THE first general assembly of Australia’s historic Plenary Council has opened with Catholic bishops and laypeople set to consider some of the most confronting issues for the Church in Australia today.Australia’s historic Plenary Council gathering that could reshape the Church – The Catholic Leader
At an opening Mass, Perth Archbishop Timothy Costelloe said Catholics “must become, even more than we are already, a community of true disciples”.
It has taken three-and-a-half years of preparation for a Plenary Council – the fifth in the nation’s history and the first since 1937.
The first of two assemblies is being held for the next six days with 278 members – bishops, priests, religious and laypeople, including women – meeting virtually from sites across the country.
Members are gathering to consider a range of tough issues: 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.
Part of the long preparation for the historic plenary event was significant national consultation focused on the 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, explored during his homily as he celebrated the opening Mass at Perth’s St Mary’s Cathedral on Sunday morning.
“Perhaps the most important thing God is asking of us at this time is to return the Church to Christ and return Christ to the Church,” he said.
“What has always been true in theory and in principle urgently needs to become true in the day-to-day experience of everyone who encounters us.
We must become, even more than we are already, a community of true disciples.
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“We must become a living icon of Christ who humbled himself, taking the form of a servant.
“We must learn from the One who is meek and humble of heart. We are being sent by Him as He was sent by his Father.
“If we remain in Him, as branches remain part of the vine, we will bear much fruit.”
Members are being called to “develop concrete proposals to create a more missionary, Christ-centred Church in Australia”.
They will contemplate an agenda that contains 16 questions across six themes: Conversion; Prayer; Formation; Structures; Governance; and Institutions.
The Council’s members will engage with the agenda’s questions through listening and dialogue, using the spiritual conversations process widely used in Catholic settings.
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 the ABC’s Religion and Ethics Report, 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.”
Catholic Social Services Australia chair Francis Sullivan, a member of the Plenary Council assembly said he joined the opening Mass online and “couldn’t help but be reminded of the diversity of ways Catholics identify these days”.
“Some practice in conventional ways. Others find their religious expression through good works and community services,” he said.
“Others still have found nurture and sustenance in specific movements and spiritualties, including being involved with social justice groups, refugee support and meditation communities.
“We know that nearly 90 per cent don’t attend regular weekend worship.
“But it doesn’t mean that they still don’t value a spiritual search and are not embarked on a life of meaning and service.
“Often they find real congruency between their religious values and the life choices, daily decisions that mark their place in the world and their disposition to others.
“It is what Pope Francis means when he calls for a Church that ‘goes to the streets’, relates ‘at the margins’, has ‘the smell of the sheep’.”
All Masses and some of the sessions during this week’s first general assembly will be livestreamed on the Plenary Council website and through the Plenary Council’s Facebook page.
Find out more at http://www.plenarycouncil.catholic.org.au The Mass to close the first general assembly will be celebrated at 10am AEST on Sunday, October 10, and livestreamed from St Stephen’s Cathedral in Brisbane. The second assembly is scheduled to take place in Sydney from July 4-9, 2022.