Listen and discern

On the 8 August, the feast of St Mary of the Cross MacKillop, Bishop Bill convoked a diocesan synod. We are preparing for the first session of the Plenary Council to be held in October 2020. Truly this is a remarkable time for both the Church in our Diocese but also the Australian Church and I dare say even for the universal Church. Whilst some are cynical, and probably not without good reason, there is also reason for hope.

For me that hope rests in the promise of the Resurrection, that we and the Church, will be re-born and revitalised, so we can renew the face of the earth. It is time to stop being defensive and become missionary.

The People of God

By virtue of our baptism, we are all called to build the body of Christ, to proclaim the good news of the Gospel and to bring hope and peace to the world. These are not duties/responsibilities that can or should be left in the hands of only a select few.

Vatican II called us all to do this. All the people – priests, religious and laity – are the Church, a community of the baptised who each bring their own unique gifts to building and shaping the life and mission of the Church to our world. As Lumen gentium notes  

  1. … It is not only through the sacraments and the ministries of the Church that the Holy Spirit sanctifies and leads the people of God and enriches it with virtues, but, "allotting his gifts to everyone according as He wills, (114) He distributes special graces among the faithful of every rank. By these gifts He makes them fit and ready to undertake the various tasks and offices which contribute toward the renewal and building up of the Church, according to the words of the Apostle: "The manifestation of the Spirit is given to everyone for profit". (115)

Lumen gentium emphasised the Church as the whole People of God and the Church as Communion. We are all baptised into the one body by the same Spirit (1 Corinthians 12:13). We are many parts of Christ’s body. 

All of us who belong the Church are called to be, together, a clear and unmistakable sign, and an effective and powerful instrument, of the communion with God in Christ for which God created us in the first place. We are also called to be in communion with each other and all God’s people, for which God has also created us. The two go together (Costelloe, 2019, iv).

We are each called according to our gifts to build the community of God, a community ‘marked by a rich diversity of gender, class, education, social status, sexual orientation, race, ethnicity and culture. It includes saints and sinners alike' (McBrien, 2011).

How then can we hear, listen and discern what God is asking of us at this time and in this place?

Pope Francis has called for a church that is “synodal” at every level, with everyone listening to each other, learning from each other and taking responsibility for proclaiming the Gospel so that all are engaged and committed to the process. This requires us to gather, dialogue, listen and discern. 

We have not been idle. Since the last Diocesan Synod in 1992/93 we have been journeying together through assemblies and gatherings to try and discern the voice of the Spirit. Certainly, that has not been an easy process, but Bishop Bill has now determined he needs further advice and has convoked another Synod in concert with the Plenary Council.

The Plenary Council 2020, a formal gathering, has the highest level of legislative and governance authority with its resolutions binding on the Australian Catholic Church. The diocesan synod is a formal assembly convoked to advise the Bishop on matters concerning the good of the diocese, future directions, and frame our participation in the Plenary Council.  

The Plenary Council and the Diocesan Synod both follow a three-stage process.

Plenary Council 2020

Diocesan Synod

Stage 1: Preparation

·       Phase 1: Listening and Dialogue


Session 1: Celebration and Exploration

·       23 November 2019

·       Open to all

·       Deliberations broken open by Council of Priests, Council for Mission, Plenary Council and parishes.

·       Phase 2: Listening and Discernment.

·       Both phases inform agenda for the first session of the Council.

Stage 2: Celebration

·       Session 1: October 2020

Session 2: Discernment: 22 November 2020

·       Examination of themes emerging from local discernment and the Plenary Council.

·       Session 2: May 2021

·       Two sessions to enable deeper discernment and the opportunity to write/rewrite as appropriate.

Stage 3: Implementation

·       Ongoing process of applying the decrees/decisions to our Church.

Session 3: Enactment: 21 November 2021

·       Process to enact Diocesan Pastoral Plan and Plenary Council decrees/decisions.

What are we doing?

At this time, we are asked to gather together and communally discern how God is calling us to be a Christ-centred Church that is:

  1. Missionary and evangelising
  2. Inclusive, participatory and synodal
  3. Humble, healing and merciful
  4. Prayerful and Eucharistic
  5. A joyful, hope-filled and servant community
  6. Open to conversion, renewal and reform

To assist participation in both Phase 2: Plenary Council and the Diocesan Synod the Diocesan Plenary Council Core Team identified two ways to gather and discern. Both options adopt the practice of Spiritual Conversations – a process of prayer, contemplation, sharing with one another, and seeking God’s direction.

Option One: Parish/Organisation - Listening and Discernment

Local Animators will offer six Listening and Discernment sessions in small groups over six weeks. Each two-hour session will be delivered in parishes, schools or any other appropriate organisation. People attending the first session of the Diocesan Synod will also be able to participate in two such sessions. 

Option Two: Local Conversations - Listening and Discernment

For those unable to attend weekly sessions there is a discernment guide and print-out for each of the six themes. People are encouraged to consider one of the themes during each of the six weeks of the diocesan Listening and Discernment process and gather with others at a convenient time to formulate a response.

No matter the process, all are asked to respond to the questions:

What actions could really help us to move toward becoming a Christ-centred Church that is

(insert the name of the National Theme for Discernment to which answers refer)

  1. At the National Level?
  2. At the Diocesan level?
  3. At the local Parish level?
  4. Personally?

What happens to the responses?

Group responses identifying actions can be submitted to one or more levels.

  • National Level – through the Plenary Council process. Groups send the outcome of their Communal discernment (maximum of 150 words) to the appropriate Discernment and Writing Group that has been established by the Plenary Council.
  • Diocesan Level – through the Diocesan Synod process. Groups send the outcome of their Communal discernment (maximum of 150 words) to the Diocesan Synod Working Party.
  • Parish and Personal Level – through the Parish process. Groups download the response form from website, complete and give to their Parish Leader.


For us to prepare for Plenary Council 2020 and our Diocesan Synod, two significant gatherings in the life of our Church, we are asked to listen to the Spirit and communally discern what actions will help us move towards a Christ-centred Church. All are critical to this participation. Therefore, we as the people of God in the Diocese of Maitland-Newcastle are asked to pray, disseminate information, gather and encourage/facilitate participation in both processes. 

McBrien, R.P., 2011, Vatican II themes: The people of God, July 25, 2011

Archbishop Costelloe in the Foreword Listen to the what the Spirit is saying NCPR 2019, ACBC Canberra iv)

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