Plenary 2021: The way ahead is to be our best – not re-invention as an NGO

Renewal, recovering its founding inspiration and purging itself of the causes of its failure are a key task for the Church in its Fifth Plenary

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Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. Some may ask ‘what has the Catholic Church ever done for us?’ But this would be to ignore history. Photo 123rf

In Monty Python’s Life of Brian, Reg, a member of the People’s Liberation Front of Judea, asks rhetorically, ‘What have the Romans ever done for us?’ To his frustration his fellows respond with multiple examples of the benefits of Roman civilisation.

‘All right, all right,’ Reg concedes, ‘but apart from sanitation, medicine, education, wine, public order, irrigation, roads, a freshwater system, and public health, what have the Romans ever done for us?’

Something similar might be said about Australia’s indebtedness to Christianity generally and especially the Catholic Church.

At the “House for the Dying,” a hospice run by the Missionaries of Charity in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Sister Paula is pictured in a 2009 file photo supporting a patient. Photo: CNS, Paul Jeffrey

Apart from …

“All right, all right, but apart from a few obvious saints, and many hidden ones; or inventing the university and providing primary and secondary schools worldwide; or running orphanages, aged care, feeding stations and other welfare; or creating and maintaining hospitals, hospices and clinics…

“Apart from contributions to language and law, conceptions of justice and human rights; to ending cannibalism, slavery, infanticide and the chattel conception of women and children; to the advent of the scientific method and much subsequent science, medicine and technology; to the heritage of Christian art, architecture, literature and music; and to the theological and philosophical ideas underpinning our democracy and so much else; and to the sublime moral code and vision of the person that still inspire so many…

“Apart from all that,” Secular Modernity asks, “what have the Catholics ever done for us?”

Ethiopian pilgrims carry a cross to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre during a Good Friday procession in Jerusalem’s Old city. Christian faith has produced extraordinary educational, scientific, artistic, philosophical and cultural achievements and created a widespread belief in the intrinsic dignity of the human person – unique in the history of the world. Photo: CNS, Ammar Awad, Reuters

The Church is not perfect

Other Christians, and other people of goodwill, have made their contributions and would have moved to fill the void were the Catholics not there. But a lot that we take for granted today would likely be reduced or missing altogether.

None of which makes the Catholic Church perfect. The child sexual abuse crisis, spotlighted by the Royal Commission, left young ones terribly damaged, others understandably disillusioned, the Church’s credibility shot. Try as it may to bring justice and healing to survivors and to ensure this terrible chapter is never repeated, the Church will not regain some people’s trust for years—if ever.

We could identify other failings . The ancient adage “Ecclesia semper reformanda”—the Church always needing renewal—highlights that however divine the founder, the message or the graces received, we can always do better.

The Plenary Council will be an historic and decisive moment for the Church in Australia. Photo: CNS, Giovanni Portelli

A Plenary of potential

One mechanism for renewal is a ‘plenary council’. It’s defined as a national church gathering to settle common pastoral action for the increase of faith, the renewal of morals and the observance of Church discipline.

The last such council in Australia — the fourth — was 84 years ago. Who could have imagined then the technological, sociological and ideological changes that were coming? Or the changes in the Church after the Vatican Council of the 1960s and in the culture after the sexual revolution?

The Fifth Plenary Council of Australia, which begins this weekend, has been long prepared for through submissions, sociological research, listening sessions, discernment groups, documents and prayer. The Council members must sift through all this, while attending to the experiences of 5.3 million Australian Catholics, and others of good will, most of whom made no formal contributions but all of whom matter.

The camera captures Australia’s Church leaders in a candid moment, including the legendary Dr Daniel Mannix, Archbishop of Melbourne, second from left in front row, as they prepare for a formal portrait at the 1937 Plenary Council. Photo: Archdiocese of Sydney

New opportunities – in fidelity to its essence

So the Church must explore new opportunities while remaining faithful to its identity as the People of God inspired by the Gospel of Jesus and served by the hierarchy, alert to the challenges and opportunities, graces and limitations particular to our time and place. It must “listen to what the Spirit is saying to the Church”—to quote the Apocalypse of St John.

The Council members are well aware of the challenges including:

  • to religious faith and affiliation, told in the rise of those with no particular religion
  • to religious practice and sense of vocation, apparent in declining younger congregants, clergy, nuns, and especially church weddings
  • to Judeo-Christian values such as reverence for ‘the little ones’, playing out in radical changes to law and practice and
  • to social and legal respect for freedom of religion.

Facing up to these challenges presents opportunities for the Church to cultivate in her members ‘be-attitudes’ of prayerfulness and contemplation, justice and peacefulness, patience and compassion expressed in action. It calls us to speak passionately for the voiceless, whether unborn or newborn, disabled or mentally ill, trafficked or refugees, indigenous or homeless, frail elderly or dying. And it demands we draw the connections between the physical, human and spiritual ecologies and highlight responsibilities towards each.

Australia would be the poorer without the Catholic Church. So the Church must renew itself, recover its founding inspiration and purge itself of the causes of its failures. It must address people’s deepest needs, state with confidence its faith and morals, find a language that speaks today, and so build people up in faith, hope and love.

Australia would be the poorer without the Catholic Church. So the Church must renew itself, recover its founding inspiration and purge itself of the causes of its failures.

The Church will serve the culture best, as well as its own members, by being its best self, faithful to the mission given by Christ — not by re-inventing itself as a secular NGO.

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