Nigel Zimmermann: The challenges of the Plenary

As the Church in Australia approaches an historic moment, we all need to reflect seriously on what's working in the Church, what's not - and where the Holy Spirit might be calling us

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A candle symbolising the Plenary Council stands in St Mary’s Cathedral as Archbishop Anthony Fisher and clergy process out of the cathedral following the commissioning ceremony. Photo: Giovanni Portelli
A candle symbolising the Plenary Council stands in St Mary’s Cathedral as Archbishop Anthony Fisher and clergy process out of the cathedral following the commissioning of Plenary delegates. Photo: Giovanni Portelli

In the leadup to an historic moment, it’s important to think about what’s flourishing in the Church

In this first of three reflections on the Instrumentum Laboris (Working Document for the Plenary Council), I take inspiration from the liturgical season in which we are now living, and focus on the Holy Spirit.

On the Feast of Pentecost, the season of Eastertide closed and we were launched into Ordinary Time, until Advent begins in November. What is the purpose of Ordinary Time? Children who participate in the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd will answer with delight, “green means growing time”.

The colour is that of natural growth after winter, of flourishing flowerbeds, tall grass and breath-taking forest ranges. For Ordinary Time to be a green season of growth, and likewise for the Christian life to be a time of flourishing, it must be launched in the power of the Holy Spirit.

Sometimes the Holy Spirit will invite a return to older and ancient ways. Sometimes He guides us into the surprise of what is new and strange…

We cannot walk apart from that Spirit, who binds the Church together. The transformation of the apostles and the bold proclamation of St Peter is a moment of re-creation, of new life in the Spirit (Acts 2).

Too much discussion about recent crises in our Church has been an inert rumination upon what seems to be dwindling or lacklustre, like staring at an empty room long after the party has concluded. Likewise, too much conversation about the Plenary Council has been a boorish focus on a few structures or offices in the Church.

They are not unimportant, but it is like reading the story of Pentecost and focusing on the architecture of the room in which the apostles were waiting (“…all together in one place” Acts 2:1). The point of the story is not about the place – it’s the sound of heaven coming “like a mighty rushing wind” that inspires and gifts the Church to share the Gospel.

A work of the Holy Spirit

In our Plenary Council’s Working Document, the Holy Spirit is referred to 36 times (for the mathematically inclined, Jesus is referred to 47 times and God the Father is mentioned twice). God, in different ways overall, is mentioned 127 times. This is not necessarily good or bad, however it can be a useful sign of the writers’ emphasis in the document overall.

It could have been written in a merely administrative style, bearing a likeness to the agenda of a publicly listed company or even a document of canon law. It might have been written as a political manifesto or a call to revolution. Readers yearning for a corporate resource-focused agenda or a revolution are disappointed. Instead, the writers (one bishop, one priest-theologian, two lay professionals) draw deeply on what motivates and inspires the Christian life.

What emerges is a challenge, that we communally take up the invitation of the Second Vatican Council and turn more fully to paths of spiritual flourishing on the basis that the Holy Spirit is real and alive. He is not a sentimental bit of window dressing but the very power of triune love, shaking us and converting us.

The Holy Spirit, traditionally depicted as a dove, is pictured in a stained-glass window. It is the Spirit to which the Plenary Council must especially look in its reflections, prayer and decisions. Photo: CNS, Michael Alexander, Georgia Bulletin

Sometimes the Holy Spirit will invite a return to older and ancient ways. Sometimes He guides us into the surprise of what is new and strange, and which past generations in the Church will have found to be bewildering. Either way, we can’t keep staring at empty rooms pining for the life that was once there. We will have to turn our eyes to what is lively and surprising, even if it upsets our personal biases and expectations. We will then find rooms in the Church filled with life and energy, but to see them we’ll have to walk down the hall and take a few unexpected turns.

For the Plenary Council to be a movement of the Holy Spirit, its members need to be aware of, informed by and respectfully learning from the occasions of life in the Spirit on display in the Church in Australia:

“It is now the task and privilege of all the Plenary Council delegates to open themselves to the Holy Spirit as together they seek to hear the Spirit’s voice sounding through every dimension of the Plenary Council journey.” (IL #24)

In other words, pray with the Spirit; pray to the Spirit; pray for the Spirit’s work, and look intently at the signs of that same Holy Spirit in the Church already.

The Instrumentum Laboris challenges us in terms of life and growth in the Holy Spirit and we are invited to turn our eyes towards that which is alive and flourishing. In my second instalment I will be reflecting on the other side of that equation, the signs of stagnation and death in our local church. In my third I will consider the movement of the Holy Spirit and the direction in which that strong wind takes us.

Nigel Zimmermann is an adjunct lecturer with the Institute for Ethics & Society at the University of Notre Dame Australia and Senior Fellow with the PM Glynn Institute, Australian Catholic University. Nigel works for the Archdiocese of Melbourne.

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