On Monday 4 October, the Opening Plenary Session kicked off the main portion of the Plenary Council’s First Assembly. For those who weren’t tuned in to the live stream, here are three highlights you missed.

Welcome to Country

John Lochowiak, from the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Catholic Council, opened with a Welcome to Country. For this opening plenary he shared the story of his family and the experience they had with Catholic missions in the past. It was a testimony to the potential missionary power of schools that John was standing there at the Council, one of the Australian Church’s most historic moments, offering his voice:

‘Being Catholic is really important to my family and I. My mum grew up on three missions in South Australia. The public schools in those days wouldn’t educate them. My grandmother had 15 children and it was the Catholic schools that took them in and gave them an education.’

The question of how Catholic schools can become more missionary is one of the agenda items, so opening with this testimony was not only thematically appropriate but powerful as well. All the more so since he explained that ‘Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are the fastest growing group in the Australian Catholic Church today.’

John Lachowiak also read the words of Deacon Boniface Perdjert, Australia’s first permanent and Aboriginal Deacon:

‘When I read the Gospels, I read them as an Aboriginal. So many of the things Christ said and did and the way he lived makes me think of the good things of our way of life. Christ did not get worried about material things. He looked at them as things that get in the way and make it hard to get to our true country. He was born in the countryside in a cave, like many of us have been born. He walked about like us, with nowhere to lay his head. He died with nothing, on a cross. So many of our people die with nothing. He was strong on sharing. We do a lot of things like that. Of course, he went a bit further. In the Eucharist, he shared himself as nobody else could.’
Aboriginal artwork of the Eucharist From the Plenary livestream

Archbishop Costelloe’s address

President of the Plenary Council and Archbishop of Perth, Timothy Costelloe SDB, gave the opening address for the morning plenary. In this address, he outlined the four areas that are the specific concerns of a Plenary Council according to Canon Law:

‘Firstly an increase of faith; then an ordering of common pastoral action; then the direction of morals; and lastly the preservation, introduction and defence of a common ecclesiastical discipline.’

In doing so, he made clear what the agenda of the Plenary was and was not:

‘We have not been called to advance any particular agenda, be it our own or someone else’s. We have been called to enter into a sacred space, as brothers and sisters in Christ, to listen deeply for the voice and to be alert to the leadings of the Holy Spirit.’

He drew particular attention to the situation the Catholic Church finds itself in today and ‘the reality of our betrayal’ through the ‘horror of sexual abuse.’ Trying to respond to this situation in the light of the Gospel and be, in the words of Pope Francis, ‘a healer of wounds and warmer of hearts’ is one of the chief points of this Council’s reflections.

Addressing the unconventional nature of the plenary being hosted on Zoom, he offered some excellent words of encouragement:

‘The locked doors of the Upper Room did not prevent the risen Jesus coming to be with his disciples (John 20:19). The restrictions imposed by the pandemic will not prevent the Holy Spirit from moving our minds and our hearts if we remain open to that Spirit.’

Letter to and from Pope Francis

Archbishop Mark Coleridge, President of the Australian Catholic Bishops’ Conference read a letter that had been sent to Pope Francis marking the opening of the Council:

‘The Church in Australia is at a point where we will have to face the truth of our situation with eyes wide open and make bold decisions to ensure the future is according to the mind and heart of Christ. At a time when we are under pressure and in some ways diminished we will have to imagine and enact new ways of mission …’

Pope Francis also sent his greetings via a letter from the Vatican’s Secretary of State, Cardinal Pietro Parolin. These greetings were read at the opening plenary and began with recognition as to the significance of the Plenary event.

Here is a brief portion of it:

In this conciliar process, the Church in Australia is challenged to listen to the voice of the Spirit and to bear renewed witness to the perennial truth of the Gospel and to develop new and creative expressions of evangelical charity. In this way, building on the solid foundations laid by past generations, it will become increasingly a home with open doors, ‘a community of communities, a sanctuary where the thirsty come to drink in the midst of their journey, and a centre of constant missionary outreach’ (EG §28) … With great affection, the Holy Father entrusts all taking part in the council to the intercession of Mary, Mother of the Church, and willingly imparts his apostolic blessing as a pledge of peace and joy in Jesus, her divine Son.’

You can watch this morning’s Plenary session at www.plenarycouncil.catholic.org.au. The morning plenary will be broadcast live each day as well as morning Mass.

Feature image: Artwork courtesy of Aboriginal Catholic Ministry Victoria. Image by Fiona Basile.