Unless the Lord builds the house

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As the New Year begins we are aware that this summer has been a horrific one for Australians. We watched as fires burnt through millions of hectares of bushland in many parts of the nation. Several thousand Australians lost their houses and livelihoods. Over twenty people lost their lives. As well as the scourge of the bushfires large sections of the country were still gripped with drought. Then when the rains came they brought relief in many places, but also produced local flooding and devastating hail storms in Melbourne and Canberra. We cannot begin the New Year without a deep awareness of the suffering that has affected many lives.

For the Church in Australia a major event this coming year is the Plenary Council. The last such Council was held in 1937. The Plenary Council will meet in two sessions, the first being in Adelaide from Sunday, October 4 to Saturday, October 10. The second session will be held in Sydney in 2021.

The Plenary Council will be a very important moment for the Church in Australia. Certainly much has changed since 1937. Over the past decade or so we have witnessed very significant changes in our society and in the Church. Recent census data reveals that now 30% of Australians claim to have no religion. For the first time in our history the number of Catholics in Australia has actually declined.

There have been many changes in the social and moral landscape. Legislation has been introduced and approved to bring in social changes which we believe go against God’s good plan for human life. In the areas of life, marriage, sexuality and gender there has been very significant change. We are aware that religious freedom has been under attack and Christianity is often subject to criticism.

The Plenary Council is an opportunity to take stock of what has been happening in our society and to recalibrate how the Church lives its mission in these changed circumstances.

Within the Church we have laboured under a decline of vocations to priesthood and religious life for several decades. There are encouraging signs of an increase in vocations to the priesthood with a number of our seminaries at capacity. However, religious life still lacks vocations.

We are aware that many young people find no attraction in regular involvement in the sacramental life of the Church. Enabling young people to come to a faith whereby they desire to engage with the ordinary life of the parish is a very important issue for the Church at this time. While there are some encouraging signs it is clear that the Church needs to invest in initiatives that will help young people to see the full beauty and dynamism of the Christian way of life.

The betrayal of trust by religious, priests and bishops with regard to sexual abuse has had a devastating impact on victims, survivors and their families. It has also caused anguish among faithful Catholics and a loss of confidence in the leadership of the bishops. The Church has been active in responding to the Royal Commission. However, the restoration of confidence, particularly in the leadership of the Church, will take some time. This is an important backdrop to the establishment of the Plenary Council. These and many other issues will be on the agenda for the Council.

As the New Year unfolds we turn to the Lord and place our lives, our Church, our nation, before Him praying for grace and guidance. As the Psalmist says, “If the Lord does not build the house, in vain do the builders labour.” (Ps 127)

+ Julian Porteous