The Church in Australia will soon hold a plenary council. What is that?

Fisher Briefing in Holy See Press about Synod Daniel Ibanez 2 Archbishop Anthony Fisher of Sydney at a Vatican press conference Oct. 5, 2018. | Daniel Ibanez

The Fifth Plenary Council of the Church in Australia is scheduled to take place Oct. 3-10, in Adelaide, followed by a second assembly July 4-9, 2022 in Sydney. 

A plenary council is the highest formal gathering of all particular Churches in a country, and it has legislative and governing authority.

In the plenary council laypeople will be invited to participate in council sessions, and bishops will vote on binding resolutions, which will be sent to the Vatican for approval. 

The Vatican originally gave permission in 2016 for the Australian plenary council to be held. Originally scheduled for Oct. 2020, the council was delayed from last year because of the pandemic. This will be the first plenary council held in Australia since 1937. 

In the plenary council's first phase, known as "Listening and Dialogue," more than 222,000 people took part, making 17,457 submissions.

The first assembly will be held Oct. 3-10, followed by a second assembly in Sydney July 4-9, 2022. Nearly 300 delegates, called “members,” will attend the in-person meetings on behalf of their dioceses, eparchies, or religious orders. 

While many Catholic parishes, schools, and hospitals are thriving across the country, the Church in Australia faces a number of serious challenges, Archbishop Anthony Fisher of Sydney told The Catholic Weekly.

The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses of Child Sexual Abuse released a report in 2017 that found serious failings in the protection of children from abuse in the Catholic Church and other major institutions in the country. The Australian bishops' conference responded positively to nearly all the Royal Commission's recommendations. 

The abuse crisis and the royal commission “brought with them much justified criticism and understandable disillusionment, continuing scrutiny and demands for reform, not only to ensure that all church situations are safe for children and vulnerable adults, but also to ensure transparency and accountability in all areas of ecclesial life,” Archbishop Fisher reflected.

A culture of secularism in Australian society, as well as a declining religious practice among Catholics, are among the priorities to be discussed at the meeting, Archbishop Fisher said. Currently only 1 in 10 Catholics in Australia regularly attends Mass, he said, and the Church in Australia is experiencing a vocations crisis, not only of the priesthood, but also of marriage and religious life. 

“Meanwhile, we have seen increased hostility towards and rejection of Christian understandings of the preciousness of human life, of the nature of the human person including the body, and of sexuality, marriage and family,” he noted. 

“Our Plenary Council will have to address the present dilemmas with respect for family and life in Australia: how we are to advance the Gospel of Life and Love in the face of many hostile cultural forces and legal changes, to be a voice for the voiceless, and to ensure we are there to serve them now more than ever.”

Archbishop Fisher said he hopes the discussions set to take place at the Plenary Council will present opportunities to address the challenges that the Church currently is facing. 

“These are not only areas of challenge, but areas of opportunity for being a better Church in the decades ahead. I look forward to the Plenary Council offering a new commitment and initiatives in the areas identified. I have tremendous confidence that by God’s grace we have the people, faith and generosity to do so and do so well,” he concluded. 

In June 2020, Australian Catholic students sent an open letter to the country's bishops ahead of the plenary council, urging them to remain committed to the Church's teaching and to reject calls for the ordination of women. 

The students' letter explained that they fully support the respect owed to the roles women play in the Church, but that they, like St. John Paul II and his successors, do not believe that these roles extend to ordination to the priesthood. Instead, they have "wholehearted support for the integration of women into even more prominent roles in areas such as sacred theology, communications, evangelization and (insofar as lay people are able) governance."

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