One of the questions on the agenda for the fifth Plenary Council is this: ‘How might we become a more contemplative people, committing more deeply to prayer as a way of life, and celebrating the liturgy of the Church as an encounter with Christ who sends us out to “make disciples of all the nations”?’
Plenary members have begun discerning in small groups the various agenda items and on Tuesday were given the opportunity to report highlights from their conversations the previous day. Plenary Member Catherine Jenkins represented the group discussing this question of contemplation, and said there was a strong sense that ‘learning how to receive love is an essential first step to prayer …
'Members spoke at length about contemplation as beholding God ... We are yet to fully grapple with the place of prayer and liturgy in the bigger scheme of making God present to others.’
There was also the sense that prayer and contemplation needed to be what ‘nourishes us on mission’.
Dr Nigel Zimmermann is one of the Council’s several theological experts, and in conversation with Melbourne Catholic he said that the question of contemplation is a ‘first-order priority’ for the Church; he is impressed the Council demonstrated the humility to consider it the way they have:
'On the face of it we like to imagine our Australian society is comfortable and progressive, when in fact we can cover over a multitude of pathologies and pain that we don’t even give ourselves time to think through in a conscientious way. With the volume turned up all the time, it’s hard to find room for the small still voice of God. This situation is no small matter, but a fundamental challenge to our missionary works.’
When defining contemplation, he said that ‘it simply speaks of where our gaze and attention is given.’
'Rather like children, for Christians love is spelled ‘TIME’. If we give the Lord our time, we will give, and receive his love, in ample return.’
This is a difficult thing to do in a culture where time and energy seem to run away from us. We are not habituated into the art of dwelling silently or reflectively on the person and presence of Jesus. As a result, he said, the challenge of contemplation is primarily a practical one; it is a challenge to live differently from the world around us as we seek to disconnect, unplug, and switch off the many voices that compete for our attention and devote ourselves to Jesus.
It is a mystery why we stay tuned in to digital media on such a regular basis, especially when, he said, it ‘turns up the volume on every social issue, and becomes a platform for the worst degradation of other people'.
'We have become an anxious people, pursuing outcomes and processes instead of seeking the "good". The last two years of pandemic conditions have exacerbated this situation.’
Much of the conversation at the Council will focus on the effectiveness of the Church’s mission in different areas, but according to Zimmermann, the root of all missionary efforts lies in contemplation: ‘The mission will not bear fruit without a deep and sustained commitment of our time and energy to prayerful attention in the Lord’s presence ...
'This is not a strange mystical calling for the few, but a practical invitation for the many ... Jesus, the one who gives authentic meaning to our humanity, and the one who generations waited for in deep anticipation, lives among us. He is present and bursting with love for us just as we are.’
You can watch the daily Plenary sessions at www.plenarycouncil.catholic.org.au.
Australian Catholic Bishops Conference (ACBC)05 October 2021
Melbourne Catholic04 October 2021