Reflections on the Plenary Council by our delegates18 October, 2021
Fr Peter Tonti
Inspiring, hope-filled and challenging are just some of the many feelings experienced throughout the Fifth Plenary Council held via Microsoft Teams across Australia earlier this October. Now is the time to ponder and contemplate the comprehensive nature of the experience and reflect upon the variety of perspectives and conversations that answer the question: What do you think God is asking of us in Australia at this time?
There were many diverse thoughts and presentations covering the six agenda areas of Conversion, Prayer, Formation, Structures, Governance and Institutions with their sixteen focus questions. This was the first time the laity were included as members of the council which allowed for a more far-reaching representation of the People of God. The opportunity for the members to break into small groups to focus on the questions allowed for open and robust discussions and inclusive reports. The sessions on Thursday were challenging as we, as a church, confronted the questions How might we heal the wounds of abuse, coming to see through the eyes of those who have been abused? and How might the church in Australia meet the needs of the most vulnerable?
There were a number of presentations which were outside the parameters of this Plenary Council including the ordination of women to the diaconate and presbyterate and the communion with the people of our Eastern Rites. It is my hope that these presentations and others will be considered when the discerned outcomes are presented in Rome next year for approval.
Each day we were called to feel the Holy Spirit at work. The very Spirit that was there in the darkness of Creation and throughout the unfolding story of life. ‘Then God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light.’ (Genesis 1:3). Our God who expands us beyond our imaginings.
Each day began with recognition and prayer through the eyes of our First Nation people. I found the prayer profound and deeply moving. The Spirit was clearly present and God was speaking into our hearts. For all who are young or young at heart, I suggest you search plenarycouncil.catholic.org.au and find Session 1 Acknowledgement of Country and watch through to Session 14 Morning Plenary, Opening Prayer.
And so we take the time in reflection of what we have heard and experienced. In silent contemplation we open our hearts and minds to the prayer Jesus taught us and then set out to do God’s will for all people and creation.
The Plenary Council – A Taste of Synodality
It is truly an honour and a privilege to represent the people of the Diocese of Rockhampton as a member of the Plenary Council. The agenda called each one of us to “dream” like Pope Francis in Evangelli Gaudium, of a more Christ-centred Church, ‘a “missionary option,” that is, a missionary impulse capable of transforming everything, so that the Church’s customs, ways of doing things, times and schedules, language and structures can be suitably channelled for the evangelisation of today’s world rather than for her self-preservation’ (#27).
In being a member of the Plenary Council, I was certainly aware of the need to call to mind the various hopes, dreams and concerns of the Catholic community from across the Diocese. I was reassured that the voices and hopes of the people, communicated in the thematic papers from the national listening and dialogue sessions, continued to be heard at the first assembly, with key ideas and issues evident both during small group discussions and in the member interventions presented or tabled in written form.
Although the entire first general assembly was held in an online format, there was a real sense of community not only in the Rockhampton hub, but also in our small working group of twenty-eight from across the country and the entire gathering of two hundred and seventy-nine. Through the process of prayer and spiritual conversations, guided by the Holy Spirit, groups discerned key themes which will assist and give direction to the team drafting the concrete proposals for further discernment at the second general assembly.
It will be important to continue to hold the work of the Plenary Council in our prayers, that, guided by the Holy Spirit, the Catholic Church in Australia will indeed, through concrete proposals, be more Christ-centred and missionary in conversion, prayer, formation, its structures, governance and institutions.
Recently I returned to the Diocese from Holy Spirit Seminary to join with Bishop Michael, Fr Peter Tonti VG, Catherine Simmonds and Loretta McKeering in the Rockhampton ‘hub’ for the first assembly of the Fifth Plenary Council of Australia. In the large plenary sessions and in the smaller group encounters, I recognised from across the participants a genuine sense of goodwill in seeking to engage the processes of discernment and synodality. There exists a well-spring of hope that in seeking to nourish a cooperative sense of coresponsibility in both mission and governance, that the promotion of intentional discipleship in parishes, families and across all age groups will contribute to the formation of prayerful and Eucharistic communities that are eager to engage in society for the spiritual and physical wellbeing of all.
I was particularly encouraged by the sense of connectedness that was made possible by the online forum. While an ‘in-person’ encounter would have been preferable, to still be able to connect with people across the country was for me an example of the overflow of blessings made possible through innovation, creativity and goodwill. In looking ahead now to the second assembly in July 2022, I hope to be able to connect in person with those whom I have connected online.
I would like to extend my thanks to the great many people from across the Diocese – from Bundaberg to Mackay; from Yeppoon to Longreach – who have contacted me in the lead up to the first assembly assuring me that all of the members from Rockhampton, throughout Queensland and across the country remain in their prayers, as do all those staff, facilitators, periti and committees who make the execution of the Plenary Council process possible. Finally, I want to assure you that, as a seminarian for the Diocese, I found my participation to be a formative experience as well, one that overflows into the reality of a lived life within the great many wonderful faith-filled communities across the Diocese.
I came away from the first assembly of the Plenary Council feeling physically and emotionally drained and rather dejected. Despite the relatively few hours of online time (about 6 hours most days), each day there was lots of additional reading, discussions within our ‘hub’, reflection time, Mass, technical difficulties, etc. On Thursday our regular schedule was placed on hold for a day devoted to a lament, discussion and special Plenary with regards to those who have been sexually abused and those who are marginalised by the Church. This was extremely emotive and I continued to feel the effects of this day throughout the remainder of the assembly.
At the conclusion of the assembly I felt like nothing had been achieved – that it was essentially a ‘talk-fest’. With the benefits of hindsight and more reflection time (and some sleep!), I am now feeling much more positive and hopeful about the Plenary Council. Some strong themes emerged from the first assembly, including a desire from many people to enable the Church to tap into the talents of appropriately formed laity for governance and for preaching.
I feel very privileged to have attended the assembly and I learnt a lot about the Catholic Church, especially its diversity within Australia. I am extremely grateful to the Plenary Council and Bishop Michael for allowing the members from our Diocese to gather together for the assembly, to Catholic Education for providing the facilities, and to Shaun for making all the arrangements and looking after us so well. I benefited greatly from the opportunity to tap into the knowledge and experience of the other members, to hear their perspectives and receive their support.