Our Faith Journey article takes a different tack this month. Normally, we don’t focus on explicit activities in the Catholic Church in Australia, but we thought recent events were worthy of mention.
In early October, almost 300 Catholics from across Australia came together to discuss the future of the Catholic Church in our country. Due to COVID-19, this gathering had been delayed by a year and it had to be conducted in the virtual space. Three hundred probably doesn’t sound like a lot of people, given that Catholics make up just over 22 percent of the Australian population1. However, for those who aren’t familiar with the way the Catholic Church operates from a geographical perspective, these 300 people represented every area – referred to as a diocese – in Australia. This event was called the First General Assembly of the Fifth Plenary Council of Australia. That’s quite a title, but it was quite an event!
A plenary council is a very rare occurrence in any country. To convene a plenary council means a significant number of people have discerned that a serious intervention or discussion about one or more aspects of the Catholic Church’s life, in that place, is required. A plenary council must also have the consent of the Pope, and the assent of the people. In this case, the organisers received more than 17,000 submissions about a broad range of issues that Catholics believed should be discussed.
Now, why are we sharing this with you? Well, for many Catholics this event has been on their minds for several years as they participated in discussion groups, listened to talks and debated how it should be conducted. However, for people who are disconnected from the Church, or who aren’t Catholic but are maybe thinking about what it means to be Catholic, this event might have slipped under the radar. It seems to me that if a person was thinking about becoming a Catholic or returning to the faith, they would want to know what sort of things were on the hearts and minds of Catholics in 2021.
I wish I could say there was complete agreement by attendees and onlookers about what should have been discussed and by whom. The process was not perfect, but then again, any venture that involves humans is unlikely to ever be perfect! However, as I watched some of the proceedings, it was clear the members – who gathered in small groups – were taking seriously the concept of participating in “spiritual conversations”. I’ll say more about this later in the article, but basically it meant participants had to do more listening than talking and to be welcoming and non-judgmental about people’s opinions. As Catholics, they believed these conversations had to be guided by prayer and the Holy Spirit, who they trust will provide wise counsel and guidance.
Such conversations must have been difficult, because we know there are some topics Catholics do not always agree on. However, these members were committed to the process of journeying with others – not running away, not being disrespectful of people who hold contrary views to them, but rather sticking with the conversation and trusting that something good would come from the process.
This process of journeying together through respectful conversations is something we could all benefit from. It is my guess that each one of us has had to deal with difficult relationships in our families, in the workplace or in the communities we operate in. It can be so easy to throw our hands up in the air and say, “Enough!” But where does that get us? The Catholic Church, through the person of Jesus Christ, has so much to offer. But it is not perfect, and we need to work on those areas that don’t reflect the love of God.
I invite you to read on if you would like to know more.
Thoughts for the journey
In the previous section I mentioned the phrase “spiritual conversations”. This was the way the members of the Plenary Council “discussed” the topics they had chosen to deliberate on.
Conventional decision-making is quite distinct from decision-making that is flavoured by spiritual and prayerful reflection. Consider when you have had to make a major decision in your family or work life. Those involved in the process might suggest their age or education gives them the prerogative to have the final say. Some might suggest the person or people most affected by the decision get to decide. Sometimes it is just the person with the loudest voice that gets to decide.
For well over 1,000 years, groups within the Catholic tradition have practised spiritual discernment, or decision-making. While there are different formats for the discernment process it usually involves the following beliefs:
- that everyone involved in the discussion is a loved son or daughter of God (no one is more privileged than the other);
- that the Holy Spirit is at work in the world, and we need to be attentive to this reality;
- that we need to bring a disposition of openness to the discussion;
- that prayer is paramount so we can make room for God to speak to us;
- that what is happening in our heart and gut is as important as what’s in our head.
That’s a lot to think about, but if you would like to read a short article on “spiritual conversations” and the Plenary Council process, please do so here.
The Second Assembly of the Fifth Plenary Council will be held in July next year. The Council is a sign that many people believe that what Jesus Christ and the Catholic Church can offer is still vitally critical to our lives.
If you have questions about the Catholic faith, please contact us at the Catholic Enquiry Centre. If you would like to know more about the Plenary Council, especially what the important questions are to Australian Catholics, please visit the website.
Words: Sharon Brewer