The Second Assembly of the Plenary Council in Australia was held 3-9 July 2022 in Sydney.
There were 270 Members attending, most physically, with a handful online (either due to COVID-19 or an inability to travel).
The Members comprised: 44 bishops, and the remainder were people from religious institutes, priests, diocesan/eparchy nominees, representatives of various Catholic groups plus lay people. Some 55% of the Members were ordained.
There were also in separate rooms/areas the periti (experts), media, five observers (Archbishop Charles Balvo, Apostolic Nuncio; Cardinal John Dew, Archbishop of Wellington, NZ; Cardinal Charles Maung Bo SDB, Archbishop of Yangon, Myanmar; and Reverend John Gilmore, President of the National Council of Churches in Australia and a representative from Catholic Church Insurance). There was considerable administrative and technology support also present.
The assembly took place in the school hall of Cathedral School in Sydney. There were 30 tables with 7-9 people on each table. Each table had 1-2 bishops and then a random allocation with the aim to have diversity of ordained, religious, lay people and also gender, age and geography.
During the week, some people got COVID-19 and joined online from their hotels.
Framework of Motions
The Framework of Motions document with amendments was released in the previous week. Minor edits that did not change the substance of the document were incorporated and only substantive amendments were marked up.
The agenda was the sequential consideration of the Framework of Motions comprising the Introduction plus 8 sections, with 2 sections scheduled each day. There was a process of spiritual conversations on each table and then voting by the consultative group, followed by the deliberative vote either that day or the next day.
Interventions were required the evening before, with only some allowed on the floor. Tables were encouraged to discuss the content and any proposed amendments to have the full support of the table which was generally difficult given the diversity of table composition.
On day three, following the feedback from the non-majority vote on Witnessing to the Equal Dignity of Women and Men section, the process was changed to allow for more specific interventions from the floor with suggested changes. Then straw polls were held to gauge the sense in the room as to whether a specific suggestion had support or otherwise. This, combined with a sense of a greater appreciation of the importance of each vote and Members taking seriously their role as participants in a unique leadership process, saw a significant change in application and speed.
To pass a motion required a 66% vote in the affirmative (placet).
Passage of Motions
The Introduction was not passed by the consultative vote but that seemed to be the result of confusion. The following morning saw it passed by the deliberative vote.
Part 1 Reconciliation: Healing Wounds, Receiving Gifts (focused on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders in the Life of the Church) and Part 2 Choosing Repentance – Seeking Healing (focused on abuse by clergy, religious and lay workers of the Church) were comfortably passed by both the consultative and deliberate votes, with overall comfort with the content of both those chapters. There were several written interventions suggesting some amendments but the overall sentiment was positive.
Part 3 Called by Christ – Sent Forth as Missionary Disciples was a more difficult part and seemed to have less fulsome support and fewer people comfortable with the content. There were some interventions with opposing views but generally support.
Part 4 Witnessing to the Equal Dignity of Women and Men discussion was scheduled for the afternoon on the second day. There were written interventions and some from the floor. The consultative vote passed the first motion which was the introductory statement but failed the second motion, which called for dioceses making more opportunities available for women to participate. So, there was only 1 motion on women left.
The following morning the deliberative vote did not pass either motion, which effectively meant that the motions emanating from the Plenary Council would be silent on women. After obvious disquiet from Members, the agenda was reshaped to allow considerably more discussion on Part 4 with each table invited to submit changes. A new writing group of four people was established to review and produce a new version, shorter than the first and more focused. This was available the following day and eventually passed strongly on day 5 with some further amendments.
Part 8 Integral Ecology and Conversion for the Sake of Our Common Home was considered next and passed both the consultative and deliberative votes. There were a few amendments.
Part 7 At the Service of Communion, Participation and Mission: Governance was then considered. There were a number of written interventions, with a number against Motion 7.4 which was the recommended Synodal Roundtable motion with representatives from the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference (ACBC), Catholic Religious Australia (CRA) and the Association of Ministerial Public Juridic Persons (AMPJP). There was only one written intervention supporting it which I posted. During the floor discussion, the Chair invited people to speak for and against. There were a number of speakers against and only 2 for it, myself and another member. In the end, it received the consultative vote and 66% of the deliberative vote, so it just passed. The reasons for the no vote included comments such as: it was bureaucratic, it would be an additional superstructure to oversee synodal practices, it required too much resourcing, it would be just another committee, there should be a return to evangelisation at the grassroots and away from ‘central’ structures. Personally, all these comments seem helpful to ensure the Roundtable is effective.
Part 5 Communion in Grace: Sacrament to the World was quite contentious. However, given the previous day’s outcome, there seemed to be a greater desire for consensus with people more listening and giving up previously entrenched positions. The 3rd Rite motion was passed as well as the motion on preaching, albeit not the one during the Eucharistic celebration.
Part 6 Formation and Leadership for Mission and Ministry was overall very well supported in the sense that everyone wants more formation. There was considerable reworking to include more clearly formation for ordained, and inclusion of youth ministry.
I was very conscious that I was the sole Ministerial Public Juridic Person (MPJP) representative. I posted a written intervention about MPJPs for the Introduction on the first day. There was only one other written intervention on the Australian Eparchies. The next morning, we were both invited to speak. I spoke for about two minutes about the MPJPs and highlighted the diagram on the inner back page which shows the three canonical pillars of the Australian Church (see below).
My subsequent spoken interventions also highlighted MPJPs. I tried to promote them in any conversations and I think a lot more people know about the MPJPs (albeit not the detail). The education, health and social services ministries also had one representative each but two of them had chairing and scrutineer roles during the Assembly and were busy with these process roles. Overall, I think the voice of the MPJP voice was well presented and heard.
My overall reflections are that the Second Assembly was a very positive event. I consider it has reset the Catholic Church in Australia. It forced people from opposing sides of the Church to listen and speak with each other. More people now understand where others are coming from although shifting strongly held views will be difficult, maybe impossible.
Our Bishops are becoming a younger group and there have been some good recent talented appointments. A number of Bishops have concluded their tenure in recent years and in the next five years some more Bishops will reach their retirement age. The quality and capability of the next wave of appointments will be crucial.
Our Bishops overall are responsive to criticism and very aware of the external negative sentiment. I understand the comments section of the Facebook page on the Plenary Council was switched off during the week because of the vile comments. I consider our Bishops need our positive support.
The commitment and dedication of people at the Assembly was outstanding. The days were long and the work unceasing. Everyone showed up and nearly all stayed till the end.
One observation from attending the Second Assembly is that the succession in the Church is a big challenge. A significant number of our ‘elders’ will retire from leadership roles in the next three or so years. On my table two religious will be stepping down from their leadership in the next few months. Finding enough capable, skilled and faith-filled people who are prepared to commit to governance and leadership positions may take time. In particular, the departures of very long serving and highly respected leaders from CRA will be significant. Those at the Assembly seem to have the trust and confidence of our Bishops and are probably largely responsible for building a synodal culture such that the motions were properly considered. Our next crop of leaders will need to develop long term relationships with our Bishops and this will take time.
The daily Masses with all our Bishops in attendance were well organised, with a beautiful choir, excellent homilies, and were dignified and reverent.
Overall, the missionary focus of the Church, turning to its external discipleship will hopefully be the focus of the next decade rather than an internal focus with people focused on their seemingly intractable philosophical positions.