Plenary voices: Bishop Antoine-Charbel Tarabay

Bishop Antoine Charbel-Tarabay, head of the Maronite Eparchy of Australia, New Zealand and Oceania, offer his thoughts at the midway point of the Plenary

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Maronite Christians lead a Eucharistic procession through the streets of Sydney in 2019. Photo: Giovanni Portelli

We are halfway through this historic event, the First General Assembly of the Fifth Plenary Council of Australia.

First, I thank the Lord I am here. It is great to be part of the history of the faith and the Catholic Church in Australia. It is also a responsibility, knowing that what we do will indeed play a big role in how our Church faces the 21st century; whether it grows and develops as an active factor in society, or shrinks and becomes merely a passive actor, only in the shadows and reactive rather than leading the way.

The good news is that we are not on this journey alone, we have many companions: both with us here, praying for us elsewhere, and – we hope – looking over us.

For me, the most important focus is our common aim – that is to love God and to serve the people whose spiritual and pastoral care is entrusted to us. This has eclipses any of the challenges, particularly of engaging with a group of participants, two thirds of whom are new faces.  So far, it has been a delight to know and learn from them.

For many people, this is the first time they have had an experience of a national and multi-faceted church, made up of members of both the Eastern and the Latin Catholic Churches. They see, perhaps in a new way, that the Catholic Church is universal.

It is wonderful to feel the unity so strong in this diversity. We are made up of clergy and laity, the young and the old; of people from different global cultures, and from diverse religious traditions.

The diversity of opinions which I have encountered during the Plenary is another aspect of this. We have brought together a treasure house of experiences, and ways of worshipping. Since we are worshipping the One True God in the unity of faith, this is exciting, and I am hope filled.

At the start of the Plenary, I had the opportunity to conduct an “intervention. I tried not to “intervene” so much as to “supervene”. I spoke about conversion, how Jesus Christ is always calling us to repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand. For us easterners, repentance or “metanoia,” is change and transformation for the sake of walking through the door to renewal. This door is always open, and while it never looks the same, it is because we are never the same.

I am finding the discussions in our small groups very important because, really, no group is small if the Holy Spirit is within it.  And I have the good fortune of being in a group of some 30 other people whom I am coming to know for the first time, just as I am always coming to know myself for the first time. I am not sure at this point in time where this Plenary is going to take us but I still wait the outcomes of our discussions with anticipation.

If there is one thing I could have added to this experience, it would have been the presence of youth. Our Maronite community is blessed with vibrant and enthusiastic youth, who meet often and regularly, and who bring their faith, their questions, their searching and their yearnings to us. They share with us their perspective and we share with them our experience of renewal. Next time, I perhaps could bring a busload of Maronite Catholic youth with me to the Plenary.

And if they did come they would find that our exchanges are very sincere, very open, very respectful and very challenging at times. In our group, we have been discussing the first item of the agenda: conversion. Of course, conversion is the work of the Holy Spirit, yet we have to participate in it. How do we, mere mortals, share in the action of the Holy Spirit? Certainly, this requires a lot of listening, discerning, prayer and time.

We are also called to trust in the action and the timing of the Holy Spirit. This means we must have hope, especially now when there is a considerable feeling of uncertainty, and a sense of “mess” or “chaos”. That is not necessarily what one would expect or anticipate for a Plenary Council, but in the spirit of our discussions in Group 1, it is our hope and confidence that the creative power of God will manifest itself through the chaos.

The same can happen anywhere. What is chaotic and disordered in ourselves and in our work can be raised to a higher level of organisation, even to beauty, like a sculpture created from a slab of stone. However, this can only happen with a conversion of heart leading to a new understanding of sin, forgiveness, and grace in the life of the Church community.