Australia’s Fifth Plenary Council

Inauguration of The Fifth Plenary Council: Sunday, 3 October 2021

The Fifth Plenary Council of Australia was inaugurated at St Mary’s Cathedral in Perth with a Solemn Mass celebrated by Archbishop Timothy Costelloe, the president of the Plenary Council, on Sunday 3 October. Archbishop Costelloe encouraged the 278 Members of the Council, who are meeting over two assemblies, to “reflect deeply and courageously on how we can better, as individuals and as communities of faith, be this living image of the life-giving God who, in Christ, is always seeking to be present and active in our world”.

President of the Plenary Council, Archbishop Timothy Costelloe delivers his Homily from St Mary’s Cathedral in Perth, WA.

At St Mary’s Cathedral in Hobart on Sunday, Archbishop Julian Porteous celebrated Mass and spoke of the need ‘to identify those ways in which the faith of the Church can be strengthened.’

“The Plenary Council meets at a time of great challenge for the Church… It is about entering more deeply and faithfully into the mission of the Church.”

Fifth Plenary Council: Monday, 4 October 2021

Pope Francis has sent greetings and blessings from Rome as the program for the Fifth Plenary Council of Australia, the first such event in this country in 84 years, began today.

A message read out during the opening plenary session this morning said the Plenary Council “represents a singular ‘journeying together’ of God’s people in Australia along the paths of history towards a renewed encounter with the Risen Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit”.

The message, read by Msgr John Baptist Itaruma from the Apostolic Nunciature in Australia, said Pope Francis “prays that the Council may be a graced occasion for mutual listening and spiritual discernment, marked by profound Communion with the Successor of Peter”, a term used to describe the Pope.

“In this conciliar process, the Church in Australia is challenged to listen to the voice of the Spirit and to bear witness to the perennial truth of the Gospel and to develop new and creative expressions of evangelical charity,” said the message, signed by Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin.

Archbishop Mark Coleridge, the president of the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference, in a message to Pope Francis said the Council’s 278 members are “deeply conscious that the Plenary Council takes its place within the universal Church”.

Archbishop Coleridge continued: “Our ardent hope is that the Plenary Council will be a gift not just for the Church in Australia but for the Church around the world.”

The first “spiritual conversations” of the Fifth Plenary Council of Australia covered a broad range of thoughts and topics from Baptism being the place for fundamental conversion to the need for the Church to tend to its past and current failures.

A common theme emerging from the small group sessions was the importance of listening to and accompanying people, including those on the peripheries and at all levels of the Church.

There was also an emphasis on hearing the voices of “churches” in the plural – noting the rich diversity of liturgy and traditions in the Eastern Rites and migrant communities, many of which have had a long history in Australia.

One group spoke of the differences between rural and metropolitan parishes and another pointed out that the Council agenda needed to address the issue of “ecumenical and interfaith dialogue and cooperation”.

After a moving Acknowledgement of Country during Monday’s opening plenary session, the group exploring Indigenous issues expressed the belief that the Church would be “enlivened” with the full participation of First Nations peoples. There was a call for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to be able to minister to their communities and to each other.

On the question of prayer, Council members spoke a great deal from personal experience and forming a personal relationship with Christ which “then enables us to go out to others”.

The question of formation was considered across a number of groups and seen as an issue for not just the ordained or Church leaders, but should be “normalised” as a culture within the Church.

One group suggested the experience of married deacons and priests in the Eastern Rites had “much to offer in terms of clerical formation, particularly the role that wives can play in formation”.

During a discussion on clericalism, one group asked how we could prevent a “bad culture” of clericalism in a group, whether it be priestly or lay.

Parishes were seen as a place where the laity could be empowered to live out their baptismal calling as missionary disciples, with faith formation being an important part of this.

The group on governance reflected on “How do we as a Church walk side by side, women, men, lay and ordained, priest and Bishop towards the road to Christ?”. The discussion included why women didn’t have a significant role in governance.

Catholic education was considered by one group as having served the Church well for 200 years, noting that the emergence of the Catholic tertiary sector had enhanced and changed the landscape.

In reporting back to the full assembly, Sr Cecilia Joseph OP said her group spoke of the role of the school in supporting families, but not replacing the family, and the need to strengthen the sacramental practice of our students and our families.

While many members expressed hope and excitement about the assembly on the first full day of the first general assembly, others were “anxious” and had a sense of urgency for change.

Daily Reflections with Archbishop Julian Porteous

Fifth Plenary Council: Tuesday, 5 October 2021

The 278 members of the Fifth Plenary Council of Australia have continued to break open the 16 questions related to how we can create a more missionary, Christ-centred Church in Australia at this time.

After the broad discussions of the first small group sessions on Monday, yesterday’s “spiritual conversations” moved to more specific questions, suggestions and even proposals.

Reflecting on the day’s Gospel reading of Martha and Mary (Luke 10:38-42), the small groups continued their discernment and reported back during the assembly’s livestreamed session this morning.

On the topic of conversion, Helen Belcher told the assembly that her group had begun looking at concrete points around training and formation, small ecclesial communities (home/family groups), structural changes such as diocesan synods and parish pastoral councils, and lay preaching by men and women.

She said elements of the group’s prayer and discernment included the need to “come down from the mountain and live in the world” and to be “mindful of the optics – how we present and act”.

Carol Teodori-Blahut said her group heard the Spirit calling them to “name and respond to the darker side of our Church and society where racism, exclusion and injustice have caused trauma, woundedness and suffering”.

“Truth-telling around this part of our story is really important,” she said.

While the group has not identified any concrete actions yet, two themes emerging were a “yearning for a Church that celebrates and brings into respectful dialogue Indigenous peoples and others” and an urgent call to use “our privilege and our voice to influence society” and change structures leading to injustice and suffering.

Fr Peter Whitely told the assembly his group’s discernment on prayer sparked concerns that “too few young people in our schools have not yet been invited into a close relationship with Jesus”.

He said the group questioned how the Church could engage people to pray, particularly when people were feeling disconnected due to COVID.

Discussions included consideration of the many people who did not feel welcome in our communities: “Sometimes we are seen as too ‘clubby’ or too comfortable in what we do?”

Tackling the question of how the Church might better embrace the diverse liturgical traditions of Churches and immigrant communities, Dr Sr Maeve Heaney said her group reflected on the need to know and understand one another’s rites and celebrations through education in schools and in the formation of future leaders and clergy.

The aim, she said, was to remove a sense of superiority of any rite over another and, to facilitate this, the group suggested a national body or commission might be necessary.

Significantly, the group voted on two motions: to cease using the term immigrant communities and use language that reflects our inter-cultural reality; and to recommend that the prayer and liturgies of the second general assembly of the Plenary Council reflect the diversity of rites within the Church in Australia.

Deepening the concept of leadership and distinguishing between mission and ministry were the basis for discernment on formation by Gabriele Turchi’s group. He said there was also practical discussion around “accessibility, competing with busy lifestyles, the value of work and the challenges faced by workers and the stress on families and marriages”.

Also addressing formation, in relation to equipping ordained ministers to be enablers of missionary discipleship, Gemma Thomson said her group reflected that holiness was “as much about looking out as looking in”.

There is a “need for cultural change, not just structural change”, she explained.

The group explored the “ministry of presence” and the practical aspects of the priestly role that would free them to focus on relationship. Collaboration, professional supervision and the need to go back and start with Jesus and “Jesus as priest” were other topics discussed.  

Similar themes emerged in the group discussion on parish structures with Raj Rajasingam reporting that there was a lack of understanding of priests and parish leaders on their roles, which could lead to tensions. The need for a new catechist role was raised.

Dr Nimmi Candappa said her group identified that effective governance capitalised on the giftedness of the laity and well-formed clergy who are “truly pastoral leaders with mature faith”.

“True authority was seen as the ability to ‘bring into being’,” she said.

The group was conscious that a lot of work has been done previously on governance, with documents such as the Light from the Southern Cross and the Woman and Man publication, providing well-defined recommendations yet there had been obstacles or resistance to their implementation. There was a question on what currently prevents women deacons.

The group asked whether the Church bureaucracy was serving the people well: “The ease with which regional communities, for example, adapt to meet the pastoral needs of a community was contrasted with the hindrances experienced in other areas.”

Also looking at governance, Danny Casey said his group discussed the need for mission clarity and noted how important it was to maintain Catholic identity in the work of agencies.

“Structures and governance do not do the saving; people do,” he said.

The group also talked about the importance of being an “outward-facing Church” and, to that end, it was looking forward to inviting expert input on the “why” of mission.

The final small group report, from Fr Cameron Forbes, addressed Catholic education and the desire to strengthen the connection with the faith and to accompany parents as the first educators.

“A challenge exists for educators to ensure that all receive a sense of welcome as we accompany them towards faith, away from the many distractions that exist,” he said.

The idea of developing a “national understanding of what a graduate of Catholic education looks like” was put forward.

Daily Reflections with Archbishop Porteous

Fifth Plenary Council: Wednesday, 6 October 2021

Daily Reflections with Archbishop Porteous

Fifth Plenary Council: Thursday, 7 October 2021

Day four of the Fifth Plenary Council of Australia will take on a different feel, as members spend extra time offline, praying with and reflecting on questions about seeing through the eyes of those who have been abused and reaching those on the peripheries.

The agenda for the Plenary Council poses 16 questions across six themes, with members called to “develop concrete proposals to create a more missionary, Christ-centred Church in Australia at this time”.

Fourteen of the 16 questions are being discerned concurrently during the week by 10 small working groups. Two particular questions are the focus of a special plenary session, being held on Thursday, October 7.

The questions are:

  • How might we heal the wounds of abuse, coming to see through the eyes of those who have been abused?
  • How might the Church in Australia meet the needs of the most vulnerable, go to the peripheries, be missionary in places that may be overlooked or left behind in contemporary Australia? How might we partner with others (Christians, people of other faiths, neighbourhood community groups, government) to do this?

Plenary Council president Archbishop Timothy Costelloe SDB said the decision to focus on those two particular questions as a full body of members will allow space for extra prayer and reflection.

“Nothing can justify or cancel out the dreadful mistakes of the past. What the Church can do today and into the future is to commit itself to treating those who have been abused, and those who are vulnerable, with dignity, with respect and with integrity,” he said.

“We will spend this time as a plenary – all members together – considering these critical matters. We have additional time for individual prayer and reflection, spending some time away from our online environment, to contemplate what God is asking of us at this time in response to these two powerful questions on the Plenary Council agenda.”

Fifth Plenary Council: Friday, 8 October 2021

Fifth Plenary Council: Saturday, 9 October 2021

An impassioned call for “a prayer for the future of our common home, a Gospel for the home of our future generations” was made during the final reporting back on small group discernment by Plenary Council members today.

The presenters’ comprehensive reports on the 16 agenda questions included proposals and requests for further investigation and research to create a more missionary, Christ-centred Church in Australia.

In presenting her group’s proposals, Catherine McAleer was emotional as she concluded her summary of the question on responding to the call to ecological conversion.

She said the group sought acknowledgement of the “primacy of ecological conversion; personal and communal” and asked for the “explicit adoption” of the Pope Francis’ Laudato Si’ Action Plan as the vehicle for that conversion to a Church openly committed to God’s creation.

Shaun De Zylva said his group discussed ways of creating a culture of conversion for renewal and mission through truth-telling, story-telling and proclaiming the Gospel for renewal through personal and communal conversion.

Specific proposals included parishes establishing small groups that meet for an annual synod and that each diocese should have a synod at least once every three years; studying and learning from the synodal journey that resulted in the Uluru Statement of the Heart; encouraging small ecclesial communities (home/family groups) with learnings from the early Church; and establishing forums for open dialogue and discernment especially with those groups who feel excluded in the Church.

Sabrina-Ann Stevens reiterated the need to determine an appropriate process to support the Uluru Statement from the Heart and said her group believed a First Nations Voice enshrined in the Constitution was “important for our nation”.

Her group also recommended that the gifts of First Nations Catholics be fully embraced through the inclusion of Indigenous leaders as partners in decision-making at every level of Church – parishes, dioceses, Catholic education, organisations and agencies.

“There is a need to support Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and communities – and the parishes, schools and agencies that engage with them – with appropriate resources to enable their full participation in Church and society,” she added.

Fr Trevor Trotter told the assembly there was some discussion in his group about the full understanding and appreciation of the Eucharist as the Real Presence of Christ – Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity – being in a state of decline in Australia.

“We acknowledge that one of the challenges that we face is how we might better welcome God’s people to the Eucharist and assist them to understand what this sacrament offers, entails and asks of those who receive it,” he said.

“Recognising that fewer people today participate in the sacramental life of the Church than in previous times, the question of how best to provide formation on the sacraments arises. Such formation will need to focus on both deepening people’s faith and increasing their knowledge.”

Considering how to better embrace the diverse liturgical traditions of the Churches which make up the Catholic Church and the cultural gifts of immigrant communities, Theresa Simon stressed that her group did not support the use of the term “immigrant communities” because it did not capture the “fullness of what we are trying to describe”.

The group also recognised the need for a more organised and coordinated approach, at a national level, to the inclusion of the Eastern Churches, rites of the Latin Church and culturally and linguistically diverse communities in the Catholic Church in Australia.

“We must not do this simply for the satisfaction of those Churches and communities, but rather for the richness and gifts that diversity brings to the entire Church,” she said.

“We must do more than acknowledge diversity. Rather, we must enshrine diversity in all we do, in particular when it comes to breathing with an Eastern and Western lung.”

Br Peter Carroll gave a detailed report on his group’s discernment on formation for mission leadership, with several specific ideas to achieve this.

It started from an understanding that “the mission of the Church is the mission of Jesus, which is to make the Reign of God a reality; to incarnate it in our place and time”.

On ordained ministry, Brigid Cooney said her group suggested identifying elements in the current formation of seminarians that are positive and valuable, but also elements that are problematic and can produce ordained ministers that are not living in ways that draw people to Christ.

One proposal was for a research project into international models of seminary pre-ordination formation programs and lifelong formation that have had proven and demonstrated successful outcomes that could be adapted for the Church in Australia.

“Of particular interest are formation programs that are grounded in the community, provide meaningful extended exposure to parish life, programs that support solid intellectual, human, pastoral and spiritual formation,” she said.

Her group believed promoting vocations was a task for all members of the Church and that a renewed focus on vocations could be assisted by a Year of Prayer for Vocations.

Members also recognised a need for opportunities in ministry for single, lay Catholics, “a genuine lay apostolate that fosters community, which is different from young adult or family ministry”.

Dr Mark Copland spoke about his group’s discussion on governance leading to more effective proclamation of the Gospel, which led to two specific proposals.

The first related to canons 127 and 129 in the Code of Canon Law, particularly regarding the inclusion of the concept of consensus in legislation. The second recommended that councils, for example finance and pastoral councils, particularly at the parish level, be given a deliberative vote rather than a consultative vote on all matters.

The group recognised that lay people already exercise this power in some contexts, but suggested this could be improved through legislation.

“While civil society thinks of governance in terms of power, the root of governance, in the Catholic understanding, is service rather than power,” he said.

“Christ washes the feet of his apostles before he gives us the ultimate gift of love. If we work in the spirit of synodality, love must come before power.”

Virginia Bourke said her group proposed using the governance report The Light from the Southern Cross and responses to this report from various groups to develop a governance framework that would be adopted by the Plenary Council in the second assembly.

Danielle Fairthorne said her group engaged in rich discussion about the convergences appearing throughout the week on the topic of Catholic education. The three themes emerging were mission, witness and encounter.

“It is clear that the team believes a working group needs to be established to respond to the themes above through a clear roadmap,” she said.

Similarly, Claire Victory said members of her group looking at Catholic agencies expressed an interest in continuing the process of developing concrete proposals over the next nine months.

Recommendations to date included ensuring leaders of key agencies connect more frequently with leaders within the dioceses, allowing for shared leadership for a shared mission, and listening to different voices, including those who feel excluded.

She said welfare agencies, underpinned by Catholic Social Teaching, are often the public face of the Church.

Journey to the Fifth Plenary Council

In October, the Catholic Church will gather for the first Assembly of the Fifth Plenary Council of Australia; to first to be held since the Second Vatican Council.

The journey towards the first Assembly began in 2018 with Phase 1: Listening & Dialogue. More than 220,000 people participated in Phase 1, contributing more than 17, 000 submissions.

Phase 2: Listening & Discernment invited Catholics from across Australia to participate in writing and discernment sessions, discerning on the submissions received in phase 1 with prayerful hearts and minds. Writing groups for each theme produced thematic Discernment papers. Many issues were raised, and many hopes were expressed for a renewal of the Church.

In 2020, more than 280 members for the Fifth Plenary Council of Australia were announced. Tasmania’s members include Archbishop Julian, Vicar General Fr Shammi Perera, Daniel de la Motte, and Dr Rachel Bradley.

Plenary Council preparation days

Continuing the Journey: Working Document (Instrumentum Laboris)was produced for the Plenary Council based on the submissions received from the Listening & Discernment Phase, and from papers developed through the Writing & Discernment Phase. Following the release of Continuing the Journey in early 2021, the Archdiocese of Hobart organised Plenary Council preparation days in Launceston and Hobart.

Agenda of the Fifth Plenary Council

The agenda of the Fifth Plenary Council of Australia, released in June this year, called those attending the Council assemblies to “develop concrete proposals to create a more missionary, Christ-centred Church in Australia”.

The agenda’s preamble draws from Pope Francis’ apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, which explores the Pope’s “dream of a ‘missionary option’”.

“That is, a missionary impulse capable of transforming everything, so that the Church’s customs, ways of doing things, times and schedules, language and structures can be suitably channeled for the evangelisation of today’s world rather than for her self-preservation,” the Pope wrote.

Plenary Council president Archbishop Timothy Costelloe SDB said that invitation and exhortation to be a missionary people runs through the agenda.

“Through the Plenary Council, we are being called to consider how we can be a Church that goes out to the peripheries, that welcomes all into our communities and shows the face of Christ to the world,” Archbishop Costelloe said.

The agenda has been developed in the form of posing questions, with 16 questions falling under six themes: Conversion; Prayer; Formation; Structures; Governance; and Institutions.

Bishops Conference convokes Fifth Plenary Council

The Australian Catholic Bishops Conference formally convoked the Fifth Plenary Council of Australia in May this year, with president Archbishop Mark Coleridge signing the required decree on Pentecost Sunday. The decree is a necessary step in the journey of any plenary council, and follows the approval of various other documents – the statutes and regulatory norms, the working document (instrumentum laboris) and the agenda.

Archbishop Mark Coleridge signs the decree on Pentecost Sunday.
Archbishop Mark Coleridge signs the decree on Pentecost Sunday.