What do you think God is asking of us in Australia at this time?
It is this question that has moved the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference to announce a Plenary Council of the Church in Australia to be held in the year 2020. The Bishops Conference has received approval from Pope Francis for the celebration of this Council, the first such Council to be held in Australia for some 80 years.
What is a Plenary Council? Put simply, a Plenary Council is the highest form of communion between the various local or particular churches of a nation. It is, then, not simply a meeting of bishops but a process that calls for the participation of the entire Catholic community. It invites the whole Church into dialogue, to discern how its communities can live the Gospel with renewed vitality amidst new questions and challenges. The Plenary Council itself will feature representation from among the laity, religious and ordained ministers, together with the bishops of Australia, as the culmination of a sustained pilgrimage in faith.
A helpful overview of the Plenary Council is shared in the following video:
As such a Plenary Council is an expression of the ‘synodality’ of the Church, the nature of the Church as a communion of persons ‘walking together’ in faith as disciples of the Lord. The Plenary Council recognises that all the baptised have received a common vocation to be a ‘sacrament or instrumental sign of intimate union with God and of the unity of all humanity’ (Lumen Gentium 1) and upholds with faith that it is by our mutual listening to the Holy Spirit – who guides the Church ‘into all truth’ (John 16:13) – that we can realise our mission most deeply as a community of faith.
As set out in Canon Law, a Plenary Council has legislative power with the final decisions reserved to the bishops by nature of their episcopal ordination as successors of the Apostles. The bishops are obliged to make decisions on the basis of their careful discernment of the work of the Holy Spirit in the minds and hearts of all the People of God, recognising that the sense of the faith of the faithful – what is known as the sensus fidelium – is a source of the Church’s life and learning as it seeks to fulfil its Gospel mission.
This means that the Plenary Council is more than a single event but an extended process that invites the entire Catholic community, even now, to ‘walk the path of dialogue’ and interpret what God is doing today and how God is calling the Church to live the Gospel into the future. It calls the Church to undertake a pilgrimage of listening and learning, to be a synodal and receptive church that engages in honest speaking and mutual listening to the Holy Spirit, to share insights and also hear insights shared.
Throughout this process of listening, dialogue and prayer, experiences of diverse lives will be welcomed and invited to share their sense of faith, questions and hopes for the Catholic Church – from those who are attempting to live a committed and sacramental life in the Church, those baptised Catholics with lesser involvement in ecclesial life, to those who are vulnerable in Australian society, who may be more distant from the Church, or who have been hurt and may or may not still regard themselves as Catholic in some way.
We are invited by the announcement of a Plenary Council to develop together a culture of dialogue and discernment to determine how best to ensure the pastoral needs of the people of God are provided for and, with regard for the universal law of the Church, ‘to decide what seems opportune for the increase of faith, the organisation of common pastoral action, and the regulation of morals and of the common ecclesiastical discipline which is to be observed, promoted and protected’ (Code of Canon Law, c.445).
Following their listening to and discernment with the whole Church the members of the Plenary Council will convene in 2021. This will include all active bishops, vicars general, episcopal vicars, some major superiors of religious institutes, rectors of major seminaries and Catholic universities, and deans of faculties of theology and canon law. Others that can also be called to the Plenary Council include lay persons, retired bishops, other priests, and religious. The bishops will have a deliberative vote (that is, cast a ballot to determine outcomes) while other council delegates will have a consultative vote (the right to speak about the issues under discussion). The Plenary Council will then enact laws which, subject to approval of the Holy See, will bind the Catholic Church in Australia.
In calling a Plenary Council the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference has recognised that the patterns of change confronting the Church and the wider community impel the Australian Catholic Church to review, analyse and discern the signs of the times and interpret them in the light of the Gospel (Gaudium et Spes 4). It has opened a pathway for dialogue, for the exchange of faith and ideas, and to encounter the Holy Spirit and the Church in one another.
Plenary Council 2020 will be the fifth plenary council in Australia’s history with the last plenary council held in 1937, some eighty years ago. Two sessions for the Plenary Council have been proposed to the Holy See, the first session in the October 2021 and the second session in July 2022.
More information is available at the national Plenary Council 2020 website: http://plenarycouncil.catholic.org.au/