Without Change, Church’s Mission is in Danger, Plenary Reformers Say

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“This plenary Council does not concern the bishops, it concerns us. – Francis Sullivan, former CEO of The Truth, Justice and Healing Council.

The clerical leadership of the Catholic Church, standards of governance, language and tradition were raised as areas for potential reform in a major post-plenary convocation.

The third convocation in the “The Future of Catholicism in Australia” series, held on November 18, was organized by the Australasian Catholic Coalition for Church Reform (ACCCR) to reflect on the first session of the Plenary Council.

Nine speakers offered assessments ranging in tone from constructive proposals and expressions of hope to outright stigma against the “institutional church.”

Discussion throughout the evening focused primarily on participants’ frustrations that the first plenary session did not facilitate in-depth and concrete proposals for church governance reform that they see as necessary.

This reform was seen as necessary by the participants because the traditional structures of the Church were seen as an obstacle to its mission.

Former Royal Commissioner Robert Fitzgerald said that during his tenure on the Royal Commission on Child Abuse “it became clearer to me that maybe the church, the institutional church, was now at a serious point of failing or hindering the ability of people to come to God. ”.

He described the Plenary process as a fight against fear, “the great handicap in life”, which he attributed to a “bloc” of conservatives acting “from an ideological position, who wish to resist the change”.

The Plenary risked becoming a wasted opportunity and the Church a “retarded” if reform was not seized, Fitzgerald added.

A similar point of view was expressed by Francis Sullivan, president of Catholic Social Services Australia and former CEO of the Truth, Justice and Healing Council.

“We were meant to be a deep listening church. This Plenary Council is not about bishops, it is about us, ”said Sullivan.

“And yet from the first morning we have two Archbishops – one from Sydney, one from Hobart – making interventions almost drawing a line in the sand on what we should be talking about and what we shouldn’t be. “

The light of the southern cross Report

The speakers also agreed that with regard to the reform of the structures of the Church, the first plenary session started “too far” because it did not concretely examine the existing proposals and documents.

May 2020 Light of the Southern Cross The report, commissioned by the Australian Conference of Catholic Bishops and Catholic religious Australia, was singled out as the document that should have been considered more concretely in the first session of the Plenary.

This report recommended a series of far-reaching reforms to Church structures, including more rigorous lay involvement in the selection of bishops and the placement of pastors.

“It would be a shame if, by reinventing the wheel, we took years to arrive at an end point that we could achieve in a year, in six months, in the second assembly.”

The light of the southern cross also recommended greater involvement of women in church governance, with women being “specially” promoted to judges in ecclesiastical courts and having an “essential role” in the selection and training of seminarians.

The report also called for the publication of discussions and decisions regarding Ad Limina visits, quinquennial reports and ACBC operations, as well as a list of other proposals to increase transparency and lay power in the community. the church.

“Let’s work through these [proposals] strategically, ensuring that we have a second assembly tailored to our goals so that in addition to walking together in a synod, we achieve concrete results, ”said Professor Emeritus John Warhurst.

“It would be a shame if, by reinventing the wheel, we took years to arrive at an end point that we could achieve in a year, in six months, in the second assembly.”

Warhurst cautioned against classifying The Light From the Southern Cross as a “government report,” arguing instead that it was the practical expression of theological synodality.

“Once you start to get practical, there are a few [empty] shells within the church that can be filled with co-responsibility and synodality, ”he said.

Assistant Professor Susan Pascoe, a member of the Methodology Commission for the 2023 Synod on Synodality, noted that “if you look at this report you will see a real attempt to translate church and civil norms and show that ‘there is a high degree of congruence between the two’.

The ACBC, in its response to The Light From the Southern Cross, said the report “reflects serious concerns, provides important information and makes important recommendations that will underpin reforms of Church practice in years to come “.

He also recognized “other important sources for the renewal of the governance of the Church in accordance with our particular nature and character as a Catholic Church”, including Holy Scriptures, Tradition and Canon Law.

“Catholics believe that there is certain ‘data’ about the Church – like its hierarchical structure – that is of divine origin and not just the work of the present generation,” the ACBC response said.

The Church must become inclusive to fulfill her mission

However, the convocation participants largely agreed that the Church needs to be more accountable to secular society both in terms of governance and culture.

An increase in “inclusiveness” would be a major sign that the Church is fulfilling her mission in contemporary society.

This was particularly the case for women, Catholic divorcees and “rainbow” LGBTs.

Eleanor Flynn, Founder of Women’s Wisdom in the Church, said that “the institutional church has disconnected from us… They don’t care about women at all, they’re scared, they don’t know what to do, so they are just backpedaling.

She called on Catholics to emulate the female-led Bristol Synod, also known as the “Root and Branch” Synod, by launching “DIY Synods” to discuss and advocate for religious reform on issues such as women deacons.

Melbourne Catholic writer Dr Nimmi Candappa said single women suffered from being a “forgotten” vocation in the Church.

Archbishop Timothy Costelloe SDB of Perth, who is also President of the Plenary Assembly, concelebrates the official opening Mass of the Plenary Council. Photo: Jamie O’Brien

“We pray for priests, we pray for families – but no one prays for us. It is also a difficult vocation, ”she declared. “I struggle a bit too because I see it as a masculine place… I think we suffer from not including women.”

Views on liberalizing Church structures were reflected in similar views on Church culture, with many speakers saying major changes were needed to restore the Church’s credibility in the eyes of the Australian community. at large.

The decline in attendance rates for liturgical services prompted speakers to call for a redefinition of Catholic identity.

Everyone agreed that Mass was not the only, or even the most important part, of being Catholic.

ABC reporter and convocation host Ellen Fanning proposed “perhaps shifting to a Christian service model as a key part of identifying what it means to be Catholic,” which garnered agreement from panelists.

“Now if some of us go on Sunday to celebrate this [mission] in a liturgical celebration, that’s fine. But we are a tiny minority of all the people who actually experience it, ”said Kevin Liston, of South Australian Catholics for an Evolving Church.

Claire Victory, national president of the Society of Saint Vincent de Paul, and Virginia Bourke, pro-chancellor-designate of the Australian Catholic University, said working or volunteering for Catholic agencies is the fundamental experience of faith for many Catholics who may not attend Mass regularly.

“We pray for priests, we pray for families – but no one prays for single women.”

“For many people, the agency, the organization in which they are involved, the Catholic school community of which they are a part – this is the Church for them, and it is the truest expression and reality. and the most authentic of their Catholic faith, ”said Victoire.

“I think that we [Catholic agencies] really need to reclaim and be proud of our Catholic identity and being the Church for so many people.

“It is to be Catholic, it is to be Church, this is where so many people find the Church because they do not feel welcome on the pews on a Sunday … Catholic agencies must proudly proclaim that we are Church. We are the Church for so many people.

Bourke agreed, saying it was true for those “at the board and management level as well.”

“In the ministries that I am a part of, we see ourselves as part of the church.”

The Convocation foresees a “lay-led synodal process” of ACCCR in May next year in preparation for the second session of the Plenary Council.

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