Australian bishops begin nine-month Plenary Council

Opening Mass for Fifth Plenary Council of Australia Opening Mass for Fifth Plenary Council of Australia in Perth on Oct. 3, 2021 | Screenshot of livestream

The Fifth Plenary Council of Australia kicked off Sunday with an opening Mass in Perth to begin its first assembly taking place online Oct. 3-10.

The council represents “a historic opportunity for the Catholic Church in Australia to renew its commitment to the mission of Jesus Christ,” according to Daniel Ang, director of the Archdiocese of Sydney’s Centre for Evangelisation.

“The specific mandate of the Plenary Council to consider the ways in which the Church in Australia can most faithfully and fruitfully practice its mission amid the challenges and prospects of our time,” Ang wrote in The Catholic Weekly.

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

Australia's plenary council is taking place with two main assemblies over the next nine months. The first assembly is occurring mostly online due to the country’s COVID-19 restrictions Oct. 3-10 followed by a second assembly July 4-9, 2022 in Sydney.

“Deliberations at the Plenary Council should bear in mind the expressed purpose of the Council which is ‘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,’” Ang said, quoting the Code of Canon Law 445.

Ang serves as a member of the council’s executive committee and co-authored its Instrumentum Laboris, or working document.

He said that the upcoming plenary council can be “a concrete expression of the synodality to which Pope Francis invites the whole Church.”

“The function of the Plenary Council is not to define or determine articles of faith (what Catholics are to believe) nor can it legislate on matters of discipline which the Holy See has reserved to itself,” he said.

“Some matters that may be raised will belong to the universal tradition and teaching of the Catholic Church. They are, in that sense, beyond the capacity of the Church in Australia to change. This does not mean that they cannot be discussed; only that they cannot be decided upon by the Church in Australia.”

“However, a Plenary Council can pass legislation regulating how doctrine is to be taught, how worship is to be regulated and how governance is to be better exercised in practice. It is these concrete matters that the Council can consider in benefit to the Church’s missionary mandate.”

The plenary council will be most effective, Ang noted, if it avoids “the temptation of a ‘new pelagianism’ which attempts to correct problems and reduce difficulties and tensions within the Church by relying on bureaucratic and administrative reforms.”

“As underscored by Pope Francis to the Church in Germany, it is the encounter with Christ and the irruption of the Holy Spirit within hearts and structures that renews the entire body of the Church, not the mere reorganisation of existing realities,” he said.

This will be the first plenary council held in Australia since 1937. Nearly 300 delegates, called “members,” will attend the in-person meetings on behalf of their dioceses, eparchies, or religious orders.

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.

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.

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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.

“It is with great hope and anticipation that we as Catholics in Australia enter into this fifth Plenary Council in our short history, with a common desire that the Church in Australia experiences a greater conversion under the influence of the Spirit of Christ and is renewed and ultimately better equipped to proclaim the unchanging Gospel with new ardour and vitality,” Ang said.

“Our Catholic tradition is none other than the Church’s reception of Jesus through time under the guidance of this Holy Spirit and in this time of challenge and opportunity for the Church in Australia it is incumbent upon us to seek out, receive and now voice in the days ahead what this Spirit is saying to the churches.”

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