Catholics for Renewal


January 2020

Are our Bishops listening?

Catholics for Renewal is closely monitoring preparations for the 5th Australian Plenary Council. With the First Session to be held in Adelaide on 5-11 October 2020, just a little over 8 months away, important matters still to be finalised include the selection of lay delegates to the Council and the preparation and setting of the Council agenda. We have concerns with these matters and with commitment to contribution of the Faithful to the Plenary Council.

Delegates to the 2020/21 Plenary Council

The selection of delegates to the Council got underway shortly before Christmas 2019. Bishops and dioceses across Australia began calling for ‘Expressions of Interest’ (EOI) and ‘Nominations’ for the selection of priests and ‘others of Christ’s faithful’ to represent the various dioceses at the 2020 and 2021 Sessions of the Council. These delegates will make an important contribution to the future of the Catholic Church in Australia.

Candidates for selection must be available for both Sessions (October 2020 and June/July 2021) and for formation (June/July 2020), have certain ‘characteristics’, and be aged over 16 years.  The main criterion for selection will be “the person’s ability and capacity to discern with an open heart, listening to what the Spirit is saying to the Church in Australia”.

Unlike previous announcements, this one did not come from the central organising body, and appears poorly coordinated, confused, and even misleading, with deadlines scattered and the publicity pitiful.

Perth’s call went out in mid-December. Melbourne’s was on Christmas Eve and only to the parish priests. Only 12 out of 28 diocesan websites mention the call for delegates, and just 7 indicate the number of diocesan delegates to be selected: Melbourne, Perth and Sydney (4), Sandhurst, Parramatta, Wollongong and Ballarat (2). The Melbourne website states that the Bishops Conference (ACBC) “has requested that each Diocese nominate four people, who may be laypersons, members of religious orders or Clergy”.  Deadlines, where mentioned, range from 17 January to 10 February 2020.  Some dioceses seek ‘Expressions of Interest’ from interested individuals; others seek ‘Nominations’ from individuals, parish pastoral councils or diocesan groups, and others specifically exclude ‘self-nominations’. 

The Council website simply states: “If you are interested in becoming a delegate for the Plenary Council 2020 Assembly 1, email your Diocesan Coordinator to ask about the process.”

Nominations and EOIs go first to the dioceses or bishops for an initial selection, with the process unknown. The final delegate selection will be made by the National Commission for the Plenary Council and announced before Easter.

How many delegates will be selected?

If the Bishops Conference (ACBC) has decided on the total number of delegates to be called to the Council, it has not announced it.

The National Commission is said to be looking for a ‘variety of voices’, with a mixture of ages, and delegates from rural and city parishes. Nothing has been said about gender balance, representation from First Peoples, immigrants, or the LGBTIQ+ community, or how many priests, deacons, religious sisters and brothers, and lay women and men will be selected.  Unlike previous plenary councils, the priests of each diocese will not be invited to elect their own delegate to the council. It is possible that some dioceses will choose to have no priest delegates at all.

Canon Law (C. 443) specifies two groups who are to participate in a Plenary Council:

  • those who MUST be called from all the particular churches – the 35 dioceses, eparchies, and ordinariates in Australia (Group A); and
  • those who CAN be called from all 35 particular churches (Group B). 

Group A consists essentially of senior diocesan roles - bishops and some priests and a very few laypersons. The total, from all the dioceses, will probably be some 150-160 persons.

Group B consists of some retired bishops (of the current 31), ‘priests’ (outside Group A), and ‘others of Christ’s faithful’ (including religious sisters and brothers, and lay women and men) from all 35 particular churches. 

Canon Law specifies that the total number in Group B cannot exceed one half of the total number in Group A. This means that Group B will likely have no more than 80 delegates or, on average, just 2 delegates per diocese, with a few extras shared among certain dioceses. It is not surprising that there was so little fanfare for this call for delegates.

The number of Catholics in Australia’s dioceses varies significantly: 3 have over 500,000, 4 have 200,000 - 500,000, 6 have 100,000 – 200,000, 9 have 50,000 – 100,000, and 13 have less than 50,000 (13). Broome Diocese has just 8,480 Catholics, while Melbourne has 1,067,432.

Request for Canon Law dispensation

In September 2019 Catholics for Renewal, concerned about the likely lack of lay representation at the Council, asked the Bishops Conference to request from the Holy See a dispensation from the strict restrictions imposed by Canon 443, proposing that at least one third of all delegates from the particular churches be lay women and men. The ACBC is understood to have made this request, but it now appears to have been denied.

Total lay delegate numbers at the Council may not exceed 40 persons (around 17% of all Council members), lay women may not exceed 20 delegates (8.5%), and minimal consideration has been given to diocesan populations. 

Council organisers need now be very aware that the delegates selected, and how they are selected, will be key factors in how much trust and confidence  Christ’s faithful place in the Council’ ability to make the reforms that are so necessary.

Catholics for Renewal agrees with John Warhurst that “the process for the selection of diocesan delegates cries out for more transparency, if community trust is to be established; that instruments of accountability are largely lacking; that representation of lay Catholics, especially women, must be a high priority; that the bishops, individually and collectively, should begin 2020 by turning over a new leaf on their transparency mindset; and that the diocesan Catholic media, impotent or uninterested, is useless in this regard” (Eureka Street, 29 January 2020).

Plenary Council Discernment and Writing Groups

The six Plenary Council Discernment and Writing Groups, with their 58 selected members (from 400 applicants) and 12 bishops, were set up in September 2019. They are now busily engaged in preparing a set of thematic documents on the 6 discernment themes: Missionary and Evangelising;  Inclusive, Participatory and Synodal;  Prayerful and Eucharistic;   Humble, Healing and Merciful;  A Joyful, Hope-Filled and Servant Community;  Open to conversion, Renewal and Reform.

These documents are expected to be published as thematic papers by end-March/early-April 2020 and are designed to shape the agenda for the first session of the Plenary Council in October 2020. 

Key influences on the thematic papers are to be the Scriptures, Church teaching, canon law, Vatican II documents, papal writings, pastoral letters of the Australian bishops, and the sensus fidelium of the Australian people expressed in 1000-character Summary Responses emerging from the communal Discernment taking place across the country. The Writing Groups are to pray and discern these Summary Responses (to be submitted online by end-January 2020) from their collective theological knowledge.

Catholics for Renewal calls for Council organisers to make Summary Responses public, preferably also analysed by diocese.

Diocesan Listening and Discernment Sessions prior to 1st Session of the Council

Catholics for Renewal notes with much interest the decision by Bishop McKenna of Bathurst to hold a series of five Regional Listening and Discernment Sessions across his diocese in May 2020, after the six Thematic Discernment papers have been published. The Toowoomba Diocese is also planning a diocesan listening and dialogue gathering on 15 February 2020.  We would encourage all dioceses to consider holding similar sessions well before the October 2020 Session to engage their diocesan faithful more closely with the council agenda.

Abstract Image: Madrid. Representative Delegates