The COVID pandemic may have thrown the prospect of travel into disarray, but that hasn’t halted preparations for the now multi-modal fifth Plenary Council which begins in October. Indeed, the one-year postponement has almost been a moment of grace, allowing space for deeper discernment which, as Archbishop Timothy Costelloe SDB opines, ‘has always been at the very heart of the Plenary Council project.’

Discerning what the Spirit is saying in prayer is something familiar to Melburnian Nimmi Candappa, a member of the Plenary Council. But it’s taken her a lifetime of practice.

Nimmi recalls the first time she heard about the Plenary Council and the question being posed to the Church in Australia: What do you think God is asking of us in Australia at this time?

‘I’d heard about the Plenary from two different people who’d said that the Church was having this conversation and wanted to hear from us,’ said Nimmi. ‘And I thought… Wow! I really love that. What a great thought to actually involve us in what the Church wants. I was so enlivened by that because I think it takes a lot of humility from the Church to do that.’

It wasn’t all roses though. ‘Unfortunately, not every parish engages the way that we want and so some parishes really got into it and some didn’t. The low point was going to a parish for a Plenary meeting and turning up to be the only one there! It was just the priest and me so we just ended up having a coffee,’ laughed Nimmi.

‘But then I went to another parish and it was wonderful – it was vibrant; everyone was there and the conversations got going. And it became the inspiration for the parish to keep including that [listening and dialogue] into parish life.’

Nimmi acknowledges that there will always be challenges when bringing people together for something they feel so passionately about.

‘One of the things about the Plenary process was that there’s just such a range of people and a cynicism that comes in so strongly. I would say to people: It doesn’t matter. Trust the Spirit, trust that for whatever reason, we’re in this process and give them [the Church] what you want to say. Take the chance to tell them that there is interest in taking part in these conversations.’

While she felt encouraged by the opportunity to contribute, Nimmi saw the need for the dialogue to start from a place of prayer and contemplation.

‘For me, all of this has to come from a place of prayer,’ said Nimmi. ‘It’s just so important.’

‘Even when I was taking part in the initial Plenary conversations, a lot of it was just intellectual debate. And I’m also guilty of that,’ Nimmi said.

‘But I think when we pray we can separate the two. When we come to understand that the Spirit talks through all of us, then we can understand that it’s not about your opinion, it’s about what the Spirit is saying to you, and that’s a different matter. But it can only happen when we’re receptive to the Spirit. So it’s an invitation to be contemplative.’

Importantly, for any dialogue to be fruitful it needs to begin from a place of vulnerability, which Nimmi acknowledges is risky for all parties.

‘In these discussion groups, it becomes a lot harder to really identify what is Spirit-led and what is “us-led” or “reaction-led”. And when people talk they can press our buttons so we sort of react. So that’s one of the risks we face [in the Plenary], but we can’t help it.’

A deepening friendship with God

Conversations about faith – its joys, struggles, and everything in between – is something that Nimmi has craved throughout her life.

‘My parents were both heavily involved in the Church when we were growing up,’ she says. Nimmi and her family lived in Sri Lanka before they migrated to Australia when she was 12. Her mother Yvonne was a teacher and her dad Emmanuel worked as a journalist for several major newspapers here and overseas.

‘He [dad] and I were really good friends. We could just sit and chat about things. He is someone who gave me a sense of friendship with God, rather than an overly pious relationship with God.’

‘The sense I have of God is like a toddler with a parent. The toddler has all the tantrums and yet the parent doesn’t get angry and understands that the toddler just doesn’t have the words to express how they’re feeling.

‘I don’t relate to a God who is easily offended. To offend you have to be the same in level and to me, it seems unlikely that I can offend God in that way. He’s much more loving and bigger than me and so I feel so much more comfortable with him and I can just say what I want to say.’

It is this utter honesty with God that Nimmi says has been essential to her faith. And it’s an honesty that has been tested at various points in her life.

‘In any friendship, when you have a bit of a crisis, that’s when things get moving,’ reflected Nimmi. ‘Either you get really close – you don’t even have the words to explain it – but you know the friendship has gotten closer. Or, it goes away and you’re incompatible.’

Nimmi was in her early 20s when her mum passed away suddenly and the experience forced her to ask some tough questions about her faith and relationship with God.

‘We joke in our family that there’s this time before mum and after mum. There was that time when mum was alive that things just felt a lot safer, and we all felt protected.’

Nimmi remembers vividly the day her mum died. She had already been diagnosed with cancer and was undergoing treatment at the time.

‘We were told that she wasn’t going to survive the night. We prayed Rosary after Rosary, Memorare after Memorare, really begging God. I just remember that I came back home from uni, Mum had gone to the hospital, and then that night she died. So it was almost like a car accident type of suddenness.

‘And with that kind of prayer, it’s really hard to go back to just things as they were. You really have to question, What am I doing here? Is this [faith] really worthwhile?

She was 21 at the time. ‘For many years I think it was almost just like a coping mechanism, almost as a way of survival. There was this sense that I had to hang on to faith even when it didn’t make sense,’ shared Nimmi. ‘I thought, yeah, I’ll go to some prayer meetings and I’ll go to Mass… and then, gradually, I started understanding that all of this was nurturing me.

‘There’s a point, isn’t there, when we have to take responsibility for our faith. And that for us was probably when my mum died. I really had to think and take responsibility for it.’

Over the years, Nimmi has continued to explore her faith further, be it in quiet prayer or in conversation with others on the journey. ‘I’ve had the Marists brothers’ prayer group and [Jesuit] Fr Andy Hamilton whom I’ve known pretty much the whole time I’ve been here. The Oblates of Mary Immaculate too, because I lived in Mulgrave.’

She has also enjoyed conversations with her brother Fr Dishan Candappa, a priest of the Archdiocese of Melbourne. ‘Especially once we were in our 20s. We had lots of lovely conversations where we would really discuss our faith.’

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Melbourne Plenary members being commissioned at the Chrism Mass at St Patrick’s Cathedral (March 2021)

Prayer key to understanding vocation

Nimmi completed a double degree in Arts and Engineering, which she says was inspired by her mum. ‘Mum was a maths and science and physics teacher and so there was a subtle encouragement from her part for me to do this,’ said Nimmi. ‘She wanted to be an engineer but in those days in Sri Lanka she wasn’t allowed to be. I think that’s partly where my feminist trait comes in!’

Nimmi eventually went into civil engineering and worked in road safety at VicRoads and Monash University as a researcher. ‘It’s a very fulfilling area, particularly in road safety, where you feel like you’re making a difference since you’re aware of people dying on the roads.’

Making a difference is something that Nimmi had always felt called to. In her mid-20s she travelled to Peru and worked with the Missionaries of Charity, the religious order established by Mother [St] Teresa of Calcutta.

‘I volunteered for about four months there. I lived with a Peruvian family and worked in an orphanage. I hadn’t thought about religious life before that. I just knew that I wanted to help in some way. There’s a very clear social justice bent to me, particularly people in areas of destitution.’

Nimmi enjoyed her time with the Sisters in Peru, but in the end, she felt that life wasn’t for her. She contemplated a number of other religious orders and while she loved getting to know their way of life, nothing eventuated. What has been invaluable however has been the chance to talk with someone about her faith and vocation.

‘I’ve had a spiritual director for many years who’s helped me discern my vocation and that’s been really important,’ Nimmi said. ‘It opens such a door of conversation of understanding and growth.’

‘We have people who are trained to draw our faith out – not just telling us what to do, but to draw it out and support and embody our faith in terms of the life we are seeking. We need this so much.’

Perhaps this has been one of the most difficult aspects of the Plenary Council so far – the realisation that many of us are not quite equipped for entering into deeper conversations of faith that must begin with the practice of discernment.

In his Plenary paper, A Journey of Discernment, President of the Plenary Council Archbishop Costelloe writes that discernment is a process that helps us ‘to listen carefully to what is going on within us and, as we share this with others, what is also going on within them.’

‘Many of us have had to learn the hard way that this requires honesty, humility and openness to each other … It will be the habit and practice of prayer which will mould our hearts and open our ears to enable us to “tune in” to the voice of God speaking to us in all kinds of ways, some of them most unexpected.’
Plenary members retreat
Melbourne Plenary members attending an online retreat (June 2021)

Give God a chance to speak to you

In late 2019, Nimmi began a new role as Charism Coordinator for the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate (OMI). The role is one of many initiatives taken by the Oblates to deepen their engagement with local schools and parishes. As part of this role, Nimmi writes short reflections that seek to draw on the charism of the Oblates and their patron saint, St Eugene de Mazenod.

‘St Eugene de Mazenod has a lot of the characteristics that I aspire to in terms of a faith-based relationship. He’s not overly pious and he had quite a temper. He was real!

‘With St Eugene and with God, we can sometimes just be their mouthpiece, can’t we? And being able to access that is just about a deep enough prayer time,’ said Nimmi.

‘I will sometimes say, “just spend 10 minutes a day [in prayer]. Don’t worry about anything else.” Just bring God into it and give him that chance to speak to you in some way.’

Developing this habit of prayer is something that Nimmi believes needs to be encouraged more by the Church and perhaps for some, even re-learned. ‘I’ve found that after high school, we don’t have any formal training in faith – it’s sort of “go out into the world and do your own thing,”’ said Nimmi.

This opportunity for learning how to pray and contemplate is something that Nimmi hopes the Plenary Council will continue to contribute towards.

‘Different people have different opinions but in one sense, I feel we have been treated like a “teenage” Catholic, as in, “We’ll give you the rules… we’ll give you the curfews and you just follow and you can get to heaven that way.” But savvy parents … know when to pull those rules back and say, “Now it’s up to you. You have to take ownership; you have to be able to push forward and to be able to relate to what we have tried to put into you,“ ‘ said Nimmi.

‘At the end of the day, I believe, it’s your relationship with God that matters, not just the Church. Of course, it comes into it – but it’s your relationship with God. How is our relationship with God? How has it improved over time?

And as difficult as this time of the pandemic has been, Nimmi believes it has provided the space for these deeper questions to be explored.

‘It’s actually really been a blessing in that way. People have been forced to look beyond the ritual ways of practicing faith and ask, what else can we do? How else can we be?

‘The quiet can help you go deeper and deeper and when that happens, that sense of God can be really quite strong.’