Episcopal autocracy ‘has to go’ – Australia Plenary Council

The Tablet [Market Harborough, England]

October 4, 2021

By Mark Bowling

In Australia an historic Plenary Council assembly has opened with Catholic bishops and laypeople considering the tough issues confronting the Church in Australia today –  how the Church can move forward after the damning findings of a child sex abuse royal commission, shrinking church attendances, a shortage of priests and how to increase the role of women.

In all, 278 members – bishops, priests, deacons, members of religious orders and lay people, including women – are convening after three and a half years of preparation. 

Although it is Australia’s fifth Plenary Council, the last gathering of its kind was in 1937 and was an all-male affair.  

The first of two assemblies will run until October 10 with members from across Australia meeting online. A second assembly will be held in July 2022.

Pope Francis sent greetings and blessings from Rome. In a message read out during the opening session Francis said the Plenary Council “represents a singular ‘journeying together’ of God’s people in Australia along the paths of history towards a renewed encounter with the Risen Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit”.

Part of the long preparation for the historic plenary event was large-scale national consultation. 

An early preparation phase of the Plenary – a 10-month “listening and dialogue” process in 2018-19, captured the voice of more than 222,000 Australians. 

Organisers received almost 17,500 submissions, from individuals and groups of all sizes, addressed the plenary council’s central question: “What do you think God is asking of us in Australia at this time?

That question was one that Archbishop Costelloe, the president of the Plenary Council, addressed as he spoke at the opening session on Monday.

He reminded the hundreds of members meeting virtually across Australia “to listen deeply for the voice and to be alert to the leadings of the Holy Spirit”.

“The restrictions imposed by the pandemic will not prevent the Holy Spirit from moving our minds and our hearts if we remain open to that Spirit,” Archbishop Costelloe said.

He did not shy away from the biggest issue that has bruised the Church in recent times.

“… the Catholic community in Australia has had to face the reality of our betrayal of so many of our young people through the horror of sexual abuse,” he said.

“So many lives have been diminished and even destroyed because of this dreadful failure.

“We carry the weight of the shame with us into this assembly, and equally we also carry an unshakable conviction that our care for those who have suffered so much, and our responsibility to make our Church settings places of safety and security for our children, our young people and vulnerable adults, must remain two fundamental aspects of our life and ministry as the Church in Australia.

“This reality is surely one of the “signs of the times” which we are called to discern in the light of the gospel.”

Celebratory masses for the start of the Plenary Council Assembly were held cathedrals across Australia.

Brisbane Archbishop Mark Coleridge said: “We come to evoke the power of the Spirit because without that Spirit we are left simply with politics and ideology.”

Speaking earlier on ABC radio, Archbishop Coleridge said the royal commission into child sexual abuse didn’t prompt the Plenary Council but the “great humiliations” it exposed must inform the next steps of a “diminished” church.

He said the role of women in the Church would be “central and fundamental to the deliberations of the Plenary Council”.

It cannot be “business as usual for the Church”, Archbishop Coleridge said. 

“Some of the bishops are nervous about an erosion of episcopal authority, which we regard as God-given,” Archbishop Coleridge said.

“The episcopate as autocracy has got to go – that is not what is God-given.

“If we try and set up fortress church we are shooting ourselves in the foot. We have to accept certain facts – we do not have the social profile and the public voice that we once had.

“We have to ask the questions about what it means to be a poorer church, a humbler church, a simpler church, but a church which is reaching out in all kinds of new, and perhaps hitherto unseen ways, into culture and society.”

All Masses and some of the sessions during this week’s first general assembly will be live-streamed on the Plenary Council website and through the Plenary Council’s Facebook page. 

Find out more at www.plenarycouncil.catholic.org.au. The Mass to close the first general assembly will be celebrated at 10am AEST on Sunday, October 10, and live-streamed from St Stephen’s Cathedral in Brisbane. The second assembly is scheduled to take place in Sydney from July 4-9, 2022.