Chair of AMPJP
I am fortunate to be a Member of the Plenary Council (PC) and thus present at the First Assembly 3-10 October 2021.
Plenary Council opening
The Plenary Council commenced with Mass on Sunday 3 October 2021 in Perth led by Archbishop Timothy Costelloe. I formed part of the procession with other PC Members who are either based in Perth or from the Archdiocese and I was also asked to do the Universal Prayer. This Mass was live streamed.
The Assembly comprised 278 Members, facilitators, periti (experts). Plus there was a team of some 50 technical support staff (volunteers), as well as the PC management team. It went for 6 days including one half day. The days were long and intense with all participating online on virtual screen.
I was fortunate to be invited into the Perth hub which comprised 19 Members, 18 from Perth and one from the Melbourne Archdiocese. We were based at Catholic Ed WA where the technical team was also based.
The structure of each of the days was a full Plenary in the morning with the first part live streamed to the public, the second comprising Member interventions, then 10 groups of about 26-30 broken down into groups of 7-10. Each group had 1 or 2 agenda questions to address. Everyone was on-line so there was an interesting sense of ‘equality’, after all, our tiles were the same size. The opportunity for speaking seemed to be fair, with all encouraged, albeit by days 5 and 6, time was at a premium.
The morning Plenary on day 1 comprised prayer, an address by the PC President, followed my Member interventions, written first (3 minutes speaking time) and then verbal from the floor (2 minutes speaking time). Other than on days 1 and 4 there were so many written interventions there was no time for any from the floor. I was fortunate to put in an intervention early on day one and spoke to that. I submitted 4 written interventions over the 6 days: Laity and Women, Ministerial PJPs, Build the Church (tribute to those people coming to Australia from overseas with their faith), and Synodal Governance.
The Member interventions were wonderful to listen to. They were very varied, and often with contrasting viewpoints, but they were respectfully given and received. There initially seemed some concerns, but by the end of the Assembly there was a tacit acknowledgment that this reflected our broad church, and it is that broadness that provides a challenge in discerning the best paths forward.
Process of Agenda Questions
The content of the Assembly was challenging in that it covered very wide areas. There were 16 agenda items spread over 10 groups and at the end there were some 40-50 (pers comm) proposals emerging. Many of these reflected issues and discussions that were common to a number of the agenda questions.
The process for considering these agenda questions, i.e., daily scheduling and discernment based on the Gospel reading, prayer and deep listening was very inspirational and life-giving. It meant that people could share openly in a very small group (7-10), and from being a group of strangers on day 1, the increase over 6 days in levels of trust and openness in the small group was palpable. Even those Members who initially expressed scepticism and distrust, seemed to open up and contribute with sincerity on days 5 and 6.
The small groups fed into the bigger group of 30 people and further discussions, discernment and respectful listening were had. A camaraderie and certain understandings emerged within the bigger group, from where draft recommendations were developed and proposed. Certainly the Holy Spirit seemed tangible in guiding our groups in their discernment.
Major themes that were discussed over the week included appropriate formation for all, involvement of lay people in Church structures and processes, the place and role of women, the nature of preaching, how to be an inclusive Church, the gift of eastern Churches in Australia, historical abuse, and a Church that is Christ centred.
The subject matter was rich and the gift of the intellectual Church as well as the gift of all those who spoke on the inclusion of all God’s people was very visible.
One area of concern that I think all Members felt was how best to do honour and justice to the thousands of Australian Catholics who put in submissions to the PC and participated in the many discussions and thinking in the lengthy prelude to the First Assembly. For those of us who were at the Assembly in a ‘representative capacity’, that was also on our minds. We were there as individuals but how do we best present our constituency. My response was via interventions and then at the group opportunities for discussion and sharing. Indeed the MPJPs were often mentioned by others, and in this context, I hope the MPJP voice was appropriately presented and heard.
Where to from here and an observation
The proposals and themes emerging from the First Assembly will now be shaped into recommendations that will be taken to the Second Assembly in July 2022, scheduled to be held in Sydney.
The key observation and insight for me was that I think everyone at the PC recognised that we need change. Change in order to be a Christ centred Church, change to reflect a contemporary world and change so that past abuse practices never happen again. However the type, scope and scale of this change needs to be further discerned and determined. It is also likely that change will occur slowly. That is both a treasure and a challenge for our Church as we try to take everyone with us. For some, it will be too glacial, for others it will be volcanic eruptions. I think change will be decadal but the gift of the PC means that some important steps to be a faith filled Church are being taken, and hence there is optimism. At a personal level, I am deeply humbled to be a Member of Australia’s Fifth Plenary Council and to play a role, albeit very small, in this change.