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From Perth to Fiji, Oceania synod response captures diversity of the region

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Seminarians from Fiji carry the Book of the Gospels at the final Mass for World Youth Day 2008 at Royal Randwick Racecourse in Sydney, Australia. Photo: CNS

Slaughterhouse Five, My Brilliant Career, Power Without Glory, The Lord of the Rings—some titles grab the attention and invite the reader into a gripping tale. The Oceania Discernment on the Working Document for the Continental Stage is not one such title.

Nevertheless, this latest document in the synod on synodality, the last from our region before the main show begins in Rome in October, deserves a wide readership in the church.

The Oceania Discernment document is the Federation of Catholic Bishops Conferences of Oceania (FCBCO) response to the October 2022 document for the continental stage, Enlarge the Space of Your Tent.

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It compiles and sifts material from Australia, the Episcopal Conferences of the Pacific, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands, and the Eastern Catholic churches of the region.

Other continental documents have also been published for Europe, Asia, North and South America and so on. These documents will then act as inputs for the next stage of the synodal process this October in Rome.

Oceania may be the most interesting of all these continental documents, for a few key reasons.

First of all, as a geographic region “Oceania” tries to encompass dioceses as varied as Perth, the world’s most isolated city located on the shoreline of Indian Ocean, to those in remote PNG and small Pacific islands.

Compare Sydney—a major metropolitan archdiocese home to several large communities of Eastern Catholics from the Middle East, India and Eastern Europe, alongside tens of thousands of other migrant Catholics—with a tiny country like Tuvalu (population 10,000) with a single church building for its 300-odd Catholics.

The geographical differences are also accompanied by significant divergences in local capacities to participate, mostly dependent on wealth.

Many remote dioceses couldn’t participate in the process because they don’t have electricity, computers, telephones or even, in some cases, roads. Language barriers are also real; in PNG alone more than 800 languages are spoken.

CEPAC, the pacific conference encompassing the various island communities, was unable to submit a synthesis document at all to the process because of limitations like these.

All these divergent priorities mean the document is, as the bishops’ accompanying reflection says, more of a “postcard” than a comprehensive text.

The Oceania Discernment document also tries to bridge the gap between vastly different on-ground priorities around the region.

Synodal priorities from Australia and New Zealand are well known and include opening up the discussion around gender and sexuality, the inclusion of divorced and remarried Catholics and “eucharistic hospitality” towards non-Catholics, among familiar calls to professionalise and liberalise church governance.

By contrast, in PNG, the document says, “cultural beliefs and traditional practices such as sorcery and polygamy continue to be a big challenge to Christian values and teachings.”

On the gender and sexuality question, one of the key flashpoints of the synodal process worldwide, there is also significant divergence in the region.

PNG categorically rejects any liberalisation of gender issues, saying it is not part of their tradition and cultural background, but an entry from the Mariana Islands says the LGBT community “resonates very strongly.”

Indeed, in some Polynesian countries “third gender” people are an established and accepted cultural minority.

The document also departs to a great extent from the overall aesthetic and spiritual tone of the Fiji setting in which it was finalised.

Under the leadership of Suva Archbishop Peter Loy Chong, the register of the FCBCO assembly this year emphasised a spirituality of the oceans, mediated through marine wildlife symbols like sea turtles, and strongly opposed “extractive” industries like industrial fishing and deep-sea mining.

Little of this sensibility has made it through to the final document, which is written in a house style familiar to those who have followed the synodal journey.

Indeed the “Oceanic” tone of this stage of the synod raises another point of tension: the Eastern Catholic Churches’ contribution, both in discernment sessions and in the final document, tends to diverge again quite sharply from the rest of the document, and the region.

Where the Easterners’ contributions are included, they tend to me more conservative, more liturgical, and more concerned with stability.

While synodality is an ancient mark of the Eastern Churches, perhaps moreso even than the West, they occupy a different symbolic and theological mindset, and their struggles to engage with the process have become more obvious as it has unfolded.

This extends even to the point of rejecting the “tent” metaphor used in the document for the continental stage, unsurprising given many Eastern Catholics came to Australia from Syria, Ukraine and other places as displaced persons.

All these divergent priorities, capacities, geographical localities and other differences mean the document is, as the bishops’ accompanying reflection says, more of a “postcard” than a comprehensive text.

Indeed, it reads much like an Australian document produced on behalf of the region (or even as a Pacific addendum to the Plenary Council documents) rather than something growing out of a local “Oceanic” theology; given the resources, expertise, size, wealth and connections of the Australian contributors and facilitators, this was always going to be the case.

Despite all these many, many divergences, several key unifying priorities were arrived at, chief among them the looming ecological crisis caused by climate change and other forms of pollution.

Given Australia’s history of colonial exploitation in the region—for instance, strip mining Nauru and Tuvalu to ecological and economic collapse, our dirty history over gas deposits in Timor Leste, and similar problems in PNG and other countries, as well as our poor record on climate change at home—it is right that the Australian church and its agencies advocate strongly for an integrated ecology for Oceania.

Inculturation is a second priority, in which local cultural expressions of Catholicism are fostered in a variety of settings, including the Eucharist—this will not be news to Australians in the wake of the Plenary Council. It is a key priority of the synod process worldwide.

The inclusion of women is a third key priority of the document, the details of which vary across the region. In Australia and New Zealand the focus is on the inclusion of women in parish and diocesan decision-making, while in developing countries women face extreme poverty and suffer abuse and exploitation.

There were also calls for increased attention to young people and for improved formation for lay people and clergy across the region.

Bishop Anthony Randazzo of Broken Bay has taken on the mantle of FCBCO president, both a burden and an honour at a time when the “continental” groupings are becoming much more influential.

Transitioning this enormous, diverse region into the church’s synodal future will be a serious enterprise. But first, two years of Roman debate must take place.

So while this document is the end of our regional discernment, it’s also yet another beginning, insofar as it will inform the priorities of the synodal work to come.

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