious”. It has been noted that the ‘spiritual but not religious’ are not really looking for a better version of Church or parish; the institution or Church programs can be far from their mind or interest.

In this context, personal relationships with people of faith become increasingly important. Our relationships and conversations can encourage spiritual journeys and build trust. Usually this will be in our personal lives and fields of influence as the ‘spiritual but not religious’ are not often in our pews.

Diversity in the Pews

Liturgy 6Moving from those who no longer engage with us to those who are still present in our churches, there is no longer a ‘cookie cutter Catholic profile’ if there ever was one. Many of the only-affiliated Catholics can be found in our sacramental programs. Many self-identifying Catholics do not believe in God at all but send their children to our Catholic schools in any case, and many more would pick and mix among various traditions – Eastern meditation over here, the occasional Easter Vigil over there.

It would be no surprise that some engage with our Church for reasons other than religious motives (for the pure purpose of Catholic school enrolment for instance), and others attend occasionally out of family custom or tradition, exercising a habitual Christianity rather than a personal faith of conviction.

As well, we know that sharing the same pews does not mean people share the same beliefs. In particular today there is a wide variety of acceptance of Catholic beliefs and moral teachings. For example, many older Catholics have stopped believing that pre-marital sex is always wrong, perhaps because many of their children are now cohabiting with their partners (cf. R. Dixon, “Contemporary cultural change and the acceptance of key Catholic beliefs and moral teachings by Australian Mass attenders”, Pastoral Research Office).

So it is an increasingly complex scene today. As Ed Murrow, a broadcast journalist of last century, pointed out, “Anyone who isn’t confused doesn’t really understand the situation”. It is a confrontation to recognise that there are people in our pews who may well not believe in God, and people who are not with us that do.

Implications

rosaryWhat is the upshot of this complexity for our outreach and accompaniment? Prior to any proclamation of the Church being heard, today’s missionary outlook will begin with building trust and authentic personal relationships (from which consequent invitations and participation might then come about).

Particularly today in the midst of an Australian Royal Commission, we are aware that trust in the Church is low. Research from the U.S. tells us that scandal causes a persistent decline in Catholic affiliation and church attendance. Many join other denominations during the first three years following a scandal but then typically end up with no religious affiliation at all.

As Sherry Weddell identifies, most non-practicing and ‘former’ Catholics do not often have a bridge of trust in place. Some feel pre-judged by the Church. They do not trust ‘the Church’ and ‘the Church’ can be represented by those of us who serve or represent the Church in various capacities or exercise a personal commitment to religious practice.

Hence Pope Francis remarks:

[Today] we need a church capable of walking at people’s side, of doing more than simply listening to them; a church that accompanies them on their journey; a church able to make sense of the ‘night’ contained in the flight of so many of our brothers and sisters from Jerusalem; a church that realises that the reasons why people leave also contain reasons why they can eventually return. But we need to know how to interpret, with courage, the larger picture. Jesus warmed the hearts of the disciples of Emmaus (Pope Francis to bishops of Brazil, 2013).

This accompanying spirit is not reserved to ‘specialists’ but expressed in the welcome of our community life, our generous assistance with enquiries, how we meet people coming through the parish doors or sacramental programs. All of these are opportunities for genuine accompaniment to the Gospel, if we are willing to be open to the difficult questions or diverse experiences of the people we encounter and have the tact and generosity to walk patiently with people through the ‘nights’ of their life.

The Example of St Paul

StPaulTo make this opportunity concrete and practical, the outreach of St Paul, perhaps the greatest evangeliser in the history of the Church after Jesus himself, can be a resource for our thinking on this ‘art of accompaniment’.

As Colleen Vermeulen has observed, we find in the Acts of the Apostles a description of how St Paul welcomes and leads people to faith, in this case the Gentiles in Athens.

  • St Paul first desires the good of the other and holds a deep concern for them (“he was distressed that the city was full of idols”). Without that desire not much is possible. In our own time, this might be recognising the courage and good intent it can take for people to come forwards, to pick up the phone and to call a community, or write an email enquiring about the sacraments for their children. Speaking to a sacramental coordinator earlier in the week, she shared that many parents are humbly aware of their own ignorance and so hesitant about engaging with the Church but are still looking to do the best by their children. If we do not engage with those who might hold a vague or even a warped faith then as a Church there will be a thin future for us.
  • St Paul then listens to the questions they are asking (the Gentiles ask “May we know what this new teaching is that you are presenting? It sounds rather strange to us, so we would like to know what it means”)
  • He identifies shared values and some positive aspect of their situation (“Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way”)
  • In seeking to share the Gospel, he uses examples from their perspective (“As even some of your poets have said, ‘For we too are his offspring. Since we are God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the deity is like gold’”). This means entering into the world of others, including those who don’t believe and drawing parallels between their story and the Gospel story we are seeking to share
  • He avoids using ‘insider’ language so not too create stumbling blocks too early in the relationship (e.g. he does not yet use the name of Jesus though he will go on to do so). Some may be ready to hear that name, while for others it may not be the first place to start (it might be to confronting or perceived as ‘Church talk’; it may take trust and relationship before the kerygma can be heard; others might be ready and expecting that from the outset, all depending on the person we are accompanying)
  • St Paul then inspires curiosity, rather than giving pat answers, and as we learn, in the end some became believers, “including Dionysius the Areopagite and a woman named Damaris, and others with them”.

Whether applied to the people we meet through the doors of our parishes, people enquiring in parishes with little faith or Church background, or evangelising in the form of connecting and starting conversations of people in our personal lives, these principles from St Paul offer a helpful guide for the art to which we are called.

Conclusion

To underline the importance of personal witness and trust, even prior to proclamation, a great testimony comes from another Catholic blogger who wrote:

“I am not a Christian because it ‘makes sense’ or because someone sat down and diagrammed it for me. I am a Christian because I have been loved deeply and unconditionally by Christians . . . all of them loved me when I did not love them”

This also speaks to the importance of initiatives like Alpha which many parishes are engaging as it provides an opportunity to develop those relationships and walk with people. If many people still hold a spiritual sense but are not religious, the welcome and hospitality that is at the heart of Alpha is critical to the seeking and asking that can eventually lead people to deeper discipleship in the midst of the Church.

dioceseWhen we consider how many people receive the sacraments in our Church, whether the sacraments of initiation or each weekend, and how many come out the other side as disciples on mission sharing faith with others, we can see the need for accompaniment to support that journey. We have learnt that the sacraments simply won’t ‘take care of it’, that discipleship needs the support of relationships via a process such as Alpha that builds trust and encourages sharing in faith.

As shared at Proclaim 2016, it is not programs that will make disciples but disciples that make disciples. That is the gift and opportunity of ministry as a parish team or any other form of outreach – to greet people in this ‘change of age’, to welcome them, meet people where they are and love them enough not to leave them there, gently leading them into the possibilities of faith as a relationship with Jesus Christ.