Sight magazine [Geelong VIC, Australia]
October 4, 2021
By Peta McCartney
The first Australian Catholic Church Plenary Council since 1937 opened on Sunday, with COVID-19 restrictions forcing the original Adelaide meeting – delayed by 12 months – largely online.
The national meeting, involving 278 members across the country – including bishops, members of religious congregations and laypeople – is discussing a range of issues, including matters relating to the Royal Commission into Institutional Response to Child Sexual Abuse, euthanasia laws and women’s roles within the church.
The role of First Nations peoples and church governance are also on the meeting agenda.
Speaking from St Mary’s Cathedral in Sydney in his homily for the opening of the Plenary Council, Sydney Archbishop Anthony Fisher said it comes at an important juncture of the history of the Church in Australia.
“We must address some very contemporary issues, such as: How to deepen our spiritual lives amidst the noise and busyness of modernity? How are we to spread the Word in a society of declining faith, affiliation and practice? How can we ensure all our institutions are ‘with the programme’, so to speak?
“How are we to heal the wounds of colonisation or abuse and learn from First Nations peoples and survivors? How will we be voices for ‘the little ones’ including the unborn, dying and others ‘at the peripheries’ of our ‘throwaway society’, as Pope Francis has named it? How best are we to structure and govern our Church in these times?” he said.
He added some would “fear another gabfest, making no real difference” but assured them thinking and talking were already actions and “words can bring about change.
Meanwhile, a message from Pope Francis read out during the opening plenary session this morning 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”.
The message, read by Monsignor John Baptist Itaruma from the Apostolic Nunciature in Australia, said Pope Francis “prays that the Council may be a graced occasion for mutual listening and spiritual discernment, marked by profound Communion with the Successor of Peter”, a term used to describe the Pope.
“In this conciliar process, the Church in Australia is challenged to listen to the voice of the Spirit and to bear witness to the perennial truth of the Gospel and to develop new and creative expressions of evangelical charity,” said the message, signed by Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin.”
The Plenary Council is the highest form of gathering of the local church and has legislative and governance authority, with decisions made at the council binding for the Catholic Church in Australia.
“Pope Francis has invited the local Church to dialogue; the contemporary society of Australia has changed significantly; and the Royal Commission into Institutional Response to Child Sexual Abuse has been a significant and influential event that requires deep consideration and response,” a statement by the church says.
“At the time the decision to hold a Plenary Council was announced by the Australian Catholic Bishops, Archbishop of Brisbane Mark Coleridge said ‘the Church is not the presence in our society it once was. We need to take a measure of that and make decisions accordingly. The culture in which we have to proclaim the Gospel is very different to what it was even 20 or 30 years ago’.
“The journey is taking place over several years in order to give the Catholic community in Australia time to listen, dialogue and discern with one another and, guided by the Holy Spirit, about the future, the role and relevance of the Catholic Church in Australia.”
Plenary Council facilitator Lana Turvey-Collins said told Sight prior to the council that some parts of the sessions, including the opening plenary session on Monday, will be live-streamed but most of the Thursday program will be offline.
“These livestreams will allow the people of God to stay connected with the work of the Plenary Council, including through the sharing of the fruits of discernment,” Turvey-Collins said.
“Across the six days of the first assembly, the members will be praying with the 16 questions of the agenda and engaging in the practice of spiritual conversations. We know that some parishes and families and other church communities are planning to do the same.”
The second assembly of the Plenary Council will be held in Sydney on 4th to 9th July, 2022.
Catholics make up 43 per cent of Australia’s Christian community, according to the 2016 Census.