The Plenary Council is set to begin in just three weeks’ time, in circumstances very different to those imagined back in November 2016, when the Bishops of Australia determined to seek the approval of the Apostolic See to hold it. Delayed by a year in an attempt to avoid COVID restrictions, the Council begins in three weeks’ time, with most delegates under harsher restrictions than this time last year.
Delegates from the Archdiocese of Sydney are finalising their preparations to participate in the Council, and focusing on their hopes for the first assembly. Over the next three weeks, The Catholic Weekly will ask the same questions to different Plenary Council delegates in Sydney. This week, we hear from Archbishop Anthony Fisher OP.
Q: The last Plenary Council was in 1937. Why do you think it is important we hold a Plenary Council at this time, and what are some things you would like to see the Plenary Council address?
The Church in Australia today has enormous strengths, and it is important that we spend some time acknowledging that. The Church includes many faithful, gifted, generous laity, religious and clerics. Our networks of individuals and families, of diocesan and parish communities (with their churches, agencies and pastoral outreach), of educational institutions (pre-schools, primary and secondary schools, and tertiary institutions), of health and aged care facilities, and of welfare services are second to none. The three traditional wells of evangelical energy in Australia—family, parish and school—have proven resilient and adaptable. Faith is still a prominent influence in many people’s lives, and both Church and society live off the spiritual and cultural patrimony of generations past.
Nevertheless, the child sexual abuse crisis and the ensuing Royal Commission brought with them much justified criticism and understandable disillusionment, continuing scrutiny and demands for reform, not only to ensure that all church situations are safe for children and vulnerable adults, but also to ensure transparency and accountability in all areas of ecclesial life. Secularisation has also left our culture and polity without sound moorings, some people with no moral compass, too many without meaning or hope. It has unsettled many of our faithful, corroded the identity of some institutions, inoculated many young people to faith, and contributed to formal disaffiliation or informal disconnection.
It is certainly a time that is different to others in the history of the Church in Australia, and so the holding of a Plenary Council at this time will no doubt bear fruit.
… and challenges
If the primary purpose of a plenary council is to address pastoral needs, then ours must address the crisis of faith in Australia: what we are going to do about bringing the Gospel more effectively to the Australian population in the 2020s, ’30s and beyond, especially to those with no religion, to catechise more deeply those who already have faith, and to draw all more closely to Christ, inspiring, forming and otherwise assisting them to live as ‘missionary disciples’.
If the primary purpose of a plenary council is to address pastoral needs, then ours must address the crisis of faith in Australia
Declining practice among Catholics
Another major concern for the Plenary Council to address must surely be the present predicament of declining church practice amongst those who identify as Catholic. Regular Sunday Mass attendance is at around 1 in 10 on average, reception of the sacrament of Penance is well down on previous levels and I don’t think that’s because people have stopped sinning. Baptisms and Sacramental marriages, too, are now falling. Perhaps the decline in church practice represents a decline in regular prayer. If family, parish and school have been Australia’s traditional wells of evangelical creativity, we must recognise that all three are now under stress of various kinds, and seek ways to draw people back to regular practice, and inspire, form and otherwise assist them to be active participants in the liturgical life and outreach of their eucharistic community.
Contemporary challenges to religious freedom threaten the very possibility of the Church advancing the “observance, promotion and protection” of her faith, pastoral life, moral teaching and discipline
For much of our history in Australia we’ve been able to take religious liberty for granted, but this has left us dangerously short of protections at a time of considerable social and cultural change. Some people fear that religious liberty protections will be used as weapons against particular groups, even though our record in education and elsewhere is very strong in terms of inclusiveness and non-discrimination. Contemporary challenges to religious freedom threaten the very possibility of the Church advancing the “observance, promotion and protection” of her faith, pastoral life, moral teaching and discipline (can. 445)—the express purposes of a plenary council. So, I would hope the Council will address what we are to do about evangelising the culture and educating the community so these are more hospitable to the Church and about seeking protections for Christian institutions and individuals to continue to be their true selves.
Increasing hostility to Christians, addressing the family
Meanwhile, we have seen increased hostility towards and rejection of Christian understandings of the preciousness of human life, of the nature of the human person including the body, and of sexuality, marriage and family. Our Plenary Council will have to address the present dilemmas with respect for family and life in Australia: how we are to advance the Gospel of Life and Love in the face of many hostile cultural forces and legal changes, to be a voice for the voiceless, and to ensure we are there to serve them now more than ever.
A vocations crisis
Finally, there is the ongoing vocations crisis that needs to be addressed. When people hear ‘vocations crisis’ they probably think ‘shortage of priests’, but in fact the numbers embracing and sustaining marital and religious vocations is much more starkly in decline.
Lay Catholics in the public square
Underneath all these vocational shortages is, again a crisis of the faith and values that sustain them, especially the prior and underlying sense of baptismal vocation and mission, which should play out not just in good spouses and parents, good priests and religious, but also in good politicians and journalists, teachers and academics, scientists, artists and other professionals, and leaders and workers of all sorts in the world beyond Church institutions, as well as future leaders of our own Catholic institutions. Finding ways to identify, inspire, form and support them all will be crucial going forward.
These are not only areas of challenge, but areas of opportunity for being a better Church in the decades ahead. I look forward to the Plenary Council offering a new commitment …
These are not only areas of challenge, but areas of opportunity for being a better Church in the decades ahead. I look forward to the Plenary Council offering a new commitment and initiatives in the areas identified. I have tremendous confidence that by God’s grace we have the people, faith and generosity to do so and do so well.
I ask you please to keep praying and keeping your communities praying for the delegates and for the rest of the Plenary Council process, that we will genuinely hear and follow God’s call to the Church in Australia today.