Plenary Feedback: Sr Cecilia Joseph OP

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‘People come to the Church searching for meaning, purpose, and direction … They do not remain in the Church because of its efficient processes or pragmatic management styles.’ Photo: Dziana Hasanbeka via Pexels

The Plenary Council’s working document, Towards the Second Assembly, was circulated to members for feedback by 4 April. Although Towards the Second Assembly has not been circulated for the wider Church to read, The Catholic Weekly will publish the feedback of members between now and the release of the final Plenary Council documents, in the interests of transparency, openness and co-responsibility.

Response to Theme A

The writing group have beautifully articulated the dynamic tension between communion and diversity in the Body of Christ, and the centrality of participation in the mystery of the Church. They refer to Lumen Gentium 1, defining the Church as “like a sacrament” of the union of humanity with God and of the unity of the human race. This analogy is a rich pathway into the mystery, highlighting that the Church cannot be reduced to the gathering of believers, nor to the presence of God on earth: it is the visible instrument of grace, which unites us to God, and through God, to each other. It is therefore the Church, as established by Jesus, that intrinsically possesses the capacity to establish communion in diversity.

However, the four proposals (especially A1, A2 and A4) are largely bureaucratic suggestions, resembling secular models of business teams, training and resource maximisation. The participation envisioned by these proposals seems to be a purely horizontal reality, which will establish communion in diversity merely by acknowledging diversity and increasing awareness.

“A3 Proposal 6,” regarding ways to support our response to the universal call to holiness, is the only proposal which really promotes the role of the Church as “sacrament” and “instrument” of God’s unity. It is through the call to holiness and the specific call to vocation that the human person learns to receive his or her goodness from God, and to be a gift to the world. Family, presbyterate and religious life, as well as lay communities, are our “schools” of community in diversity. These are the places where we learn daily conversion – daily death to self and rising in the life of Jesus. These are the proposals that must be taken most seriously, therefore, if we wish to see fruit from the “practical” proposals for participation proposed by the writing group.

Response to Theme B

People come to the Church searching for meaning, purpose, and direction. They find in the Church a means of salvation. They do not remain in the Church because of its efficient processes or pragmatic management styles. In the Church, they encounter Jesus who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life. The draft paper Ecclesial Leadership and Governance reduces Church renewal to effective bureaucratic structures. Emphasis on the horizontal dimension of ‘reimagining’ solutions through boards, councils, modules, and additional layers of oversight eclipse the primary role of spiritual renewal. The Church can only be effectively renewed by returning to the Source from which flows her identity, structure, and mission, handed down through her history, teachings, and tradition.

The Church is a divine and human structure (CCC 771, IL 82), instituted by Christ, whose defining qualities are professed in the Creed (CCC 811f). The Plenary Council must affirm that authentic renewal begins with personal conversion (IL 68; Matthew 4:17, Mark 1:15). This call to conversion extends to the ordained, religious, and the laity. The Church consists of saints and sinners and yet, it is holy (CCC 824). Genuine renewal is not about multiplying structures and programs, but about a renewed encounter with Christ (IL 73, 74). Encounter and personal conversion meet in the Eucharist. It is this personal conversion that will lead to the greater pastoral goal: renewal of culture (IL 14).

This draft document fails to detail the pastoral reality which give evidence of the ‘signs of the times’ (see IL 30, 32, 47). The Church exists in and is affected by a world imbued with secularism, producing a crisis of faith, a crisis of freedom, a crisis of worship, a crisis of respect for life and the family, and a crisis of vocations. In times such as these, it seems even more essential that the Church be a witness to the world, a sign that is countercultural. The Church exists to transform the world. Instead of focusing on changing the Church, we need to focus on allowing this gift to be a sign and instrument in the world that will accompany men and women to holiness.

Response to Theme C

The Lord desires the salvation of all through the knowledge of eternal truth (1 Tim 2:4, CCC 851). In the modern context, the Church exists in and is affected by a world imbued with secularism, producing a five-fold crisis (faith; freedom; worship; respect for life and the family; vocations). These threats seek to extinguish the truth that the Church brings to the world.  In stating that “all religions are free to flourish within the law” disguises the fact that our freedoms are slowly being taken away. We only need look to recent encroachments on the right to and respect for human life through abortion and euthanasia legislation  (Proposal 14, 18; IL 182) as well as the freedom of our Catholic schools and institutions to operate according to faith based principles. In times such as these, it seems essential that the Church be a witness to the world, a sign that is countercultural (IL 8).

This paper addresses numerous ways of being missionary disciples but ignores the importance of the domestic church, the family, the first place of evangelisation. Numerous proposals spoke to the need to support families (2, 4,7 17, 29). The family is the “first and vital cell of society” (Familiaris Consortio 42). One essential way to renew the culture and the Church is to renew the family.

Further, the topic of priestly and religious vocations in identifying and forming future leaders for mission in the church is missing. The flourishing of vocations to the consecrated life and priesthood is a sign of a healthy church. Active promotion of these vocations must be undertaken (Proposals 46, 47, 61).

This paper focuses on solely one way of ‘reading the times’ and living according to God’s plan for humanity: social justice. Social justice is one element in the larger field of moral theology. Moral theology includes additional areas in which human beings act toward their supernatural end (bioethics, sexuality, and virtues). For true renewal of missionary discipleship in bringing the truth of salvation to all people, each area of moral theology must be addressed (Proposal 1). Only through a proper understanding of ourselves and our role in this world will we come to the fulness of life for which we were created (John 10:10).

Finally, Catholic education is situated in the evangelisation efforts of the Church, within the pastoral work of the Christian community. These institutions are one means within the larger Church to support families and young people in their intellectual, human, and spiritual development. The discussion on Catholic education needs concrete action that will confirm and strengthen Catholic identity within educational institutions (Proposal 70, 71, 72, 73). Work must be done in this area to ensure the continuing freedom of our educational institutions in areas such an enrolment, staffing, curriculum, funding, etc. Our schools will only remain Catholic if we make intentional decisions to preserve our identity and pass on the beautiful tradition we have received.

Response to Theme D

This theme reflects the desire of the Plenary Council to share the heavenly treasure of the liturgy with all Australians. There were a large number of first-session group and member proposals promoting authentic renewal in liturgy and Eucharistic devotion (proposals 21-29, 31-35), which must not be drowned out by the solo voices calling for lay preaching, the third rite of Reconciliation and liturgical innovations. The need for “welcoming and accessible” liturgy is a natural corollary of the Church’s missionary focus; however, it does not need to compromise the encounter with transcendence, which is one thing that our secular society cannot offer (Fruits p.35). We can learn from our Eastern rite communities how to educate people for liturgy: the feeling of “home” and “welcome” comes from being embraced by the transcendent, not from being embraced by banality.

Response to D2 – Third Rite of Reconciliation 

In our world of digital anonymity and public social-media confessions, young people find that the first rite of Confession resonates with their desire to be seen, heard and forgiven. It is true that there are “serious evils and suffering in the world” – Australians are more aware of this than ever. They are also likewise experiencing higher levels of anxiety and lower measures of wellbeing – even before COVID (Australian Psychological Society, 2015 report). There is a prevailing sense of helplessness.

The role of the first and second rites of Confession is to put the power of change back in the hands of the people. The Good News of the Gospel is that yes, I am part of the problem – “peace starts in the heart” – and that I can be part of the solution, right here and now. To become more aware of sin and its effect in my life is a pathway towards greater freedom and healing. The danger of the third rite of Confession is that I lose my opportunity to claim responsibility for my sin. As noted by the writing group, the Penitential Rite at Mass (as well as second rite of Confession liturgies) serves the precise purpose of acknowledging the communal dimension of sin.

Sr Cecilia Joseph OP is a Sydney-based Dominican Sister of St Cecilia.

The Catholic Weekly will publish the Plenary Council feedback of members online in coming weeks. Some submissions may be edited for style and length, compared to the original versions submitted to the Drafting Committee. Plenary Council members who wish to share their feedback may email [email protected].

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