For the first time in 84 years, the entire Catholic Church in Australia is gathering to make important decisions about the future. This gathering, the First Assembly of the Plenary Council, will bring together voices, opinions and hopes from all around the country and encourage listening, dialogue and discernment.
Our Diocese of Parramatta had the special opportunity to prepare for the Council with a “pre-Plenary gathering” held on Thursday, 16 September 2021. The online gathering, facilitated by the Mission Enhancement Team (MET), was the final in the uplifting and connective HOME Ground series which, since August, has offered various opportunities for connection and conversation. The MET’s Head of Formation for Mission, Sr Grace Roclawska, opened the night of listening and prayer by reflecting on her experience being part of the Executive Committee for the Plenary Council. “From the beginning of my involvement”, she said, “I remember the power of the Spirit and the power of shared enthusiasm.”
These themes of the Spirit’s guidance and of collective enthusiasm were also articulated by the Members of the Plenary Council from the Diocese of Parramatta, who were invited to share their hopes for the First Assembly. Deep listening to the Spirit’s prompting is significant for them.
Bishop Vincent Long OFM Conv, Bishop of Parramatta, said, “It’s important to have a heart disposed to the guidance of the Holy Spirit, open to change, and able to see from the point of view of others so that we can move forward together.”
These differing points of view may be unsettling or disturbing, added Vicar General & Moderator of the Curia, Fr Peter Williams, but with the Spirit’s guidance we should not be afraid. Fr John Hogan, Rector of Holy Spirit Seminary, spoke enthusiastically of the Council and its outcomes. “I hope to bring excitement!” he said. “I have never stopped being excited about the potential for the Diocese of Parramatta and the commitment of so many people wanting to be involved.”
Some of the Members acknowledged that being involved in such a significant event carries a weight of nervousness and responsibility. Lay Member Carol Teodori-Blahut said she never would have anticipated this to happen in her lifetime. “It’s a great challenge and an honour to be here, and I am just wanting to be present and of service to the Church I love.” Fr Fernando Montano, the Diocesan Episcopal Vicar for Social Welfare, said he had never attended such an event before and feels both unsure and empowered. “I don’t really know what to expect, but this creates in me a huge sense of responsibility for the importance of the event which will help us for many years to come,” he said.
Fr Wim Hoekstra and Fr Peter Blayney, the Episcopal Vicars for Clergy, and Migrant Chaplaincies, Pastoral Associates and Canonical Matters respectively, hope that the Council proceedings will follow and maintain realistic objectives. “I hope to bring a little bit of a reality check,” Fr Wim said. For Fr Peter, the Plenary should lead us to more practical and realistic dialogue. “I hope to see a far closer connection between laypeople and the clergy.” Wendy Goonan, lay Member from our Diocese, prays the involvement of laypeople in the Council will lend them a stronger voice. “I’ll bring to the Council my sense of life as a lay Catholic, a wife and a mother,” she said.
The Plenary also issues a deep call to prayer and connection. For Vicar General and Episcopal Vicar for Education and Formation, Fr Chris De Souza, it reminds him of the Church gathered at Pentecost. “That’s the icon I’m taking with me in my heart,” he said, “that listening to each other and walking out with confidence, knowing the Lord is with us.”
This sense of connection was then explored further by the Workstream for the Plenary Council from the Diocesan Pastoral Council (DiPC). Consisting of Padmi Pathinather, Natalia Gabriel and Claire Thomas, the role of the Workstream was to gather Diocesan feedback on the Agenda questions for the First Assembly. The team, along with DiPC member Sr Catherine Slattery sgs, presented their final document to us, which drew out common themes of hope, profound listening, guidance of the Spirit, and relationship with God. “We were encouraged by the high response rate from Pastoral Councils across the Diocese”, Claire said. “There’s a collective sense of yearning for a transformed Church, marked by a radical inclusivity.”
The Plenary Council invites each one of us to deeper awareness of the Spirit’s guidance and our common mission as the Australian Church. We all have a part to play not only in its proceedings, but also in what it brings for the future. As we concluded our gathering praying a blessing over all Members from the Diocese of Parramatta, we were reminded of the common journey the Council takes us on and its call for us to come together in listening and dialogue. At the heart of it, said Sr Grace, “you are the Church, and this is why we gathered tonight: to celebrate Church.”
The first assembly of the Plenary Council will see nearly 280 members drawn from all Catholic dioceses in Australia, meeting online to discuss the Agenda questions from 3 to 10 October 2021. You are invited to consider the Agenda questions and provide your feedback to them by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org. Your feedback will be passed to the members of the Plenary Council from the Diocese of Parramatta.
The feedback from the Diocese of Parramatta which was shared with the Members on 16 September 2021 can be found here.