Bishop Paul Bird and Fr Kevin Lenehan reflect on their roles as members of the Discernment and Writing Groups for the Plenary Council. Bishop Paul is a member of the Prayerful and Eucharistic Discernment and Writing Group and Fr Kevin is a member of the Discernment and Writing Group, Open to Conversion, Renewal and Reform
From October 4 till October 11 this year, people from all around the country will gather in Adelaide for the Fifth Plenary Council of the Catholic Church in Australia. This will be the first of two assemblies of the Council. The second will be in Sydney from June 28 till July 3 next year. These assemblies will draw together the fruits of many gatherings of church communities over the past two years.
In 2018 we considered the general question, “What do you think God is asking of us in Australia at this time?” From our diocese of Ballarat, 93 groups and 227 individuals sent in responses to this question. The responses from all around Australia were gathered by a team from the National Centre for Pastoral Research led by Dr Trudy Dantis and presented in a 298 page report entitled “Listen to what the Spirit is saying”.
In May 2019, the Pastoral Research team met with the group of bishops, priests and laity who are coordinating the Plenary Council process. They prayed over and discussed the responses to the first general question and from these responses they framed more specific questions involving six themes for further consideration. How is God calling us to be a Christ-centred Church in Australia that is missionary and evangelising; inclusive, participatory and synodal; prayerful and Eucharistic; humble, healing and merciful? How are we called to be a joyful, hope-filled, servant community, one that is open to conversion, renewal and reform?
Over the past few months, groups of people around our diocese have been meeting to reflect together and pray about these themes. At the same time, six national discernment and writing groups have been preparing papers on each of the themes. I am a member of the group working on the “prayerful and Eucharistic” theme.
It is a fairly large working group, with thirteen members. There are seven lay people, two religious sisters, two priests and two bishops, drawn from Victoria, New South Wales, Queensland and Western Australia. We have been meeting mainly by video conference. Meeting by “Zoom” is a new experience for me but it is proving to be an effective as well as economical way of working together with people from across the country. There have been two face-to-face meetings.
Our task is to prepare a paper on the question of how God is calling us to be a Christ-centred Church in Australia that is prayerful and Eucharistic. Appropriately, the group is itself prayerful in each meeting. For the face-to-face meetings we have also celebrated the Eucharist as part of our time together. We are to have a draft of our paper ready by Ash Wednesday (February 26). In March and April there will be further work on the papers on all six themes. Then a comprehensive paper will be prepared, to be considered at the meeting of the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference in May. From that meeting, a proposed agenda for the Plenary Council will be sent to Rome for approval.
I thank all those people in our diocese who have been involved in the Plenary Council process so far and I encourage you to continue to contribute in prayer and in reflecting together in the months ahead.
Bishop Paul Bird CSsR
Almost quarter of a million people contributed to the national consultation last year in Phase One of the preparation for the Catholic Church’s National Plenary Council to be held over two sessions in October 2020 and July 2021. Women and men, younger and older, born in Australia or overseas, Catholic and non-Catholic, all offered their prayerful thoughts on the central question, “What do you think God is asking of us in the Catholic Church in Australia at this time?”
These submissions were statistically analysed and collated in a 298-page report that, while upholding the privacy of participants, showed the diverse experiences and perspectives that Catholics express in their hopes for the Church in Australia. A report was also prepared for each diocese in Australia, indicating the strongest themes in the consultation. In the Diocese of Ballarat, the key themes identified were (a) greater focus on love of God and love of neighbour, (b) urgent need for reforms in church governance and leadership, (c) focus on gospel-service in social justice and ecological care, and (d) the centrality of Mass and the sacraments. The national and diocesan reports are available at https://plenarycouncil.catholic.org.au/resources/reports/
Now, in Phase Two of the preparation for the Plenary Council, parishes, agencies and other faith communities are invited to reflect on what more concrete changes or initiatives can be undertaken locally or nationally that would help the Church to better reflect Jesus’ presence and mission in today’s world. Parish groups all over the country are now meeting in Discernment and Conversation Sessions to listen to the Gospel and to reflect and discuss their faith-motivated insights about the priorities for the future in church organisation and pastoral life.
At the same time, six national Discernment and Writing Groups (DWG) have been established, with the task of considering both the National Report from Phase One and the current submissions from the parish Discernment sessions in Phase Two, and then preparing a Thematic Report relating to one of the six National Themes of Discernment. Each DWG consists of women and men, lay and clergy, across the generations, of differing roles and experiences in church life, selected from a large pool of nominated candidates from across the country.
From the Diocese of Ballarat, I am a member of the DWG on the theme ‘Open to Conversion, Renewal and Reform’. Our group began meeting late last year, sometimes in person in Sydney or Melbourne, and more often through video meetings via Zoom. The DWG members have committed to a shared rhythm of prayer, fasting, and lectio divina through the months we are working together. Each member is studying the National Report and Discernment Session submissions as they are sent in. In DWG meetings we share our thoughts and faith-sense about the most urgent challenges or priorities emerging from the Catholic voices heard or called for in the consultation. Our task is to prepare a 5,000-word Thematic Paper that identifies the pastoral reality of the need for ‘conversion, renewal and reform’, reflects on this reality in the light of Scripture and Tradition, formulates some prioritised questions to be addressed by the Plenary Council, and makes some concrete proposals for change in the life of the Australian Church. No small task in 5,000 words!
The DWG members exemplify some of the diverse experiences and opinions of Catholics in general, and each one knows what he or she thinks ‘the Church needs’ at present. The challenge is to move beyond our personal opinions and to seek the deeper communion in faith that the Gospel makes possible, a communion that thrives on diverse spiritualities and ways of discipleship. We are also very aware that church renewal must begin from responsible care for the vulnerable, weak, and alienated in church life, particularly in the wake of the child abuse crisis.
Our group is working to a tight timeline to prepare a first draft of our Thematic Paper by Ash Wednesday, February 26. That draft will be sent for comment to a wide range of Catholic stakeholders and national representative bodies. The DWG will take this feedback into account in finalising the Thematic Paper by mid-April. After reviews by the Bishops’ Committee and Vatican dicastery for the Plenary Council, the Thematic Papers on the Six National Discernment Themes will be published on the Plenary Council website. These six Thematic Papers with their proposals for change will be among the documents that the participants of the Plenary Council will discuss at the week-long First Assembly of the Plenary Council in Adelaide on October 4 – 11.
It is not too late to contribute in your parish or local faith community to the Discernment and Conversation Sessions, and to submit these reflections to the DWGs. Every submission helps the DWGs to identify the priorities and to gauge the strength of Australian Catholic’s faith-sense of the renewal and reform needed in the church today. It is never too early to begin implementing locally some of the good ideas that emerge in our parish discussions to improve the ministries we offer in own communities.
Fr Kevin Lenehan
Photo above, Fr Kevin, Emeritus Bishop Peter Connors and Bishop Paul at the Mass of the Oils 2018