It’s been two months since we concluded the prayerful, discerning and joyful week of the First Assembly of the Fifth Plenary Council of Australia. Following this milestone event in the life of the Australian Catholic Church, we asked the nine Plenary Members from our Diocese what the experience was like for them.
The Fifth Plenary Council of Australia may well be the first of its kind to be interrupted by a pandemic. Fr Peter Blayney says that while in the plague times of the Middle Ages such a gathering would be cancelled by the authorities, with this Plenary Council “the Australian Catholic Bishops’ Conference bravely and providentially decided to plough on.” In doing so, says Fr Fernando Montano, they offered the Plenary Council as a “beacon of hope” in this very challenging year. Participation in the Plenary Council means a lot to Fr Peter and Fr Fernando, and to all the Members from our Diocese, and many of them describe the experience as a privilege.
Fr Peter Williams says this participation is a unique opportunity, given that the Fourth Plenary Council was held in the 1930s! For him, the commitment of the Members to the Church was evident. “What was abundantly clear was the extraordinary dedication all members have to the ongoing mission of the Church in this country”, he says. Carol Teodori-Blahut says this special involvement opened her eyes to the reality of the Church in Australia. “The Church for me had always been the local parishes in which I have served. The Plenary has opened my understanding of how complex the issues are and how many people have dedicated their lives to making the parishes continue to function.”
Although parts of the Plenary sessions were livestreamed, most of the proceedings happened privately. So what did our Members get up to in those days?
Fr Chris De Souza felt invited to deep reflection on the Plenary question: What is the Spirit saying to the Church in Australia? “I found myself asking a similar question at the end and during every conversation: “what is the Spirit saying to me?”, he says. “I believe many of my fellow delegates were going through a similar process too.”
Fr Fernando also felt this call to reflection as he encountered people from many different parts of Australia. “We were all enriched by experiences of hopes and challenges”, he says, “and this made me realise our Church is always bigger than our own parishes and dioceses.” He also describes the deeper connection forged between the Members from Parramatta, who gathered together to participate from the Diocesan Chancery. “This was a chance to get to know each other better, to share our experiences, and to realise the gifts we have as a Diocese and the areas in which we need to go.”
The focus on small group work did become tiring at times. “The week was dominated by Teams meetings and group discussions from 10:30 AM to 7:00 PM, with the odd break”, says Fr Wim Hoekstra, “yet it was a spiritually enriching time as we shared the hopes, the dreams and the realities of where the Australian Church is at.” Engaging in such intense discussion and sharing online occasionally proved challenging. “The exchange could and did become testy and there was no mechanism to resolve differences”, Bishop Vincent says, “and we became fatigued on account of the limits of the virtual technology. Yet, overall, the experience was a real privilege and blessing.” Wendy Goonan also found the encounters to be enriching. “These sessions, with their sincerity and imagination, were constant reminders of the authenticity of the whole four-year endeavour”, she says. Fr Peter Blayney says he learned to be patient with the reflections and interventions of the other participants, and is grateful for the inclusion of the laity in the discussion. “It is a tribute to the Catholic Church in our country today that the laity have an authentic voice redolent of their baptismal vocation”, he says. He also offers special words of thanks to the technical team who made the Plenary possible. “For me”, he says, “these are the heroes and heroines of the Plenary Council.”
Fr John Hogan describes two moments which he felt widened the horizons of the Plenary. “Dr Renée Kohler-Ryan said that for her the Plenary was about being human, and I believe this reminds us to be humble, that we don’t know everything, and that we desperately need divine guidance to achieve a worthy outcome to the Plenary”, he says. “Then, Fr Richard Lennan reminded the Plenary that ‘God expands us’. Rather than being focused on particular “things to do”, it can guide us to seek the much higher context for our lives: the Kingdom of God as God sees it.”
Bishop Vincent says he was encouraged by the topics that were discussed. “There was a sense of humility, enduring repentance and generosity towards survivors of child sexual abuse, and strong consensus on recognizing Indigenous culture and spirituality, and ecological conversion”, he says. “I was also particularly encouraged that issues such as those relating to LGBTIQ+, the role of women in governance, ministry, language, and Church law were talked about as a matter of vital importance.”
For Carol, one of the most significant moments occurred at the beginning of the week. Joining a ZOOM session with a couple who offered to pray with anyone who was willing, she was asked if her name was Carol and was told there was a message for her which has since proven true: “Carol, I hear the desires of your heart. Trust me. I will open the door at the appropriate time. Trust me.”
As we journey towards the Second Assembly of the Plenary Council in July 2022, the process of trust, deep listening and reflection continues. Fr Peter Williams encourages us to “remain patient and let the Holy Spirit do as it wills”, allowing God’s agenda to prevail. Fr Wim echoes these words. “Perhaps we might be expecting too much from the Council, but the Spirit moves in mysterious ways and she might yet surprise us.” For now, it is important to stay with the fruits of the First Assembly. “While it may seem that outcomes were vague or lacked focus”, Wendy says, “I am sure that the drafting committee will bring it all together into robust propositions for meaningful discussion. I will continue to recall elements and be thankful for my experience and the support of the people of the Diocese.”
The Second Assembly of the Plenary Council will be held in July 2022. Between now and then the Members will be reflecting on what they have heard. We continue to ask you to pray for them. You can find more interviews and information from the First Assembly here.
Although there is still a way to go, let us continue to pray and be hopeful for the Second Assembly and the fruits it will bring for the Church in Australia.