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Australia’s Plenary Council 2020: Discerning God’s Voice in the 21st Century

In October 2020, representatives of the Australian Church will gather for the first Plenary Council since Vatican II.  Since the Council was announced in 2017, there has been high expectation that it would be an opportunity for renewal of the Australian Church.  Many expect that  the voices of the lay faithful – particularly the voices of women – are heard, and the experiences of those marginalized in the Church are acknowledged as the Church discerns its way into the 21st century.

Over the 10-month period that ended on March 13 this year, more than 220,000 people participated in the ‘Listening and Dialogue’ process in parishes, schools, Catholic agencies and associations around the country.  A total of 17,457 submissions were made during that first stage of preparation for the Plenary Council.

The topics discussed in the submissions include

–       Faith formation of youth,

–       More engagement with younger generations

–       Greater focus on marriage and the family

–       A more welcoming and non-judgmental Church

–       Inclusion for people with disabilities

–       Catholic voice on social justice issues

–       Care for the environment

–       Shared responsibility between clergy and laity

–       Greater role of women in the Church

–       Evangelisation within the Catholic community and beyond

–       Ordination of women.

–       Ordination of married men

Among suggestions for a more welcoming Church, respondents recommended the inclusion of  divorced and remarried Catholics, and to end the discrimination of LGBTQ people in the Church.  Against the backdrop of the five-year Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, the respondents also called for the end of clericalism, more transparency and accountability regarding clergy sexual abuse, greater concerns for survivors of clergy sexual abuse, and suggested new leadership and governance model.

The submissions were analysed and grouped into categories by the National Centre for Pastoral Research.  Six National Themes for Discernment were released in early June this year to facilitate the discernment process in this second stage of preparation.  Australian Catholics are invited to discern on the question: How is God calling us to be a Christ-centred Church that is:

1.         Missionary and evangelising

2.         Inclusive, participatory and synodal

3.         Prayerful and Eucharistic

4.         Humble, healing and merciful

5.         A joyful, hope-filled and servant community

6.         Open to conversion, renewal and reform

There is strong resonance between these themes and Pope Francis’ views of Church governance and mission, which he himself embodies in his own style of leadership.

The Australian Church has been rocked by the sexual abuse scandal, the findings of the Royal Commission, and the recent conviction of Cardinal George Pell to six years imprisonment for the alleged sexual abuse of two choirboys in 1996.  The cardinal remains in jail pending the ruling on his appeal. The appeal took place in early June.

The first session of the Plenary Council will take place in Adelaide, South Australia, in October 2020. In May 2021, a second session will be held in Sydney, the venue of the 1936 Plenary Council.  The final numbers of people attending the Council are yet to be determined, but it is expected there will be approximately 300 delegates.

Jack de Groot, CEO of St. Vincent de Paul in New South Wales and chairman of the Implementation Advisory Group to Australian bishops and religious on sex abuse, told Catholic News Service that the Plenary Council will have credibility only if laypeople get to vote on its recommendations, and that they have at least half the vote.

Perth Archbishop Timothy Costelloe, Plenary Council president points to the importance of discernment in this stage of preparation for the Council.  “Discernment is a term that we hear quite often these days, and practising discernment in our communities and in our preparation toward the Plenary Council will help to ensure we are listening to God, listening to each other and considering our path forward as the people of God in Australia,”

Frank Brennan SJ, CEO of Catholic Social Services Australia wrote in an article for Eureka Street, ‘If the plenary council is to be a success, the deliberative votes of the bishops legislating new laws for the Australian church in 2021 or at some assembly thereafter will be seen to be the hierarchical endorsement of the sensus fidelium expressed with hope and joy in 2020 and 2021.’

According to St Ignatius Loyola, true discernment requires freedom of spirit.  Freedom to listen.  Freedom to allow change.  Freedom to welcome the unfamiliar.  Freedom to let go, even of one’s certitude.

The people of God are speaking.  May we have the heart to discern God’s voice amidst the voices of God’s faithful.  The ultimate success of the Council is dependent on it.

Key words: Plenary Council 2020, Australian Catholic Church