What is arguably one of the biggest events in the life of the Church in Australia begins on Sunday 3 October, so to refresh your memory on what the fifth Plenary Council is all about, what follows is a guide to the journey so far and a look at what's about to take place.
A Plenary Council is the highest form of gathering a local Church can have. It has governing and legislative authority, so whatever resolutions are passed at the end of this Plenary (which won't be until after the second Assembly in 2022) will be binding for the Catholic Church in Australia. This is what makes it different from a Synod. Nonetheless, what has taken place up to this point has been an exercise in deep listening and prayer, or what Pope Francis has called a move to a more synodal church ‘which listens' and which realises 'that listening is more than simply hearing'. (Evangelii Gaudium, §171)
It should be noted that a Plenary Council has no power to change or pronounce doctrine. It is, we might say, a more practically-minded Council, looking at how the Church can be more effective in Australia today. This is Australia’s fifth Plenary Council, the last one having happened in 1937 (and prior to that in 1885, 1895 and 1905).
The fifth Plenary Council might be commencing this Sunday, but this event has been years in the making. After almost 20 years of discernment and discussions about a national event for the Catholic Church in Australia, the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference confirmed in 2016 that they planned to host a Plenary Council in 2020. This was later postponed to 2021 due to the pandemic.
We shouldn’t underestimate the importance of this Council for the life of the Church in Australia. It is an opportunity for the Church in Australia to discern together how we might respond to any number of complex crises facing us and then actively develop resolutions that work towards implementing those responses.
It's been more than 80 years since the last Plenary Council was held and much has changed since then. The circumstances of the Church in Australia in our time, including the patterns of change that are evident within the community of the Church, the issues confronting the Church in modern multicultural and secular Australia, the increase in entrusting responsibility for and leadership of the Church’s mission to laity, and even the changing face of the Episcopate, prompt the Church to review, analyse, and discern the signs of the times, to listen anew to the Spirit, and to chart its course into the future.
At the heart of the Council, however, lies the question of how to create a more missionary, Christ-centred Church in Australia.
The theme and purpose of this Council is to “Listen to what the Spirit is saying” (Rev 2:7). The Council is a large-scale act of communal discernment, whereby the Members (both clergy and laity) come together in order to discuss and pray about a number of complex problems that face the Church in Australia today.
There are six key areas of focus on the Agenda, each with accompanying questions for reflection that the Members will discuss during the Plenary Council. These six key areas were distilled from the National Themes for Discernment, which was drawn from the initial Listening and Dialogue phase of the Plenary, and prepared by Discernment and Writing Groups.
Arguably, the two biggest challenges being responded to are these: the failures of the Church as highlighted by the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse; and the Church’s ability to form missionary disciples for the effective proclamation of the Gospel. Helping survivors of sexual abuse, and working to evangelise more effectively in a society that is very different from 20 or 30 years ago, are two of the topics that will be of primary importance.
Here are some highlights from the upcoming livestreaming schedule you might want to look out for:
To watch these key moments of the First Assembly of the Plenary Council, visit the Plenary Council’s homepage.
Australian Catholic Bishops Conference (ACBC)16 September 2021
Australian Catholic Bishops Conference (ACBC)18 June 2021