Among the periti (experts) present at the Plenary Council for consultation is Melbourne priest and historian Fr Max Vodola, who specialises in the history of the Second Vatican Council. According to Vodola, this Council is about ‘calling together a range of voices and experiences across our vast continent to reflect, discern, discuss and shape new strategies for pastoral engagement and missionary outreach.’

This is not the first Plenary Council to be held in Australia, Vodola said, but in significant ways it is unique in its approach. This is the first Plenary in which lay people are seriously involved. ‘Previous plenary councils were held in 1885, 1895, 1905 and 1937,’ he said. ‘These councils were essentially gatherings of the hierarchy with the participation of some senior clergy, theologians and canon lawyers to regulate pastoral life when Australia was still considered “mission territory”.

‘Laity were not involved but simply expected to obey the various pastoral decrees that came to them from the hierarchy and applied by the clergy.’

A common image used to explain previous models of Church governance is that of a simple pyramid. The laity were positioned at the bottom of the pyramid with a fairly passive role, while the clergy and the pope were at the top. Some of the theological developments (and recoveries) at the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) meant that this image was, in a way, inverted, and lay people were encouraged to take more active roles in secular society, Catholic organisations and parishes.

But this interpretation of Vatican II, right though it may be, does need some qualification.

As Archbishop Anthony Fisher OP recently noted, the hierarchical structure that serves the laity is divinely ordained, and their task is governance of the Church; adopting secular modes of governance that reduce the clergy to a ceremonial role while the Church marches on with a board of lay experts at the helm is a vision deeply at odds with Catholic teaching and theology. The mission of governance on the part of the bishops was also something taught by Vatican II; it is conferred upon them during consecration (Lumen Gentium §21).

So what was so unique about Vatican II, then? Vodola said that unlike any previous council, ‘Vatican II affirmed the dignity and place of laity by virtue of their baptism and the universal call to holiness both in their participation in parish life and the daily witness of their faith.’

‘The Second Vatican Council recognised that through baptism and confirmation, all share in the universal priesthood of Christ. Lumen Gentium defined the Church as the People of God, a sacramental community of faith called to make known God’s salvation in Christ.’

The Plenary Council, he said, is another step on the journey of renewal as promoted by Vatican II. It is also a historic moment for the Australian Church is become more synodal, a term that means “journeying together”. Pope Francis has called for a more synodal Church and what this means in terms of the Plenary is a process of wider consultation; in their governance of the Church, ordained leaders collaborating with lay experts in order to more clearly understand the Australian landscape and develop new strategies for proclaiming the Gospel. It is not a matter of the ordained abdicating their responsibility for governance but instead allowing the voices being brought to the table to be more diverse for a more effective proclamation of the Gospel in our Australian situation.

Earlier this week Plenary Member Daniel Casey, reporting on behalf of his group which has been discerning the agenda question on governance, said that structures must be at the service of the mission of the Church.

‘Structures and governance do not do the saving, people do,’ he shared. He also said the group has been discussing some of the existing weaknesses in governance, ‘especially around being more synodal and having a real sense of co-responsibility’.

Welcoming the voice of lay people when it comes to Church governance was a step taken by the 1983 Revised Code of Canon Law, Vodola said, when it stated: ‘According to the knowledge, competence, and prestige which they possess, [the Christian faithful] have the right and even at times the duty to manifest to the sacred pastors their opinion on matters which pertain to the good of the Church . . .’ (§212).

What this will provide in terms of the Plenary is an opportunity for voices of experience, people who minister in diverse settings (whether urban or regional, both men and woman), to bring their wealth of knowledge to bear in renewing the governing structures and missionary outreach of the Church. This will hopefully take place across several areas: in dioceses, parishes, education, religious orders, youth ministries, health care and social welfare agencies.

When asked what people should look out for at this Plenary, one of the things Vodola highlighted was the aspiration for the Church to be more ‘humble and merciful in the service of all’:

‘A Church not concerned with its own self-preservation and prestige. Pope Francis continues to insist on the Church as a type of “field hospital” at the peripheries, binding up the physical, spiritual and psychological wounds of modern life.’

You can catch up on this week’s Plenary session at