When the Church seeks advice

By Richard McMahon, 31 March 2020
Bishop Vincent Long OFM Conv, Bishop of Parramatta, speaks to young Catholics during a Bishops Xchange session on the Plenary Council during day two of the 2019 Australian Catholic Youth Festival in Perth. Image: Diocese of Parramatta.


For some people, hearing that the Catholic Church is seeking advice, may feel a little like hearing that your local GP is asking you to diagnose your own health. There can sometimes be an expectation that the church proclaims the truth rather than seeks the truth.

In 2018, the Australian bishops announced a Plenary Council, and invited all people – Catholic, Christian and non-Christian – to have their say on the question, “What do you think God is asking of us in Australia at this time?”

It was a courageous move by our bishops. Yet it is certainly not unique. From the earliest times in our church, its members have gathered to debate and weigh significant decisions. In this case, over 220,000 Australians responded, offering a broad range of views.

Our bishops then strengthened the consultations by asking researchers to pool together key ideas and themes. People were given a second opportunity to offer advice. The question shifted to “How do we become a Christ-centred Church?”

Our bishops made the choice not to consider all the feedback themselves. Instead, they have joined with lay women and men, and other clergy and religious, in “writing groups” to help shape the agenda for the first gathering of the  Plenary Council in October this year, that will make some decisions on all that has been heard.

The Plenary Council itself will be open to a broad group. The bishops have sought to invite as many other people as Church law allows to participate in this council. Indeed, they have gone further. They have knocked on the door of the Vatican, and asked permission to expand the number of people that can participate.

In our own Diocese, we have held many listening and discernment sessions. At these gatherings, people of all ages and backgrounds and points of view, have gathered to respectfully listen to others, share their beliefs, and seek consensus on both national and local actions to help us become a more Christ-centred Church.

The national actions have been offered to the writing groups. The local actions are being considered by our Deanery Pastoral Councils, mainly lay people representing clusters of local parishes. These Deanery Pastoral Councils are inviting people to participate in forums where they can further consider how to bring to life initiatives that will express the life and mission of Jesus Christ in our present time and place.

Two things are worthy of pondering as the Plenary Council approaches. Firstly, regardless of what happens, the Church is seeking advice. When any individual asks for advice, there is a recognition that they cannot do it alone. It is an act of humility and vulnerability. Our Church finds herself in an unusual circumstance. For an entity familiar with pronouncing spiritual and moral truths, this is an admission that our Church is not self-contained. At its best, it is a reminder of how Jesus walked the earth. His opening words recorded in the Gospel of John are not a statement but a question, “What are you looking for?” (John 1) So often, Jesus dialogued with those he met, and sometimes was the beneficiary of their wisdom and insights, such as the Canaanite woman seeking healing for her daughter. Jesus initially refuses, however as the conversation continues, he changes his stance and offers healing. (Mark 7, Matt 15).

This leads us to a second space to ponder. Does our Church possess the Truth or point to the Truth? The Catholic Church stumbles and falls every time we seek to equate ourselves with God. Our Church is not impervious to error. Only God is. Our Church, like St John the Baptist, seeks to lead people to the One who is The Way, The Truth, and The Life. When we, as Church, turn our gaze from contemplating the face of Christ, and instead focus on the wonder of our own footfalls, we quickly begin to sink beneath the waves.

The Plenary Council gathers in October of this year to “Listen to What the Spirit is Saying.” May our Church continue onwards in this stance of listening, recognising that the Spirit speaks in many tongues, and that the Truth of Christ is encountered in the least of our sisters and brothers, and in the child whom Jesus invites into the middle of the circle.

To find out more about the Plenary Council and how you can connect with our Diocesan initiatives, visit www.parracatholic.org or contact our Pastoral Planning Office on pastoralplanning@parracatholic.org or (02) 8838 3441.

Richard McMahon is the Director of Pastoral Planning and Implementation for the Diocese of Parramatta.


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