The First Assembly of the Fifth Plenary Council

The First Assembly of the Fifth Plenary Council of the Catholic Church in Australia has finished. It met in session from Monday morning, 4 October, until Saturday evening, 9 October. On most of the days we were engaged for around six hours in different meeting formats. It was a very intense experience.

A number of diverse topics were addressed – from the needs of the First Nations Peoples, to parish life, to marriage, to governance. Each day we listened to spoken interventions during the general plenary sessions involving all delegates, and then later in the day met in one of ten smaller groups of around 30 delegates, with each group asked to address a particular question or theme of the Plenary.  I took part in a group that explored the way in which parishes could become more missionary.

On the final day, Saturday, the small groups presented reports which contained various proposals and recommendations. These, along with the many interventions, both those spoken and written, and the individual proposals submitted, will form the basis of concrete motions to be considered and voted upon at the Second Assembly in July next year.

During the week we heard a considerable variety of experiences and opinions expressed by those clearly passionate about a range of issues related to faith and the mission of the Church. It is important to recognise that there was disagreement and division on a number of important issues with some strong convictions expressed which were not consistent with the Church’s teaching.  

However, the plenary sessions were conducted in a spirit of mutual respect, and charity prevailed.

The Catholic Church in Australia can be proud of its many achievements. Our agencies and works have made a fundamental contribution to both the spiritual and material common good of our society. Our works caring for the needy, providing health and aged care, and education are second only to government.

But there is a danger. We can do many good works, but not give ourselves over fully to God, like the man in the Gospel who obeyed the commandments but couldn’t surrender his wealth to follow Christ completely. In this there is a danger that we could become more like an NGO than a church professing faith in Christ. We could become more focused on doing good works than on first seeking to respond to the spiritual call of the Gospel.

Increasingly we are under pressure to not give public expression to our Catholic faith. We can all too easily seek to be accepted by the society and praised for our good works, rather than being a prophetic voice about the ways of God. We can all too easily find ourselves avoiding speaking of things spiritual and instead be content simply to do good works.

The great challenge before the Catholic Church at this time is that it be fully surrendered to Christ, prepared at any time to give up all for Christ. Our success can become our downfall, if we seek worldly acclaim, rather than standing with Christ, the crucified one. Our willingness to be unpopular or out of favour with the society around us in order to be faithful to Christ and his teaching will be the ultimate test.

Are we prepared to stand on what we believe and not compromise?

Thus, our Catholic agencies and organisations must be willing to publicly promote and defend the full theological and moral teaching of the Church. Our hospitals must proclaim and live by the Gospel of Life, our aged care services must be exemplary in their care for the vulnerable, our social services grounded in our understanding of the nature of the human person, our schools must call all students to a personal encounter with Christ, and our parishes must become missionary focussed. As the Plenary Council now moves towards its second Assembly it will be important that we as the Church in Australia fully embrace the way of Christ and not succumb to the way of the world.

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