After 3 years of intense preparations the Fifth Plenary Council of Australia is now well underway. The First General Assembly, conducted online across 5 Time Zones from 3-10 October 2021, has concluded and Catholics are rightly asking: What did it achieve? Is God doing a ‘new thing’ for the Church in Australia? What were the Australian bishops intending the Council to achieve?
In 2016 Archbishop Coleridge said a Council would have to specifically address the fall-out from the Royal Commission and the drastic decline in Mass attendance and sacramental participation. More generally, he said it would have to bring on a “change of culture” and make “bold decisions about the future of the Catholic Church in Australia”.
In 2016, Bishop Vincent Long said
that a Council would have to address the real underlying causes of the Church’s
existential crisis triggered by what he called a ‘systematic betrayal of
the Gospel’ by the bishops in the child sexual abuse
At the outset, the bishops committed to an
inclusive national consultation with the whole Catholic community in
its breadth and diversity”. The community responded in 17,500 individual and group submissions indicating
clearly their priorities for culture change
and bold decisions for the future
A lengthy process followed which distilled the content of the submissions into Discernment Papers, an Instrumentum Laboris and finally, an Agenda. Catholics for Renewal regarded the Agenda as not fit for purpose because it failed to fully embody the priorities of the Australian faithful. Plenary Council Member, Professor John Warhurst, observed that the 17,500 submissions were not adequately respected and represented in the Council Agenda.
The process for the First General Assembly was designed to ensure it would be ‘open to the Spirit’ with all 277 Members ‘listening to each other’ in the form of ‘spiritual conversations’. However, Council Member Francis Sullivan states that this spirit of openness was undermined on Day 1 by Archbishops Fisher and Porteous with a pre-emptive assertion that the Church’s woes were due to secularisation and a ‘crisis of faith’, and that the Council must move the Church into ‘counter-cultural’ mode, establish a national program of remedial catechesis, and return it to pious devotional practices.
Not far below the surface in both
the Preparatory Stage and the First Assembly has been the question of ‘trust’
in the bishops. John Warhurst has spoken of
the broken trust and shattered expectations of Australian Catholics over recent
years, especially when their 17,500 submissions were “disregarded by the Plenary
Council authorities in the preparation of both the Working Document and the
subsequent Agenda Questions”. He contends they won’t be treated like this again.
Morris also spoke of the lack of trust in bishops, admitting “we bishops have let
people down and we need to give people a voice. We have been good at power,
good at dictating the way people act. But we have not been good at
relationships. We have protected our power and destroyed our relationships”.
The poet W.H. Auden counselled that we should “approach the Future as a friend without a wardrobe of excuses”. In the wake of the abuse scandal that has engulfed their church, the French bishops immediately sought, without excuses, to re-establish right relationships with their people through a formal and solemn ritual of repentance and collective conversion, something our Australian bishops have yet to do.
Insight into the Assembly proceedings
During the 6 working days of the First Assembly, the Catholic community had only limited insight into the Plenary Sessions. To provide more insight, Concerned Catholics Canberra Goulburn, Garratt Publishing, and other renewal groups auspiced the daily online Plenary Tracker and several Council Members wrote daily blogs .
On Plenary Tracker Council Members Claire Victory (Vinnies), John Warhurst, and Francis Sullivan (Catholic Social Services) highlighted the ‘unfinished business’ around child sexual abuse, insisting that a minimalist approach of simply legislating safeguarding processes and procedures was totally inadequate. The Council had to address church culture, as well as governance policies and structures that facilitated the abuse and allowed the cover-up.
At the recent 3rd National Convocation of Catholics organised by ACCCR several Council Members, expressed disappointment with the process of the 1st Assembly and urged the organisers of the 2nd Assembly to learn from the deficiencies. It should not be conducted like a directed retreat but as a gathering of all the dioceses where the key issues for reform and renewal, especially around church culture and governance, are properly addressed and acted on.
ABC presenter Geraldine Doogue dreams of a Church built on a new, more mature set of relationships, emerging out of the demoralisation of the last decade: “Catholic lay people will need to discern how to reconfigure their rights and responsibilities as believers. Their consecrated sisters and brothers will also need to commit themselves willingly to that same process, to different relationships. It may well be the journey of their lives for both groups, "a graced moment”.
Speaking through his prophet Isaiah, God told his people Israel: “Do not be afraid” for “See, I am doing a new thing” (43: 1, 19). As the decision-making 2nd Assembly approaches in July 2022, Catholics for Renewal believes it is incumbent on Council Members to put their fears aside and open themselves to God who wants to do a ‘new thing’ for the Church in Australia. They should also remember that Jesus told Simon Peter to “put out into the deeper water and pay out your nets for a catch” (Luke 5:4).
The Acts (record of proceedings) of the First General Assembly are still being finalised but, when approved, will be made public (date unknown). During December and January the Council Steering Committee, Drafting Committee, and Periti will draft thematic documents that collate and capture the proposals and propositions from the First General Assembly.
According to the published timeline
for the Council, the “draft documents [for
the 2nd General Assembly will be] released
for study, discernment and feedback” from 7 February 2022 to 25 March 2022. The impression here is that they will
be released to all the People of God for their study, discernment, and feedback. But we are now told that there will be no
consultation with the People of God on the draft propositions. It will be
restricted to Members only. All that the
People of God will be able do is read, reflect on, and pray with the
‘revised propositions’ when they are released at Easter
(17 April 2022).
Catholics for Renewal finds this unacceptable. We request the Council organisers to revise their plan and extend an invitation to the whole Catholic community to offer feedback on the draft propositions between 7 February and 25 March 2022.
Without deliberation plans come to nothing; where counsellors are many plans succeed (Proverbs, 15:22)
 The Catholic Leader, 1 December 2016
 ACBC, Summary of Plenary Meeting 4-11 May 2017
 Louise Milligan, Cardinal. The Rise and Fall of George Pell, MUP, 2017, 363-364
Image 1. Christmas joy without fear, nac.today, adobe.com