With the commencement of a new year, one of the immediate priorities has been preparations and planning for Plenary Council 2020. It has been helpful in these early days to gather thoughts, recollect on where we have travelled to date, and look ahead.
First face-to-face meeting of Bishops Commission & Executive Committee for Plenary Council 2020, St Joseph’s Retreat Centre, Baulkham Hills, 19-20 Oct., 2017.
In September 2017 an inaugural forum was hosted by the Broken Bay Institute at Mary MacKillop Place in North Sydney. It gathered leaders in Catholic education, social support services, and other agencies and religious institutes of the Church. The forum reflected on the meaning of ‘synodality’, a deepening of the Church’s communion as a means to faithfully interpret the living voice of God in this time and circumstance.
The first gathering was hopeful and matter-of-fact about the challenges that lie ahead for the Plenary Council, including the need to establish clarity on the appropriate structures and the agenda or themes of concern that might galvanise that journey. The need to make clear the parameters of the national conversation arises not only from the want to respect the expectations of those who involve themselves but also to bring transparency and coherence to the process. As Chesterton long ago remarked, “The finest thing about a free meadow is the hedge at the end of it. The moment the hedge is abolished it is no longer a meadow, but a waste”. Structure can stifle but it can also enable. So, many of these first days of the year have been dedicated to thinking through structure and process surrounding the national dialogue as well as for our Diocese of Broken Bay.
In my own view, with the cultural reform of the Australian Catholic Church on the table, a key task will be to identify those systemic or gravitational forces that move the tides if you will, that lift up or otherwise upend the boats in our exercise of Catholic life and mission. If a culture is constituted by behaviours and relationships, unspoken assumptions, a universe of ideas, a material reality and language, then it will be important to name the underlying issues raised or highlighted by particular concerns (for example, talk of renewing or eschewing parish pastoral councils invites us to confront the current limitations of lay-clergy relationships and of priestly formation for practical leadership). The process of dialogue with all of God’s people will be essential to discerning these fundamental themes and I have great hope that this coming year will present a first and significant step toward the task.
In October 2017 members of the Bishops Commission for the Plenary Council and the Executive Committee then gathered to learn and discuss the opportunity that this national ecclesial council presents for our Church. I have to say I left the gathering greatly encouraged and more hopeful than I had (admittedly) arrived. With planning meetings scheduled for the Executive Committee in the weeks ahead, there is still much yet to be clarified but the infrastructure and practical matters are fast becoming clearer and more concrete.
In the closing days of 2017 I was able to sketch some of the ways in which our own Broken Bay Diocese might meaningfully and substantially take part in the national process, for the benefit of the Australian discernment as well as for the vitality of our local diocese. Local processes and opportunities in Broken Bay will be announced at Pentecost 2018, providing enough time to organise the diocesan journey with formation, resources, training for dialogues and assemblies.
In the meantime, in order to make sense of Plenary Council 2020 I have gathered together an outline and reflections on the Council that might also be of help to you and your communities. I would be grateful for any feedback you might have on these initial thoughts and proposals!
As the year slowly gathers pace, I wish you and your communities a blessed and happy new year, Daniel.
Walking the Path of the Plenary Council
“Listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches” (Rev 2:7). Since 2001, in the wake of St John Paul II’s apostolic letter from at the turn of the millennium, the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference has been giving consideration to a national ecclesial event, involving all Australian dioceses. St John Paul II’s 2001 apostolic letter Novo Millennio Ineunte called for new energy and depth, what it called a genuine ‘spirituality of communion’ within the Church, a spirituality which ‘by prompting a trust and openness wholly in accord with the dignity and responsibility of every member of the People of God, supplies institutional reality with a soul’ (Novo Millennio Ineunte 45). It called for nothing less than the conversion of the Church in spirit and structure.
This call led to growing discussion within the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference in 2006 about an event of ecclesial communion within the Australian Church, with Archbishop Philip Wilson (Archdiocese of Adelaide) a leading voice. In time this conversation developed into the decision to hold a Year of Grace which began in Pentecost of 2012 and was dedicated as a year of discernment and prayer, of ‘contemplating the face of Christ’ in order to renew our self-understanding as a Church of Gospel faith and mission.
Then in 2013 came the surprise election of Pope Francis. By his papal exhortations and by his convening of the 2014 and 2015 synods on the family, the Pope placed a clear emphasis on the Church’s need to journey in discernment together with closeness to the people unified in baptismal faith and informed by the Holy Spirit.
In the same year and month of Pope Francis’ election the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sex Abuse commenced, following its announcement in November of 2012. A searing grace for the Catholic Church, the Royal Commission makes it clear that ‘business as usual’ is not possible nor even desirable for the Church whose culture has failed and even betrayed on a spiritual and institutional level the very Gospel for which it is intended to be a clear sign and witness.
It was these collective currents or combination of factors that I understand influenced and moved the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference to announce a Plenary Council of the Church in Australia to be held in the year 2020. The Bishops Conference has formally sought the approval from Pope Francis for this Council, official endorsement which is expected in due course.
Put simply, a Plenary Council is the highest form of communion between the various local or particular churches of a nation. The Plenary Council will be, then, not simply a meeting of bishops as individuals but a meeting of local churches and a process that calls for the participation of the entire Catholic community. It invites the whole Church, through dialogue, to discern how its communities can live the Gospel with renewed vitality amidst new questions and challenges. The Plenary Council itself will feature representation from among the laity, religious and ordained ministers, together with the bishops of Australia, as the culmination of a sustained pilgrimage in faith.
As such a Plenary Council is an expression of the ‘synodality’ of the Church, the nature of the Church as a communion of persons ‘walking together’ in faith as disciples of the Lord. The Plenary Council recognises that all the baptised have received a common vocation to be a ‘sacrament or instrumental sign of intimate union with God and of the unity of all humanity’ (Lumen Gentium 1) and upholds with faith that it is by our mutual listening to the Holy Spirit – who guides the Church ‘into all truth’ (John 16:13) – that we can realise our mission most deeply as a community of faith.
As set out in Canon Law, a Plenary Council has legislative power with the final decisions reserved to the bishops by nature of their episcopal ordination as successors of the Apostles. The bishops are obliged to make decisions on the basis of their careful discernment of the work of the Holy Spirit in the minds and hearts of all the People of God, recognising that the sense of the faith of the faithful – what is known as the sensus fidelium – is a source of the Church’s life and learning as it seeks to fulfil its Gospel mission.
This means that the Plenary Council is more than a single event to be held in the year 2020 but an extended process that invites the entire Catholic community, even now, to ‘walk the path of dialogue’ and interpret what God is doing today and how God is calling the Church to live the Gospel into the future. It calls the Church to undertake a pilgrimage of listening and learning, to be a synodal and receptive church that engages in honest speaking and mutual listening to the Holy Spirit, to share insights and also hear insights shared.
Throughout this process of listening, dialogue and prayer, the experiences of diverse lives will be invited to share their sense of faith, questions and hopes for the Catholic Church – from those who are attempting to live a committed and sacramental life in the Church, those baptised Catholics with lesser involvement in ecclesial life, to those who are vulnerable in Australian society, who may be more distant from the Church, or who have been hurt and who may or may not still regard themselves as Catholic in some way. From these voices there are questions and challenges that clarify the Church’s self-understanding in response to the Gospel and society, genuine ‘seeds of the Word’ that provide insight.
We are invited by the announcement of a Plenary Council to develop together a culture of dialogue and discernment to determine how best to ensure the pastoral needs of the people of God are provided for and with regard for the universal law of the Church, ‘to decide what seems opportune for the increase of faith, the organisation of common pastoral action, and the regulation of morals and of the common ecclesiastical discipline which is to be observed, promoted and protected’.
Following their listening to and discernment with the whole Church the members of the Plenary Council will convene in 2020. This will include all active bishops, vicars general, episcopal vicars, some major superiors of religious institutes, rectors of major seminaries and Catholic universities, and deans of faculties of theology and canon law. Others that can also be called to the Plenary Council include lay persons, retired bishops, other priests, and religious. The bishops will have a deliberative vote (that is, cast a ballot to determine outcomes) while other council delegates will have a consultative vote (the right to speak about the issues under discussion). The Plenary Council will then enact laws which, subject to approval of the Holy See, will bind the Catholic Church in Australia.
In calling a Plenary Council the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference has recognised that the patterns of change confronting the Church and the wider community impel the Australian Catholic Church to review, analyse and discern the signs of the times and interpret them in the light of the Gospel (Gaudium et Spes 4). It has opened up a pathway for dialogue, for the exchange of faith and ideas, and to encounter the Holy Spirit and the Church in one another.
Pope Francis himself has encouraged the need to prayerfully discern together what the Spirit is saying to our Catholic community at this time, remarking “A synodal Church is a Church which listens, which realises that listening ‘is more than simply hearing’. It is a mutual listening in which everyone has something to learn. The faithful people, the college of bishops, the Bishop of Rome: all listening to each other, and all listening to the Holy Spirit, the ‘Spirit of truth’ (Jn 14:17), in order to know what he ‘says to the Churches’ (Rev 2:7).”
In addition to the call of Pope Francis for a synodal and discerning church, the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sex Abuse has also raised the critical need for reform within the Church and its manner of governance, themes with which the Plenary Council will also wrestle. As a way of being Church ‘synodality’ promotes a form of governance that involves all the People of God, with governance referring to those processes for making and implementing decisions so that each of the baptised can fulfil their personal calling as well as our shared mission as a communion of faith.
Plenary Council 2020 will be the fifth plenary council in Australia’s history with the last plenary council held in 1937, some eighty years ago. There is likely to be more than one session, one for summative documents to be discussed which reflect the discernment of the Australian dioceses through dialogue, then a period of authoring pastoral decrees and legislation, and then a second session of the Council at which the Australian bishops will vote on these statutes. As such the Plenary Council will be a decision-making council and bear significant and lasting consequence for the life of Australian Catholics.
The Australian Catholic Bishops Conference has now established a Bishops Commission to oversee, plan and prepare for the Plenary Council which will have three phases: preparation, celebration and implementation. The Chair of the Bishops Commission for the Plenary Council is Archbishop Mark Coleridge (Archdiocese of Brisbane). Other members of the Commission include Archbishop Timothy Costelloe SDB (Archdiocese of Perth), Archbishop Philip Wilson (Archdiocese of Adelaide), Bishop Vincent Long Van Nguyen OFMConv (Diocese of Parramatta), Bishop Michael Kennedy (Diocese of Armidale), and Bishop Antoine-Charbel Tarabay OLM (Maronite Diocese of St Maroun).
A Facilitation Team was appointed last year including Ms Lana Turvey-Collins, Fr Noel Connolly SSC, and Mr Peter Gates (Catholic Mission) together with an Executive Committee for the Plenary Council which includes people with particular expertise related to the holding of a Plenary Council. The Executive Committee members have a range of backgrounds, are diverse in their experience and will offer advice and guidance to the Facilitation Team and the Bishops Commission throughout the Plenary Council journey.
As a local Church, the Diocese of Broken Bay will enter into this national process of dialogue and discernment beginning with a year of listening in 2018, followed by discernment throughout 2019 and the sharing of proposals to the Plenary Council in 2020. This local dialogue will not only inform the national Plenary Council but also the discernment of our Bishop, parishes and local communities, our schools and agencies in the Broken Bay Diocese on how best to express the life and mission of Jesus at this critical juncture of our life as Church.
It will be an opportunity for us to name those issues that are important to our faith in charting a course for the future of the Catholic Church in Australia, and to share perspectives and practices that God can use to touch ordinary lives. Dialogue on the faith and mission of the Church will be encouraged across our Broken Bay parishes, school communities, migrant communities, and social outreach services, these constituting “the Church living in the midst of the homes of her sons and daughters” (Evangelii Gaudium 26). All people are welcome and invited to engage in this process locally. Support, guidance and resources for this process of dialogue will be provided by our Office for Evangelisation, our Catholic Schools Office and CatholicCare in collaboration with the national Facilitation Team. As intimated, means of participation, training and resources will be announced around Pentecost 2018. Still much work lies ahead.
It is obviously a difficult time to be of Catholic faith and the Church has been rightly dislocated and unsettled on account of its own shameful past and yearnings of its present culture. With disappointment an experience for many Catholic people, for a variety of personal and ecclesial circumstances, cynicism toward a national ecclesial event such as a Plenary Council is understandable. Reactions point to what lies within. However, pessimism need not be our final post.
A Plenary Council might indeed call some of us to ‘hope against hope’ (Rom 4:18). It will certainly call Catholics to engage in conversation about the Church and world with the eyes of faith, with patience and forgiveness, with openness and boldness, and above all the Spirit-filled expectation that more is possible than the current experience of limitation.
The Plenary Council demands above all, then, a spiritual conversion of the whole Church as it moves through history striving to perceive how the Gospel calls to be applied to new situations. As shared in Novo Millennio Ineunte in 2001, ‘Let us have no illusions: unless we follow this spiritual path, external structures of communion will serve very little purpose. They would become mechanisms without a soul, ‘masks’ of communion rather than its means of expression and growth’ (Novo Millennio Ineunte 43)
This conversion will not be an easy task as it will ask of us – all of us – a genuine change of heart, outlook and witness or behaviour. We can intuit the difficulties in implementing synodality in the Church from our everyday experience of parish and diocesan life as well as from the difficulties that all human communities encounter in the desire to walk and change together. When authority is exercised in local communities without accountability to the people it serves, when local empowerment is sought but problems and issues are habitually bounced upwards, when clericalisation is rightly condemned but passivity among the laity endures, we are confronted with the concrete challenges of becoming the ‘church of churches’ that the Catholic Church is in principle but not always in expression.
While we have in hand a rich theological heritage and can, for instance, affirm the sensus fidelium as an active capacity by which all the faithful are able to receive and understand what God has revealed, or similarly uphold ‘co-responsibility’ of the laity as a gift to the Church’s life, our experience tells us that these theological principles are not so easily translated into pastoral practice, even at the level of the local parish. Our ability to listen to one another, to stretch our imaginations beyond our own enclave, to propose with charity and not aggravation, to resist colonisation by secular political models and to be genuinely open to what the Spirit ‘says to the churches’ (even if this is not to our own preference!) – these are the real world challenges which our communities will experience through the Plenary process.
In truth, the gap between our theology and practice is never completely overcome but it is my hope that the national Council will encourage and challenge local communities to look to the Gospel and then to their own life to discern the change that needs to be brought about in their particular context for the sake of a more effective evangelisation.
In considering the potential for a synodal Church, I note Pope Francis’ consistent call for a healthy and sound ‘decentralisation’. By itself, this term makes clear what the pontiff seeks to move our Church away from (Evangelii Gaudium 16). What Pope Francis is prompting the Church towards is subsidiarity, well described by the theologian Richard Gaillardetz as the principle that ‘the primary responsibility for the realisation of the individual Christian vocation and the fulfilment of the mission of local communities lies with those individuals and local communities themselves.’
The Pope has expressed his commitment to subsidiarity in a number of ways, from retrieving the Second Vatican Council’s theology of the local church (of the diocese, shepherded by a local bishop, and not a branch office of the Holy See) and by encouraging their local initiative, his convening of synods and exercise of collegiality in discernment on the family in 2014 and 2015, and in his motu propio Magnum Principum which effectively shifted the responsibility of liturgical translations to episcopal conferences. Pope Francis’ regard for these national ecclesial structures, established after the Second Vatican Council, has already been evident in his frequent citation of the teaching of episcopal conferences in his magisterial documents to date (e.g. Laudato Si’), a habit which expresses the collegial way in which Pope Francis views and exercises his Petrine ministry.
In the Pope’s repeated emphasis on a ‘sound’ and ‘healthy’ decentralisation there is an awareness that increased agency and responsibility at a local level can lead to division if communities cut themselves off from the larger or universal, mistake agency as unaccountable autonomy. Hence, even in the reform of processes regarding liturgical translations there remains a role for the Apostolic See, which will review and evaluate the adaptations put forward “in order to safeguard the substantial unity of the Roman Rite”. It could be said that Pope Francis is encouraging the Church to be increasingly episcopal without being ‘Episcopal’. Our own Australian Plenary Council will in the same way call forward the voices of the faithful in response to the Gospel experienced and lived in our context but with regard for the universality of the Church, to recognise that we are a part of a universal Catholic communion and called to be ‘a church of churches’ in unity.
Ahead of our Plenary Council, I also think we learn from Pope Francis that ecclesial leadership and subsidiarity of local communities need not contradict one another. Indeed, he shows forth subsidiarity as a way or manner of exercising leadership. It is a well-recognised fact that Pope Francis has strengthened the influence of the papacy as a global authority while at the same time promoting its decentralisation. What he has sought to do, in alignment with his magisterial teaching, is to ‘initiate processes’ rather than to ‘occupy or possess spaces’, to enable initiatives without the need to control their outcome (Evangelii Gaudium 222-223; Laudato Si’ 178; Amoris Laetitia 3, 261). Pope Francis exhibits genuine trust in the speaking and guidance of the Spirit and intervenes only when the realisation of goals appears unattainable or if proposals threaten the faith and unity of the Church universal. He governs in such a way that involves the many. I think this is the gift and challenge of the Plenary Council not only for the bishops of Australia but also all those who exercise leadership or ministry within the Church, from parish pastoral councils to ministry leaders in service of others. A synodal Church is precisely a growth in the capacity of local communities and baptised persons to practice faith in fruitful dialogue with others, by listening, and as a communion reach out to humanity in Jesus Christ through the enlightenment of the Holy Spirit.
This shift in culture should be the underlying, or even better the overriding, goal for the Plenary Council. Again, we know through experience that while articulating sound structures and processes within the life of the Church is paramount, these cannot alone secure the health and vitality of Catholic communities. As Pope Francis has noted, ‘even good structures are only helpful when there is a life constantly driving, sustaining and assessing them. Without new life and an authentic evangelical spirit, without the Church’s “fidelity to her own calling”, any new structure will soon prove ineffective’ (Evangelii Gaudium 26). It is with this hope of new life and a reformed culture that we enter into a new year and take steps toward a Plenary Council, all so that we together might better live the life and mission of Jesus in contemporary Australian society now and for generations to come.
Code of Canon Law, c.445.
 Address of His Holiness Pope Francis Commemorating the 50th Anniversary of the Institution of the Synod of Bishops, 17 October, 2015. The full text is available online at: http://w2.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/ speeches/2015/october/documents/papa-francesco_20151017_50-anniversario-sinodo.html.
 Richard R. Gaillardetz, An Unfinished Council: Vatican II, Pope Francis, and the Renewal of Catholicism (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2015), 126.