The Second Assembly of the Plenary Council will be held in Sydney from 3 to 9 July
In this first week of July, the final assembly of the Plenary Council will be held. It has been a long process over four years. During it, Australia has seen two Federal Elections and three Prime Ministers. The process was prolonged by the disruption caused by COVID. It extended over a time marked by great destruction by bushfire and flood, economic pressures, international crises and now an energy crisis. In both Australia and the wider world, the times we live in and their implications for the future call for wise counsel. This is also true of the Catholic Church, whose active members are ageing and which still bears the open wounds of sexual abuse perpetrated by many of its representatives and concealed by some of its leaders.
The process of the Council has been laborious, involving grassroots conversation and reports, the distillation of these into reports, reflection on the reports in a First Assembly and the articulation of motions to be debated at the final assembly.
The process that has led to the Council, the composition of the members of the Assembly, the selection of themes from the initial conversations, and the goals of the Council have all been the subject of debate by Catholics in and outside the Synod process. It has been a messy and thoroughly human enterprise within a Church in which people hold strongly divergent views about the future of a Church to which they are committed, and about the way to build that future.
As the Council draws towards its conclusion, it is time to set aside for a time the arguments about what could and should have been done differently. Those important questions can be left to later evaluation. It is appropriate now to celebrate what has been achieved in setting up the Council, and to remember the work of those who have laboured to make it happen. They include all those involved in the initial reflections by individuals, parish groups and Catholic organisations on the major issues for the Council, those involved in reading and summarising the submissions, the members of commissions and of drafting groups, the members of the First and Second Assembly, those involved in informing Catholics about the business at each stage of the Council, and not least the Bishops who have run with and supported the Council and the Catholic groups that have presented alternative views. They all merit our thanks.
No doubt future historians will see the Pastoral Council as an early clumsy attempt to fashion a new way of being Church suitable for our age. It is one of the many initiatives whose spirit is caught in Pope Francis’ understanding of Synodality. This models a pattern of participation, listening and of shared leadership within the Catholic Church. The test of the Council will lie less in its decisions, recommendations and institutional changes than in whether it creates a hunger for the participatory leadership of all members of the Church and for the culture of prayer, listening and discernment that enable it.
Fr Andrew Hamilton SJ writes for Jesuit Communications and Jesuit Social Services.