The coming Plenary Council: the vision still has time

By Br Mark O'Connor FMS, 1 March 2021
Participants at the inaugural Diocese of Parramatta Forum. Image: Diocese of Parramatta.


With the First Assembly of the Plenary Council to take place in October 2021 with a combination of online and face-to-face participation, it is timely again to republish these words of Br Mark O’Connor FMS, Vicar for Communications, given the continued negativity of a divisive minority. Their ongoing opposition to Pope Francis runs contrary to the Catholic Tradition.

Let’s continue to cherish the observation of St Pope John XXIII when he opened the Second Vatican Council.

When local ‘prophets of doom’ try to manipulate discussion of the coming Plenary Council, let’s remember his wise and still relevant words:

St Pope John XXIII. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

“In the everyday exercise of our pastoral ministry, greatly to our sorrow, we sometimes have to listen to those who although consumed with zeal do not have very much discretion or balance. To them, the modern world is nothing but betrayal and ruination. They claim that this age is far worse than previous ages, and they go on as though they had learned nothing at all from history – and yet history is the great teacher of life. They behave as though the first five centuries saw a complete vindication of the Christian idea and the Christian cause, and as though religious liberty was never put in jeopardy in the past. We feel bound to disagree with these prophets of doom who are forever forecasting calamity – as though the end of the world were imminent. And yet today Providence is guiding us towards a new order of human relationships which, thanks to human effort and yet far surpassing its hopes, will bring us to the realisation of still higher and undreamed of expectations…” – Pope John XXIII, 11 October 1962, the first day of the Council.

When I was growing up as a child in the Melbourne working-class suburb of St Gabriel’s parish, Reservoir our life was fairly simple, even innocent!

Today, however, there are now so many competing narratives and options! People pick and choose from them at will.

Life in the Australia of 2021 sometimes feels like an endless series of arguments between people incapable of listening to each other.

If you want any proof about the futility of our obsessively argument-driven culture, just watch our Federal Parliament!

But let’s face it, who was ever really changed by an argument?

People are led and only changed by insights. They must well up from within; they can never be imposed.

Yes, we do have a beautiful treasure in our Catholic faith. Divine Revelation goes on. The Spirit keeps teaching us through the Word of God; our profound Catholic Tradition especially the Sacraments and the “signs of the times”.

This treasure, however, cannot be just simply be imposed by external authority, in a culture such as ours.

Religious freedom is vital but we can never go back to a Christendom model: where the Church simply commands and decrees. Those days are gone forever in Australian society.

People must now be encouraged to deepen the insights of the gift of faith. Faith always needs to well up from within. 

Only then can faith dialogue with the culture around it and exercise prophetic imagination. That’s what is at the heart of the coming Plenary Council and the journey of synodality.

Helping people form such a mature adult Catholic faith, that will sustain them in the difficult but joyous decades ahead, is then a key challenge of the coming Plenary Council.

So is the rejection of clericalism. For the voice of the laity must be given much greater recognition and legislated for in canon law.

Since lay people – especially women – make up the majority of the Church, we urgently need to ensure there are practical structures to make their voices count at every level of our Church.

Don’t be fooled by a small but vocal minority – Catholic extremists – whose agitprop via some blogs, social media and Catholic newspapers consists in personal attacks on the motivations and orthodoxy of their fellow Catholics.

It all masks a breathtaking arrogance. The real object of their rage and dissent is opposition to the leadership of Pope Francis and his call for synodality and the full implementation of Vatican II.

Pope Francis sums them up perfectly: “One of the more serious temptations which stifles boldness and zeal is a defeatism which turns us into querulous and disillusioned pessimists, sourpusses”  Evangelii Gaudium.

These “culture warrior” ideologues entirely miss the point of the pastoral mission of the Church, so marvellously articulated in the actions and words of Pope Francis.

It’s about mission, not maintenance!

That mission certainly must centre around a faithful listening to God’s revelation to us. We are all called to live in obedience to the truth.

But only God has the total truth – we humans only ever glimpse it darkly here below – as historical beings always on a journey.

For we belong to a living dynamic Tradition that is constantly being renewed and nourished by the very same Word of God.

The Holy Spirit continues to breathe over all of creation, including the community of graced sinners that make up the Catholic Church in Australia.

This is the heart of Catholicism – Incarnation. The Word was made flesh, sharing utterly in all the sorrows and joys of being human. So must we, if we are to witness authentically to the joy of the Gospel.

What a grace it is to have this mission in Australia today, to be followers of Jesus of Nazareth, the face of God’s mercy!

May the Spirit guide the Plenary Council.

Yes, it’s only a beginning but it’s an important step in the right direction for: “The vision still has its time; presses in to fulfilment, it will not disappoint; if it delays wait for it, it will surely come, it will not be late” Habakkuk 2:2-3.

Br Mark O’Connor FMS is the Vicar for Communications and the Editor of Catholic Outlook in the Diocese of Parramatta. 


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