No substitute for being in the same room

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Members listen as announcements are made at the opening session of the Second Assembly of the Fifth Plenary Council of the Church in Australia in Sydney on 4 July. Photo: Giovanni Portelli, The Catholic Weekly.

In the vision of the Second Vatican Council, dialogue ranks among the most important concepts. The Pontificate of Pope Francis has drawn so deeply on this theme that it has become an organising principle for the Church itself, as we move towards a “synodal” expression of Church life.

Regardless of the differences of vision on certain parts of the Plenary Council’s agenda, or the dampening effect of the truly horrific weather, the simple exercise of putting a broad cross-section of the Church in the one room to meet one another, discuss the issues and to break bread, seems to have been a true blessing of the second assembly.

At the very least it has allowed the members to rediscover the Church: not as an institution, or an employer, or a hierarchy, but as a communion of others.

As St Augustine says, the Church is a net in which many kinds of fish are caught. And what a catch!

Religious of different generations rub shoulders, lay people meet the Church’s bishops perhaps for the first time, amateur theologians vote while the expert periti advise, Indigenous Catholics, Eastern Catholics, parents, celibates, young, old and in between.

Plenary members light candles for each table in Cathedral College Hall where the Assembly took place. The candles were all lit from the central Plenary candle. Photo: Giovanni Portelli
Plenary members light candles for each table in Cathedral College Hall where the Assembly took place. The candles were all lit from the central Plenary candle. Photo: Giovanni Portelli

Here comes everybody.

As Archbishop Timothy Costelloe SDB of Perth said in his opening address, we are called to have a “deep consciousness” of who we are as a Church. Well here it is, warts and all. If the synodal future means we get to talk to one another, that can’t be such a bad thing.

It is also a signal example of how, despite all our experience with Zoom during COVID-19, there is no substitute to getting together.

Every dialogue holds the promise of minds and hearts changing, of disagreements coming to light, of misconceptions being revealed, of friendships being formed.

Yet this is not to say that the real Plenary Council was simply the “friends we made along the way”. Archbishop Costelloe also said that “we may find ourselves in a place we had not expected and which may even be making us uncomfortable”.

Plenary members gather for the Second Assembly of the Council in St Mary’s Cathedral College Hall on 5 July 2022. Photo: Giovanni Portelli

That’s also a blessing for the Church. To quote a very different thinker to St Augustine, the psychologist Carl Rogers used to say “the facts are always friendly”, and that’s true even when they irritate us.

Everything on display at the second assembly is the product of scribes trained for the Kingdom of God, bringing out of the treasury things both old and new: the canonical processes, the machinery of voting, the liturgical activities, the disagreements, the decisions of the various committees.

All of it comes from the Church, belongs to its life as it really is, rather than as any one person would like it to be, and this week we’ve let it all hang out for the world to see.

Had the first assembly been in person, would this second assembly be considering a different agenda, with different priorities? What kind of Plenary should we have had, if not this one? Was this the best we could do?

Whatever your answers to those questions, this is the Plenary Council we ended up with.

Yes, there’s hard work to do. But as The Catholic Weekly went to print two days into the business of the council, we felt glad to be a part of it all. After years of talking through screens and submissions and documents, we’re relieved that it’s finally here.