The Church’s greatest challenge
The first assembly for the 5th Plenary Council of the Catholic Church in Australia will meet from October 3-10. This will be a very important moment for the Church as it reflects on its life and mission at this time in its history. There will be 280 delegates or ‘members’ involved. The discussions that occur will lead to resolutions. A second assembly of the Plenary Council to be held in June 2022 will produce legislative outcomes which can be taken up by dioceses across Australia.
As the Church gathers for this event we could ask a basic question: what is the greatest challenge facing the Catholic Church at this time? It is an important question to ask. I would propose that the greatest challenge facing the Church is a crisis of faith which has affected the society as a whole and has seeped into the Church.
We are aware that there has been an exponential growth in the numbers of Australians that claim to have no faith. This growing cohort now live as though God does not exist, and they are increasingly reshaping the character of our society. In recent years we have witnessed the passage of legislation which has broken the link between Christian beliefs and the laws of the land. Our society is being recalibrated without the underpinning of Christian morality. Our society is being set adrift without a spiritual and moral foundation.
This crisis of faith has seeped into the Church over the second half of the twentieth century. Mass attendance in Australia has fallen from an estimated high of 74% in 1954 to a 2016 level of 11.8%. This precipitous decline in Sunday Mass attendance is a clear sign of this crisis. Many who were raised in Catholic families now have little contact with the Church, except through perhaps attending an occasional funeral or Christmas or Easter Mass. They may still identify themselves as Catholic, but their lives and mindsets are secular.
Baptisms are declining as parents no longer see the importance of this sacrament for their children. They no longer see any importance in raising their children to know God. Couples with a Catholic background getting married do not seek marriage preparation offered by the Church or a sacramental blessing upon their union. These trends will in turn further hasten the decline in Church attendance and involvement.
Faith in God, faith in the person of Christ, is in freefall in our society.
This, surely, is the greatest challenge the Church faces at this time. We are in the midst of a profound crisis whereby the Christian faith is being increasingly discarded by people who fail to see that it has any meaning for their life. The Plenary Council must have this issue at the heart of all that it does. The only way we can begin to address this crisis of faith is with an honest evaluation and analysis of what is happening.
In responding to the crisis we can take a lead from Pope Francis who has constantly urged the Church to take on a missionary orientation. We need to look outwards and not become, as he says, ‘self-referential’. If the Plenary Council only concerns itself with internal matters of Church life then it will fail to address “the elephant in the room”.
However, we cannot become missionary if we first do not grow in our Catholic faith. We therefore need a particular focus on the issue of formation in the faith, or catechesis. Catechesis is absolutely essential to nourish personal faith and bring people into an intimacy with Jesus Christ. A thorough renewal of catechesis is needed for our schools and parishes.
There are many other pastoral questions that the Council should address. It does need to reaffirm the true nature of the Sacrament of Matrimony. The Church needs to reaffirm its commitment to a culture of life in the face of abortion and euthanasia.
Plenary Councils by their very nature are meant to be focused on the question of the promotion of faith. As Canon Law states (Canon 445) a Plenary Council is to “determine whatever seems opportune for an increase in faith”.
This Pastoral Council has come at a critical moment in the history of the Church in this nation and can be a watershed moment as the Church recommits itself to its fundamental mission. Let us earnestly invoke the Holy Spirit upon the assembly that this Plenary Council will produce much spiritual fruit, “fruit that will last” (Jn 15:16).
Archbishop Julian Porteous