For the past two days, I have been on retreat with the Executive Committee to begin preparations for the Plenary Council for the Australian Catholic Church for 2020. With the Executive Committee was also my Bishop Antoine Charbel Tarabay, Archbishop Mark Coleridge and Bishop Vincent Long.
A Plenary Council itself is a formal meeting of the archbishops and bishops of a country. However, as St Augustine recognised, the Council itself is intended to form a complete representation of the entire Church.
Plenary Councils are not new to the Australian Church or the Church as a whole. The last Plenary Council of the Church in Australia was held in 1937 and earlier ones were held in 1885, 1895 and 1905.
Surprisingly, it has been some time since a Plenary Council has been held in Australia. I say surprising because as Pope Francis explains in an address to a Ceremony Commemorating the 50th Anniversary of the Institution of the Synod of Bishops, one of the legacies of the Second Vatican Council was that it reproduces images of the Ecumenical Councils. Both the Second Vatican Council and Popes since then have recognised the value in these Councils.
Pope Francis, during his papacy has emphasised synodality. He explains:
“What the Lord is asking of us is already in some sense present in the very word “synod”. Journeying together — laity, pastors, the Bishop of Rome — is an easy concept to put into words, but not so easy to put into practice.”
The challenge for this Plenary Council is how it will put into practice the journeying together of laity, pastors and bishops. The previous Australian Plenary Councils were largely gatherings of males (and dare I say white males). Generally, they involved bishops, theologians and superiors of male religious orders.
From the outset, there are clear messages that this Plenary Council will be different. This has begun with the choice of Executive Committee members. The members are diverse in experience, background and perspective.
Over the past two days I have reflected on my own role in this Executive Committee. I am a Christian, Maronite, woman, wife, mother, educator, first generation migrant from a culturally and linguistically diverse background, have a background in the law and many other things which I could look to represent in this committee. But what I have come to realise is my role is not representative. Each of the groups to which I belong is diverse. My experiences, hopes, aspirations and perspectives are not the same as others within my own community and I cannot possibly represent all the views and diversity. What my experiences, belonging and background can contribute is to give recognition that there are many voices within the Catholic Church in Australia and to imagine new ways to bring those voices into this journey of the Plenary Council. While the challenge is huge, the mandate is clear. The Plenary Council will need to bring the entire Australian Catholic Church into this journey so that it can truly be a complete representation of the Church in Australia. Pope Francis has already set out the framework for how we can get there:
“A synodal Church is a Church which listens, which realizes that listening “is more than simply hearing”.(12) 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).”
The Cornerstone of Pope Francis’ message has been simple. The joy of the Gospel is for everyone and we the Church are called to go forth, into the margins and on the peripheries to proclaim that joy.
This is an exciting opportunity which has reinvigorated me personally. My hope is that at the end of this Plenary Council, when we have all travelled together, prayed together and listened together, we have a clearer vision of how as the Catholic Church in Australia we can continue the journey to bring the joy of the Gospel to those who do not know it. It might be a big ask, but even the sceptic in me is open to the fact that it is possible.
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