Faith and Australia

‘What do you think God is asking of us in Australia?’ That’s the headline question for the National Plenary Council of 2020/21 and the starting point for the local consultations that are going on across the nation. It’s a good question. It asks us to try to put aside our pet peeves and opinions and to try to imagine how God sees things.

That is not entirely possible, of course, but it is far from entirely impossible because we have seen, in the life and words of Jesus, a revelation of how God thinks. Again, the subtitle of the Plenary is ‘Listening to the Spirit…’, another call to get beyond just trotting out the opinions we hold or the conventional wisdom that is obvious to people like us. In a culture that puts a premium on everyone’s right to be heard, it invites a genuine willingness first to listen.

That being said, I’ve not been enormously impressed by the thoughts of many who have already given us their minds on the matter. I’m not surprised, of course, that some people already know what the Plenary must do, it’s the same agenda they’ve advocated for years past.

We must have optional celibacy for priests, women priests, further curtailment of the teaching and leadership roles of the clergy, revision of the church’s moral teaching in various areas, greater inclusiveness, re-vamping of worship to appeal to contemporary tastes, less dogmatism and invoking of ancient myths, more consultation on everything at every level, and so on.

These aren’t silly views, of course, and some of them at least could lead to important discussions about whether we’re going where God would lead us or just sticking to past practice.

What bothers me, however, is the top-of-the-head, ‘everybody knows’, ‘it’s obvious’, kind of quality to some of the opinion-giving. As if, despite all evidence to the contrary, what people think in Western, liberal, consumer societies is self-evidently the summit of human wisdom. The other bothering thing is that they are all so inward-looking, so much to do with how the church should be and operate. Is that really all ‘God is asking of us in Australia’?

I’m not going to go to that larger question, however, in these remaining few words. I’m going to look at questions about where the Catholic community is in Australia now.

First, I’d like to assume that some of the indications of a healthy community of believers are that the churches are full, plenty of people offer themselves for ministry or religious life, there are many people volunteering for charitable or evangelical work in their local communities, there’s a lively interest in matters theological and ethical, and the contribution of believers to public life is notable and valued. Now, I know that some of these phenomena can be the product of certain social conditions and not necessarily happening for the best of religious reasons. But, on the other hand, I don’t think you can have a healthy faith community that doesn’t have these features.

So, what do we make of a church where 10% of people attend Mass?

Yes, yes, we’re not about ‘bums on seats’, but granted that, what is general non-attendance telling us? If the bums aren’t on the seats, where are the hearts and minds, the spirits? The surveys tell us that most people don’t have a particular reason for not going to Mass, they just don’t see the point or feel the need.

I guess my question is, is that just about ‘church’ or is it about God, about Christ? In Plenary terms, what is God asking of us in the way of spiritual renewal, growth in faith, in Australia?

And what about vocations, priestly, religious and lay?

If there’s a dearth of people so passionate about the gospel that they want to dedicate their lives to its service, what is that saying to us? Yes, there are all sorts of things to put people off ministry or religious life, if they hold other values as more important. But in any human group you expect some people to be so committed to what they believe in that they are prepared to sacrifice many personal considerations in order to do what they feel called to do. Again, the Plenary question could be ‘What is God asking of us to so fire people with love of Christ that they will give their lives to service of Him and His message?’

Finally, for now, I wonder what it means that religious questions barely feature in our public forums or are trivialised when they do arise. What does it mean when being known to hold religious commitments is almost an impediment to public office? Is this part of a phenomenon by which the church, as a massive institution running schools and hospitals with tens of thousands of employees, is regarded as just an interest group pushing its own organisational concerns? Is it a question for the Plenary to consider how the faith community is represented in and by its various ‘enterprises’? Is God asking us to think about how dealing with a Catholic institution might be more assuredly an experience of seeing faith in action?

There will be many things to discuss at the Plenary Council. ‘Should we have women priests?’ might be one of them. ‘Where are we, really, as people of faith in God and disciples of Christ?’ must, however, also be faced up to.

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Bishop Bill Wright Image
Bishop Bill Wright

Most Reverend William (Bill) Wright is the eighth Bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Maitland-Newcastle and is the pastoral leader of more than 150,000 Catholics in the region.

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