Preparing for the 2020 Australian Plenary Council

(Published in The Swag, Vol. 25, No.3, Spring 2017, pp. 12-15)

This second article in the series looking at particular councils, examines the initial preparations for the 2020 Australian Plenary Council. Further articles will examine in some detail the seven particular councils  – provincial and plenary – which have been held in Australia since 1844, and a final one will attempt to imagine what the 2020 Plenary Council might hope to achieve.

A synodal church in Australia

Though the Second Vatican Council declared in 1965 that it “earnestly desires that the venerable institution of synods and councils flourish with new vigour”, in Australia since then, synods and councils have not flourished.

During the past 52 years only five of Australia’s 28 territorial dioceses have had a diocesan synod: Canberra & Goulburn in 1989 and 2004, Maitland-Newcastle in 1992-93, Brisbane in 2003, Cairns in 2008-11, and Broken Bay in 2011-12. Sydney has not had a diocesan synod since 1951 and Melbourne since 1916. Several other dioceses, including Bathurst, Hobart, Parramatta, Toowoomba and Wollongong, have had non-canonical diocesan ‘gatherings’ or ‘assemblies’, but the Holy See’s 1997 Instruction on Diocesan Synods states that all such assemblies should be formally situated within the canonical discipline of the Church. 

There have been seven particular councils – provincial and plenary - held in Australia since the Catholic hierarchy was established in 1842 (see Table 1), but no provincial council since 1907 (1st Melbourne Provincial Council) and no plenary council since 1937 (4th Australasian Plenary Council).  Worldwide, only two plenary councils have been held since 1965: in the Philippines (1991) and Poland (1993).

Particular Councils: a resource rarely used in Australia

(Published in The Swag, Vol. 25, No. 3, Spring 2017, pp. 9-11)

This is the first of a series of articles looking at particular councils or synods. It is a general examination of their origins, characteristics and capacity. Others will examine the seven particular councils, provincial and plenary, which have been held in Australia since 1844, as well as the preparations for the 2020 Australian Plenary Council, and what that council might have on its agenda.

Towards a synodal church

In its 1965 Decree on the Bishops’ Pastoral Office in the Church (Christus Dominus) the Second Vatican Council declared that it “earnestly desires that the venerable institution of synods and councils flourish with new vigour” (n. 36).  

Aware that synods had waned significantly, the Council wanted to reverse that lapse. More recently, Pope Francis, echoing the Council, has said that “the world in which we live ... demands that the Church strengthen cooperation in all areas of her mission, and it is precisely the path of synodality which God expects of the Church in the third millennium.  A synodal church is like a standard lifted up among the nations” (Address to Synod of Bishops, 17 October 2016). But transitioning to a synodal church will largely depend on bishops to take up the challenge. This may be hard for some, as “synodality does not mean some of the bishops some of the time, but all the Church all of the time” (Archbishop Coleridge, Knox Address, 2015).

Open Letter to the Bishops of Australia

Catholics for Renewal has drafted this letter in consultation with many Catholics strongly committed to the teachings of Jesus and their Church. People of the Church have been distressed by the increasing failings of our Church, particularly in the context of the evidence before the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse.

Australian Catholics are invited to consider and sign below the following Open Letter to the Bishops of Australia. The Open Letter  provides an opportunity, consistent with the Church’s Code of Canon Law, for the faithful - lay people, religious, priests, all members of the Church - to seek renewal of the Church.

Open Letter to the Bishops of Australia

‘Please Listen and Act Now’ 

  Dear Bishops  

  The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse has exposed grave governance failures in our Church, failures that undermine its very mission. We, the undersigned Catholics of Australia, write to you as Pilgrim People of God, accepting shared responsibility for our Church, expressing our sense of faith which Vatican II recognised as critical to the life of the Church, and asking you our bishops to listen and to act decisively, executing necessary reforms now. 

  Over several decades we have seen our Church declining steadily to its now shameful state. Countless Catholics have been alienated, particularly younger generations who are our Church’s future. The Royal Commission has now exposed dysfunctional governance, an entrenched culture of clericalism, and a leadership not listening to the people. Too many bishops have denied the extent of clerical child sexual abuse and its systemic cover-up, and even protected paedophiles ahead of children.  

  The Victorian Parliamentary Inquiry also found that the Church’s governance contributed to coverups and further abuse. Yet the failings go beyond the scandal of child sexual abuse. Archbishops have admitted to “a catastrophic failure of leadership”, and some have spoken of ‘criminal negligence’. Church credibility has been squandered. To rebuild trust, there must be reform of governance based on Gospel values, reflecting servant leadership and engagement with the faithful. There has to be accountability, transparency, and inclusion particularly of women. 

  Changing processes is not enough. We ask each and every bishop to act now on these reforms:

  1.  Eradicate the corrosive culture of clericalism – “an evil . . . in the Church” (Pope Francis). 
  2.  Become truly accountable with full involvement of the faithful, including diocesan pastoral councils, and diocesan assemblies or synods; with pastoral plans and annual diocesan reports.  
  3. Appoint women to more senior diocesan positions, such as chancellor and delegate of bishops. 
  4. Hold diocesan synods/assemblies in 2018, with deanery and parish listening sessions, to develop the agenda for the national 2020 Plenary Council; and as part of normal diocesan governance. 
  5. Further remodel priestly formation, including ongoing development, assessment and registration. 
  6. Reconcile publicly and fully with all the persons abused, their families and communities, and commit to just redress. 
  7. Send an urgent delegation, including laity, to Pope Francis
  1. urging him to purge child sexual abuse from the Church: legislating civil reporting of abuse, and ensuring effective discipline, major canon law reform, and review of priestly celibacy;  
  2. advising him of the Royal Commission’s exposure of the Church’s global dysfunctional governance; particularly its clericalist culture and lack of accountability, transparency, and inclusiveness, especially the exclusion of women from top decision-making positions; and 
  3. requesting immediate reform of bishop selection processes, fully including the faithful in identifying the needs of dioceses and local selection criteria.

None of the above proposals requires deferral to the Holy See or awaiting the Royal Commission’s report before acting. All these actions are within your own competence. We ask you to lead the reform of our Church now, acting promptly and decisively - anything less would be a betrayal of the Gospel.  

We pray that the Spirit guide us all at this critical time. 

Catholics of Australia

[The Open Letter can be signed by Australian Catholics either a) ONLINE - with comment - above (or at  OR  b) in writing via hard-copy downloaded below or from any inclusive parish]

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Alternative hard-copy version of the Open Letter HERE  for printing and posting

Media Articles

Child sex abuse: Catholic bishops 'must meet Pope Francis to push for urgent change'

Catholic bishops urged to meet Pope Francis to push for reform

Is it time for a Plenary or National Council of the Catholic Church in Australia?

by Peter J Wilkinson
15 May 2012 originally published in The Swag

A plenary or national council (or synod) is an assembly of the bishops, clergy, religious and laity of a particular nation working to ensure that the pastoral needs of the People of God in that nation are provided for (C. 445).

It is 75 years since the last plenary council of the Catholic Church in Australia, held in 1937. That, and earlier ones in 1885, 1895 and 1905, were exclusively male clerical gatherings, with only bishops, theologians and superiors of male religious orders attending.  Women, religious or lay, took no part.

The question now is: Has the time come to convene a fifth plenary council or synod in Australia, to be held under new inclusive rules (C. 443) which allow wider participation of Christ’s faithful, including women, to address the critical issues of our times?

Choosing the next Archbishop of Melbourne:

 how it should occur, and why this is important

by Peter Wilkinson

The Diocese of Melbourne was established in 1847.  It became an archdiocese in 1874.  To date, it has had 8 archbishops.  The first three were Irish: James Goold (1848-1886), Thomas Carr (1886-1917), and Daniel Mannix (1917-1963). The next five have all been Australian-born: Justin Simonds (1963-1967), James Knox (1967-74), Thomas Francis Little (1974-1996), George Pell (1996-2001), and Denis Hart (2001-present). The main task of the Australians has been to embrace and implement the vision of the 2nd Vatican Council.  How well they have done that will determine their legacy.

Read the whole article