During the week someone wrote to me about accessing a two-page summary of the Fifth Plenary Council, so they could share this with their parishioners. After some research, I thought it best to devote this week’s message to the request. So many thousands of words have been written, and so this is my humble attempt to outline where we are now up to, with this most significant church event in the life of the Australian Catholic Church, and of the global church. Let’s begin with the question that was put to all Australians in 2018:
“What do you think God is asking of us in Australia at this time?”
You will recall that we, as a diocese set out on this journey for both the Plenary Council and our own diocesan synod. The Plenary Council was a three-stage journey: Preparation, which took place over more than three years; Celebration, which included two assemblies and the nine months in between them; and Implementation, which started after the second assembly and will unfold in the coming years.
The following 5-minute video captures this journey we have made together:
A lot of information is also available on the Plenary Council website:
During the second general assembly, more than 35 motions were put to a consultative and a deliberative vote. Those motions that received a qualified majority in the deliberative vote – two-thirds of voters eligible and present – were passed by the Plenary Council. They were confirmed as the decrees of the Plenary Council. After the November 2022 meeting of the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference, the decrees will be sent to the Apostolic See. In accordance with canon 446 of the Code of Canon Law, decrees are not to be promulgated until they have been reviewed by the Apostolic See.
These decrees come under ten areas:
Decree 1 – Reconciliation – Healing Wounds, Receiving Gifts
Decree 2 – Choosing Repentance – Seeking Healing
Decree 3 – Called by Christ – Sent Forth as Missionary Disciples
Decree 4 – Witnessing to the Equal Dignity of Women and Men
Decree 5 – Communion in Grace – Sacrament to the World
Decree 6 – Formation and Leadership for Mission and Ministry
Decree 7 – At the Service of Communion Participation and Mission – Governance
Decree 8 – Integral Ecology and Conversion for the Sake of Our Common Home
Decree 9 – The Implementation Phase of the Fifth Plenary Council
Decree 10 – The Decrees of the Fourth Plenary Council of Australia
Three people from our diocese, Fr Greg Barker, Bernadette Gibson, and Helen Belcher, were members of the Plenary Council and upon their return they spoke of feeling privileged to be part of this gathering which was very much led by the Holy Spirit. They also spoke of feeling very supported by the diocesan community. There was a deep sense that our own ongoing diocesan synod had prepared them well for such a synodal journey.
Over the coming months, the Acts of the Plenary Council will be finalised before the sending of the Decrees to Rome for approval. As part of the Implementation Phase, over the next five years, parishes, dioceses and organisations will be asked to implement the decisions of the Plenary Council. We are being asked to pray that the seeds of hope that have been planted will be strengthened as we continue to journey synodally.
At the second assembly, the following motion passed:
That the Plenary Council adopt the following steps for ensuring the effectiveness and accountability of the Implementation phase, to take place over a period of five years:
- the Bishops Commission for the Plenary Council will be responsible for establishing terms of review for the Plenary Council’s implementation;
- a roundtable body such as that proposed in Decree 7, Article 2, will be responsible for co-ordinating the review;
- interim reports will be published in 2023 and 2025; and
- the final review report will be published five years after the Second Assembly, in 2027.
Much of the work of implementation will take place at the local level, including the ongoing work of our diocesan synod which was promulgated on 8 August 2019.
Archbishop Timothy Costello’s concluding statement of the Second Assembly of the Plenary Council finished with these words:
We have seen God at work in these days, comforting and disrupting in order to lead his people into a future of God’s making. This has been a time of grace, and for that we give humble thanks. May God who has begun the good work in us bring it to fulfilment (cf. Phil 1:6).
In the concluding statement he also wrote:
We reflected upon our baptismal call to missionary discipleship and the ways in which we might strengthen our personal and communal response. We focused upon the diverse gifts and common dignity of women and men, and reaffirmed the Church’s commitment to recognising and fostering the participation of women in all the avenues of ministry and leadership open to the lay faithful. We considered our baptismal invitation to receive and to live the gift of the Trinitarian life of grace, and how we might enrich and deepen our sacramental life, which both draws us from the world and leads us back. We sought to discover new and creative ways to form our communities and their leaders in ministry and for mission. We committed the Church in Australia to greater participation of all the laity, women and men, in our governance processes and leadership structures. We acknowledged the urgent need to make commitments to care for our common home and to be open to the integral and ecological conversion required to work with God who makes all things new (Rev 21:5)…….
We carry forth into the world the seeds of fresh possibilities, sown in a hidden yet abundant way by the great Sower of everything, who makes these seeds flourish in unexpected places for the sake of the Kingdom (Matt. 13:1-23, Mark 4:1-20, Luke 8:4-15). We bear a rich heritage: the many ways in which the Catholic community has enhanced life in Australia through its care for the sick and marginalised, its commitment to education, and its advocacy for social justice, especially the needs of refugees and asylum seekers. We commit ourselves to seek and serve the human flourishing of all Australians, and to care for Earth, our common home, by cherishing, preserving, and healing the land.
I hope I have done justice in this brief message, as to where we are now up to, post the Plenary Council and leading into the Synod on Synodality in 2023, along with our own ongoing diocesan synod.
May we continue to be guided by the Holy Spirit as companions on the journey.