Renewing the Archdiocese of Melbourne
Archbishop of Melbourne, Peter Comensoli, now accepts that his diocese is in a huge existential crisis. He told his diocesan clergy on 28 April 2021 and parish lay leaders on 22 May 2021 that the diocese is on a ‘threshold’ and either we do something or ‘sink into the sunset’.
Melbourne is not unique among Australia’s dioceses. It is the reason why a
Plenary Council has been called.
The Melbourne crisis
Archdiocese currently has 209 parishes with an average 5052 Catholics. But only
13 percent of Catholics across all parishes typically attend weekend Mass, and
in the largest parishes as few as 6 per cent attend. The 209 parishes have
reduced from 233 in 1999 and of these just 80 per cent have
a full-time resident priest. Currently, just 226 priests are actively engaged in parish ministry, and less than
half (45%) are Australian-born. Only some 70 locally-born diocesan priests remain,
and 20 will retire in the next 10 years. In 2020 just 2 new locally-born diocesan
priests were ordained for Melbourne.
crisis has been building since the 1960s and, even before the clerical child
sexual abuse scandal, Catholic youth had sensed their church had gone ‘off mission’. Over 40 years hundreds of locally-born
young men had responded generously to a call to the diocesan priesthood, with
annual seminarian numbers from the Victorian and Tasmanian dioceses surging from
11 in 1924 to 215 in 1964. But in 1971 numbers had fallen to just 146 seminarians
and by 1986 to 81. This drop-off in locally-born candidates for
the diocesan priesthood occurred across Australia and now, 50 years on, there
are insufficient new locally-born priests to replace those who retire or die. This is the result of a church gone ‘off mission’.
challenge is more than just to ‘attend to
the manner in which the local communities of the Archdiocese are arranged and
Finding a solution
Melbourne’s archbishops have consistently refused to share their concerns with their people and to give them a voice in finding solutions, ignoring the call of Vatican II to ‘let synods flourish with new vigour’. None since 1916 has convened a diocesan synod or assembly to open up a meaningful dialogue with all their people, clerical and lay, and listen to their instinct of faith (sensus fidei fidelium).
Vatican II also declared it ‘highly desirable’ that a diocesan pastoral council be established in every diocese and Canon Law expects one ‘in so far as pastoral circumstances suggest’ (C. 511). Pastoral circumstances have long suggested it, but a Melbourne diocesan pastoral council is yet to be established.
Following Vatican II, Pope Francis has insisted that any ‘proposal of goals without an adequate communal search for the means of achieving them will inevitably prove illusory’. He has directed bishops ’to encourage and develop the means of participation proposed in Canon Law and other forms of pastoral dialogue, out of a desire to listen to everyone and not simply to those who would tell him what he would like to hear’. At the 2014 Synod on the Family he told the bishops that synodality means ’not some of the bishops some of the time but all of the Church all of the time’.
But Archbishop Comensoli has rejected such synodality. Instead of convening a diocesan assembly or synod, laying his concerns before his people, and inviting them to join him in a ‘communal search’, he has made a unilateral decision, settled on his own proposal, and then, only afterwards, invited them to comment on its implementation. That is not synodality.
Why the Archbishop has taken this precipitate decision is not clear, but it might be to forestall the division of the Archdiocese. Sydney Archdiocese was divided in 1986 when Catholics numbered less than one million. Melbourne now has over one million Catholics in a massive urban sprawl.
Most worrying is
that Archbishop Comensoli has effectively spurned the Plenary Council which commences
in less than 80 days .
Council Members from all dioceses will come together to ‘make provision for the pastoral needs of the people of God’ (C.
445), and the agenda will address specifically “How might the Church in Australia be better structured for mission,
considering the parish, the diocese . . . ?“
the Plenary Council, the Archbishop is dismissive of the highest governance
body of the Catholic Church in Australia.
Pope Francis and Synod on Synodality
Pope Francis recently re-ordered preparations for the 2022 Synod of Bishops, calling for a new 2-year process of consultation at diocesan, continental, and universal levels. He has instructed every diocesan bishop to LISTEN to ‘all the baptised’ of his diocese, beginning at the grassroots with ‘the smallest parish, the smallest diocesan institution’, and has specified a 7-month window for it: October 2021 to April 2022.
With no commitment of synodal processes, what will Archbishop Comensoli do?
A synodal suggestion from Catholics for Renewal
for Renewal has a suggestion for the Archbishop: Put your restructuring proposal on hold. Pause it for a year, even longer,
and take the following steps.
Step One: Announce that you will convene a diocesan assembly after the 1st Session of the Plenary Council. Make it a fully-fledged LISTENING exercise, with all the baptised of the Archdiocese invited to participate. Make it a face-to-face dialogue with the faithful. Focus it on synodality and make it a practical exercise in synodal governance, with bishops, clerics, religious and lay persons all together, speaking and listening to each other on the broader pastoral issues facing the Archdiocese. And for an informed dialogue, make public the substance of your 2019 Quinquennial Report.
Step Two: Retain the proposed regional assemblies now being organised, but refocus their
agenda: away from the implementation of your restructuring proposal and towards
the priority issues identified by the Melbourne faithful and the broader issues on the Council agenda.
Use the insights from these assemblies to assist the Archdiocese’s Plenary
Council members to better contribute to the Council, as well as prepare the
ground for the diocesan assembly after the 1st Session of the
Three: Convene a diocesan synod after the Plenary Council has concluded. Hopefully,
the Council will have charted a way forward to get our Church ‘back on mission’. That will be the time
to plan the implementation of the Council’s pastoral solutions and, if
appropriate, restructure the diocese.
Plenary Council is a commitment of Australia’s bishops to a nationwide renewal
of the Church in Australia. The Archbishop of Melbourne must demonstrate that
he shares that commitment.
Image (upper): Abstract, Steve Johnson, Unsplash. Into the Sunset
Image (lower): All Saints, 1920, St Denis Parish, Menlo Park
 Archbishop Peter Comensoli, The Way of the Gospel: Families of Communities, Address to Archdiocesan Clergy, Bulleen, 28 April 2021.
 At end-2020 there were 39 diocesan seminarians at Corpus Christi College. Half were overseas-born.
 Archbishop Peter Comensoli, Take the Way of the Gospel, Talk to Lay Leadership Gathering, 22 May 2021.
 Vatican II, Christus Dominus, n. 36
 Pope Francis, Evangelii Gaudium, n. 33
 Pope Francis, Evangelii Gaudium, n. 33
 Pope Francis, Address to Italian Bishops Conference on their decision of plan a national synod, 24 May 2021. He reminded them that “the whole people of God – all of them, from the bishop on down – is infallible in belief” (Lumen Gentium, n. 12) : https://www.ncronline.org/news/vatican/synod-process-must-begin-bottom-pope-tells-bishops
 Plenary Council, Diocesan Report for Melbourne Archdiocese: Microsoft Word - Diocesan Final Report - Melbourne FINAL.docx (catholic.org.au) The priority issues were: care of neighbour, better faith formation, greater role for women, greater involvement of the laity, ending celibacy and allowing priests to marry, ordination of women, greater inclusion of all, fighting for human rights issues, outreach to youth, and more transparency and accountability on child sexual abuse.