By Dr Marco Ceccarelli
The Plenary Council is much more than just an event taking place in 2020. If it is to deliver on its promise of revealing what God is calling us to, it vital for it to be understood as a process that invites the Catholic community to walk together on the path to dialogue.
For this reason, the first phase of the Plenary Council has focused on open listening and dialogue sessions in which people are called to pray together, reflect in silence and openly share their experience of life, faith and Church.
Year of Grace 2012/2013
There are many who will recall the Year of Grace that was celebrated during 2012 and 2013. There are probably few, however, who will know that this year was held to begin preparation for the Plenary Council 2020.
In other words, our journey towards this great event began some six years ago.
The theme at the heart of the Year of Grace was “Contemplate the Face of Christ” – an indication that Christ needed to be at the very centre of a year in which we were invited to attribute the events of our lives not to chance, but to grace, which operates through faith.
In an address about the Year of Faith delivered in early 2012[i], Archbishop Timothy Costelloe SDB explained that, “This is not another program. It is a call and invitation from the Bishops to the Australian Church to encounter conversion rather than education…more a time to know Jesus, rather than know about Jesus”.
It is a call to prayer and an opportunity for reflection and not a time for problem solving, he explained.
Archbishop Costelloe acknowledged the difficulties faced by the Church at the time, but was adamant that unless we were first centred on Christ, we would not be in a position to deal with these challenges.
The year, he said, was the result of much prayer and reflection and was the work of the Holy Spirit. It resulted in the Bishops inviting the Australian Church to enter a period of retreat, putting aside the busyness of life and taking time to “let the Holy Spirit work within us to show us what it means to be a disciple of Jesus”.
Archbishop Costelloe also acknowledged that the year was an “Abrahamic Journey” – a call to leave where we are even though we are not sure where we are going. “We will trust where the Holy Spirit will lead us”, he said.
Synodality in Practice
Much of what Archbishop Costelloe said that year resonates with us today. In our Plenary Council journey, we are taking steps towards becoming what Pope Francis has called a “Synodal Church”, that is, a Church that walks together and listens.
One of the reasons why the journey has started with opening listening and dialogue sessions is to give us an opportunity to speak boldly and to listen humbly.
As we do this, we are guided by the question “What do you think God is asking of us in Australia at this time?” – a question focused on what we believe God is asking of us, rather than what we think is wrong with the Church and what it should do to change.
For this reason, it is crucial that listening and dialogue sessions are grounded in prayer and a moment of silence within which each person seriously contemplates the question at hand. Without this foregrounding, the risk that group discussions become argumentative and inconclusive is significantly heightened.
As we pray, reflect, speak and listen to each other, we are also placing ourselves in the best possible position to hear what the Holy Spirit is saying.
“A synodal Church is a Church which listens, which realises that listening ‘is more than simply hearing’”, Pope Francis said in October 2015,[ii] commemorating the 50th anniversary of the institution of the synod of bishops.
“It is a mutual listening in which everyone has something to learn. The faithful people, the college of bishops, the Bishop of Rome: all listening to each other, and all listening to the Holy Spirit, the ‘Spirit of truth’ (Jn 14:17), in order to know what he ‘says to the Churches’ (Rev 2:7).”
An opportunity not to be missed
The Plenary Council offers us an opportunity to come together, share our faith, our insights and our questions. This demands a certain kind of vulnerability from our part, which can be unsettling.
For those of us who may not have entered into a dialogue with others for years, our first interactions may be clumsy and messy.
It may take time before we can express what we truly want to say. Listening humbly can also be very difficult – for this it is important that we ask God to help us discern what the Spirit is saying.
In the end, perhaps the decisions that will be made at the Plenary Council in 2020 may not even reflect exactly what we had in mind. Yet if during the process we become a more open, synodal and participatory Church, it will certainly be worth it.
To learn more about the Plenary Council, please visit www.plenarycouncil.catholic.org.au
Dr Marco Ceccarelli is Director for the Centre of Faith Enrichment.
From pages 12 & 13 of Issue 17: ‘Plenary 2020: A whole Church entering into mission, dialogue and discernment’ of The Record Magazine