Plenary 2021: shaken by the Spirit

In the final instalment of his series on the Plenary Council, Nigel Zimmermann reflects on some of the things that may lead the Church forward in realisation of its mission in Australia

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A stained-glass window illustrates the Holy Spirit as a dove. The fundamental question confronting the Church in Australia at the present time is, quite simply: what is the Holy Spirit telling us? Photo: CNS, Chaz Muth

A striking image of Pope Francis, repeated since the early days of his papacy, has been his public prayers with charismatic leaders, both Catholic and non-Catholic. He advocates for the charismatic movement and talks often of the way the Holy Spirit “disturbs” us so that we can find our way again in the Gospel and experience “renewal”. God, in his Holy Spirit, shakes us and moves us to new life.

At the 37th National Convocation of the Renewal in the Holy Spirit (1 June 2014), the Holy Father emphasised the need of the whole Church for being shaken in the Spirit. There, the pope raised his hands in a charismatic fashion alongside Christians of non-Catholic communities. It was a simple gesture, but one to which many Catholics in Australia are unaccustomed.

Francis even used the charismatic movement as a symbol of the broader Church:

“When I think of charismatics, I think of the Church herself, but in a particular way: I think of a great orchestra, where all the instruments and voices are different from one another, yet all are needed to create the harmony of the music.”

Pope Francis arrives for an audience with members of the Catholic Charismatic Renewal in 2019. Photo: CNS, Vatican Media handout via Reuters

Prayer and spirituality in the Catholic tradition is diverse, and there are many habits and approaches that belong under a wide umbrella. All are fruitful when they cultivate a discipleship in Christ Jesus, who wishes us to share his name with others. By definition, faithfulness to the Good News of Jesus Christ must be shared. If it isn’t a witness, in some fashion, then it is not the Gospel.

However, in contemporary Australia, sharing the Gospel is getting harder. There are signs everywhere of the legacy of Christian faith, but our culture no longer welcomes the Gospel message. It’s harder in our homes, in our workplaces, at the school gate with other families. If you go to church, you are now strange and a bit unnerving.

Among the rubble and fragments of Catholicism in Australian culture, there is now a pervasive prejudice against those of Catholic faith and many obstacles to giving witness. In some professions, it is increasingly difficult to hold a job while remaining in good Christian conscience. And sometimes the supports we need aren’t there. It gets harder to hold the line on anything when your parish feels lifeless and you hear superficiality and merely warm platitudes among church leaders.

It gets harder to hold the line on anything when your parish feels lifeless and you hear superficiality and merely warm platitudes among church leaders.

Nevertheless, we read that after Peter preached at Pentecost, the first Christians gathered in faithful formation, and “awe came upon every soul…” (Acts 2: 43). We are often caught between the concrete reality and the call of our heart for something more awe-inspiring.

Into this tension, the Instrumentum Laboris speaks boldly:

“It is this assurance that should encourage us and empower us to speak and act with that parrhesia, that boldness and courage, which are a gift of the Holy Spirit: We need the Spirit’s prompting, lest we be paralysed by fear and excessive caution, lest we grow used to keeping within safe bounds.” (IL #197)

Youth take part in Eucharistic adoration at an Ignite Conference in 2018.

Many examples come to mind. Two stand out from the submissions made in the consultation phase (‘Listening and Discernment’) of the Plenary Council:

First, the growing devotion of young Catholics to Eucharistic Adoration. It is a sacramental practice unique to the Western Church, and one in which attendees speak of a powerful sense of the Holy Spirit’s prompting towards the face of Christ, and out of which a good number have found their vocation. It is not for everyone, but it has become a trusted and normal practice for many, and a source of quiet flourishing in the presence of the Spirit.

Members of the Neocatechumenal Way pray as Pope Francis leads a special audience in the Paul VI hall at the Vatican in 2015. Photo: CNS, Max Rossi, Reuters

Second, the family life of those involved in intentional ecclesial communities is remarkable. Within the ‘domestic church’, Christianity is witnessed in a synthesis of the traditional and the modern around the kitchen table. In a combination of practices like Night Prayer or a daily rosary along with the use of zoom and face time, with charismatic expressions of prayer and practices of ascetism such as cutting out quantities of television, video games and even weekend sport, a new way can be seen that is equally at home in the Holy Spirit. Children are being catechised by parents and parents are learning to take hold of their faith with a new-found maturity and responsibility.

These are only two examples of a flourishing of Ordinary Time in the Holy Spirit, centred on giving glory to God and living a faithful life. Common to both is that they are not the norm in our average parish.

If we accept the challenge, life in the Holy Spirit will change us, and amend our common life together, and we will discover a renewal in the Church that runs counter to our expectations. We may be praying and acting differently to our recent past, and as such, we will have entered a fruitful path of radical conversion.

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