The Plenary Council is fast approaching, with the first of two assemblies set to take place online from 3-10 October. Jonathan Antony from Melton, in the outer west, is one of the 17 members representing the Catholic Archdiocese of Melbourne. As one of the younger participants and as a member of the Neocatechumenal Way, Jonathan hopes to bring his own life experience and joy of community life, to the broader assembly discussions.

At 23-years of age, Jonathan Antony is one of the younger members participating in the Plenary Council. He’s also one of the few representatives who can speak from the personal perspective of being involved in a charism – the Neocatechumenal Way. For Jonathan, both his youth and involvement in the community is the very ‘experience and perspective’ that he hopes to bring to the plenary discussions.

‘I remember sitting through the formation meeting and seeing all of these people who obviously have more life experience than me – they’re bishops, priests, doctors and nuns – and I’m thinking “what can I bring to this?”

‘I think the significant thing that I can bring is my own personal experience: what it means to grow up in the Church of Australia, what it means to go to Catholic schools, what it means as someone from the Neocatechumenal Way in particular, and to provide my insight from that perspective.’

The Neocatechumenal Way is an ecclesial movement of the Catholic Church which began in 1964 in Madrid, Spain through the work of lay people Francisco (Kiko) Gomez-Arguello Wirtz and Carmen Hernandez. It has since spread throughout the world and operates at the service of Bishops as a form of diocesan implementation of Christian initiation and of ongoing education in faith.

Jonathan explained, ‘The community has had a very big influence in my life. The primary way that I interact with the Church is through the Neocatechumenal Way. It’s a way of life for those of us in the community.’

Jonathan’s parents met through the community and are long-time members. Together with Jonathan, they are part of the community based at St Bernadette’s in North Sunshine. ‘When I was 13-years-old, I was invited to listen to the catechesis,’ he said. ‘These are initial talks that take place in the parishes, which then afterwards, if the people want, can form a community.

‘These small Christian communities have about 30 people or so, and we meet once a week for a celebration of the Word and on the weekend for a celebration of the Eucharist. Once a month we have a retreat called a “Convivence” which means “living together” in which people share their lives and the Word of God.’

As the Catholic Church discerns a way forward, Jonathan hopes ‘this richness of community life’ and its emphasis on renewal, evangelisation and listening and responding to the Holy Spirit will be better understood and appreciated in the broader life of the Church.

‘I think the Plenary Council is a good opportunity to step back and re-evaluate some of the attitudes and prejudices that exist in the Church right now,’ he said. ‘Speaking from my own perspective, not only as someone from the Neocatechumenal Way, but on behalf of those who belong to a charism that’s unique – the Focolare Movement, for instance – there can be some negative attitudes around the work that these groups do. Perhaps people are fearful or don’t understand them fully because they’re a bit different.

‘But I think the Church is beautiful in its ability to have many different expressions. Think about all the religious orders that we have – the Jesuits, the Franciscans – each of them is unique and important, and each of them serves a different purpose, in my mind. You wouldn’t want to get rid of any of the religious orders.

‘I think stopping the Holy Spirit from working is one of the biggest issues that we have in the Church here. The Church has been gifted with so many different charisms and groups, which are so effective in many parts of the world in terms of evangelisation and spreading the Word so we shouldn’t stop the work of the Holy Spirit.

‘For those of us in the community, we want to share the Word and these gifts because of how much we’ve received.’

Reflecting on the opportunities being presented for the life of the Church, Jonathan said, ‘I think that this Plenary Council is a fantastic opportunity not to change the structures of the Church, but to step back and to really see what the Spirit is saying to the Church, to see where the Spirit is leading us in this present age and what’s the best way of meeting the people where they’re at. What is the best way to move forward and to reach out to the people?

‘I see the Plenary Council as a very important thing for our day and age and for the Church in Australia. Particularly in the last 10 years, and now coming out of our current COVID-19 situation, the Church has undergone rapid change – things aren’t the way they used to be. Parishes are shrinking, Australia in general is less and less Christian every year. It will be interesting to see the new census data.

‘From my perspective, as someone who is younger in the Church, there is a big emphasis on the amount of young people who are leaving the Church and rightly so, because it’s quite drastic, but I see it in a more holistic perspective. What I mean by that is, by and large, people are leaving the Church, of all different ages. The real challenge is, why are people leaving?

Jonathan hopes that the ‘16 agenda points will be discussed in a concrete and down-to-earth way’. ‘When I studied the Second Vatican Council, it was so effective and fantastic because it was so concrete; it really addressed and answered the problems at that time, but also those that were to come in the next few decades,’ he said.

‘So even on this small scale, just for the church of Australia, there has to be this real down-to-earth mentality from the beginning. I think that will really help to make the discussions and the eventual outcomes much more real and relevant, and accepted.’

At the time of being interviewed, Jonathan had relocated to Perth, Western Australia. He successfully applied to travel there some weeks back to be closer to his fiancé, Miriam, who he’s due to marry in a few months’ time. He’ll also complete his undergraduate degree in Education (secondary teaching) and Arts (majoring in Theology and minoring in Philosophy) from Australian Catholic University in Melbourne by the end of the year.

He said, ‘With everything being online there was nothing really tying me to Melbourne. I was just staying at home all the time getting more and more anxious about whether or not the wedding was going to go ahead. When I applied to travel, I was praying to God – I prayed the Rosary, the Morning Prayer – that it would all work out because Western Australia has the toughest border crossing restrictions.’

He’s also praying that his parents can attend the wedding, but if that’s not the case, he has their ‘blessing’ to go ahead. ‘We’ll be moving back to Melbourne after the wedding so if they can’t come, hopefully we can do something at home, maybe have a Eucharist and a party afterwards.’

Though in Perth, his ‘spirit is back in Melbourne’ and he’ll continue to participate as a Melbourne member. He’s grateful that his involvement in the plenary process to date has helped strengthen his desire and appreciation of discerning the way forward.

‘The ability to discern is one of the most important aspects of being a Christian,’ he said, ‘It’s really a gift to discern, not an ability; to see the events that happen in life and to not just say, “oh well, it is what it is”. Rather, to really think, what is God saying through this event on a personal level, and with the Plenary Council on a much broader scale’.

‘I think for my own faith, it has certainly helped me to see the importance of being close to God and asking for the discernment not to just make up answers for myself and to talk from my own intellect, but rather, to really see what God is saying in different things and through different events in particular, and then to respond.’