By Robert Hiini
‘Our history is not ours alone, to casually remember of forget, or consign to ignorance. It has been bought and paid for. It is itself the record of that mysterious, life-giving transaction.’
– Patrick O’Farrell, The Catholic Church and Community: An Australian History
As the Church in Australia moves towards its first Plenary Council in more than 80 years, it could hardly be said that its past conciliar experience looms large; in fact, it has been largely forgotten.
What might we learn from the six pervious gatherings of “the Church” in Australia: the provincial councils of 1844 and 1869; and the “plenary” or all-encompassing councils (following the erection in Melbourne as a second metropolitan to that of Sydney) of 1885, 1895, 1905 and 1937?
What was the experience of our Catholic and Australian forebears?
At the time of the first provincial council, the still nascent Church was grappling with the challenges posed by the country’s vast distances and sprawling population.
In 1841, Australia’s first bishop, the idealistic English Benedictine, Archbishop John Bede Polding of Sydney, had taken the advice of his eminently practical Vicar General, William Ullathorne, travelling to Rome to urge the establishment of two suffragan bishoprics – Hobart (1842) and Adelaide (1843).
Taking advantage of the impending consecration of Francis Murphy as Bishop of Adelaide, Polding gathered the three bishops and an unknown number of its priests to discuss and legislate decrees for the unity and good order of the Church.
The 10-12 September council drew large crowds to its associated liturgical functions.
But lay people, men and women, were almost entirely absent from formal proceedings, save as witnesses to the bishops’ reviewing and signing of council decrees at the conclusion of the gathering. (The laity would continue to be absent in all the following councils.)
The bulk of its decrees, which had to be sent to Rome for emendation and recognition before becoming (canon) law, concerned the administration of sacraments and clerical discipline.
Celebrants, the decrees said, were to manifest holiness, and fidelity to the rubrics, as well as avoiding any appearance of simony (selling favours and pardons) or avarice (greed for wealth).
They were to avoid dances, horse races, public theatres and “unbecoming meetings”, and they were to commit to reserving half an hour each day for meditative prayer, and to wearing the Roman collar, among other minutiae.
And in a topic that was to reappear, time and time again, in the decrees of future meets, the council dealt with the “problem” of mixed marriages – marriages between Catholics and Protestants – and marriages that had not been conducted in a Catholic church (judged valid but illicit).
And in keeping with the times – perhaps a failure of moral leadership – the council decreed that unmarried mothers were not to receive the usual blessing of mothers after childbirth.
The situation that confronted the Church in 1869 was radically different. Government funding for churches had ceased. The state was introducing a free and secular system of education, and the general population, many giddy after several gold rushes, had grown substantially more materialistic.
St Patrick’s Cathedral in Melbourne was chosen as the venue, St Mary’s Cathedral in Sydney having on 5 January been devastated by fire.
The council’s decrees on education, another major topic of subsequent councils, became the foundation of the bishops’ stand on Catholic education for almost a century. They included disapproval of a secular educational system that impeded the Church’s ability to teach faith and morals, and a claim that Catholics had a right to a share of public funds for the proper education of their children.
The vexed issue of mixed marriages again reared its head in the decrees. In a rare display of pushback, priests attending proceedings put forward a petition arguing that some parts of the previous decree on mixed marriages be modified or deleted, and that the matter be left to their prudential discretion. (The bishops disagreed.)
In their subsequent pastoral letter, dated 24 April 1869, the bishops railed against “indifferentism” – “the deadliest of all errors” – mixed schools and mixed marriages.
With the appointment of the first Cardinal Archbishop to the Australian episcopate – a respected son of the Irish Church, no less – the Church in Australia entered a period in which it felt it could take its “rightful” place as an eminent institution in Australian society.
Cardinal Patrick Moran, who arrived amid great fanfare in 1884, wasted no time in convening a plenary council – the Holy See naming him as its apostolic delegate.
The Council, which would provide a blueprint for the subsequent councils, was particularly notable for the triumphal pomp of its public celebrations.
There were five public sessions, with 5,000 people attending its opening Mass and ceremonies, which Moran proclaimed as “the grandest ever witnessed in the Southern Hemisphere”.
The Church surged in institutional presence, with unprecedented pace in the building of schools and churches and the proliferation of episcopal sees.
Eighteen prelates attended the council, possessing deliberative votes, along with 52 priests – 34 diocesan and 18 religious – who possessed consultative votes.
Two general meetings of the council bishops and priests took place in St Mary’s Cathedral, as well as 14 private episcopal meetings in the presbytery.
On 19 November, all participants travelled to Manly, for the laying of the foundation stone of St Patrick’s College seminary – a beautiful if not more ideally termed ‘grandiose’ edifice that Moran hoped would go on to become a national seminary for what he also hoped would become a united and federated country.
The bishops sent 287 decrees to Rome for ratification on a large number of subjects: avoiding dangers to the faith, uniformity of discipline, education, male religious, nuns, the propagation of the faith to Aboriginals, fasting, and avoiding disputes among them.
The Council Fathers would recommend Brisbane and Adelaide to the Holy See as metropolitan sees, as well as the establishment of dioceses in Grafton, Wilcannia, Sale, and Port Augusta.
In an ill-considered but unsurprising move, given the paternalistic exercise of episcopal authority at the time, the bishops sided with their South Australian confrere Bishop Christopher Reynolds in a decree affecting his stoush with Mary MacKillop over the governance of the Sisters of St Joseph.
The relevant decree backed bishop control over any religious congregations present in his diocese, rejecting the idea of central government by a congregational superior general.
In a great victory of Australia’s first recognised saint, Rome suppressed the decree in 1888, and government of the Mary MacKillop’s Sisters was vested in its congregational leadership in Sydney.
Meeting in Sydney, 17 November – 1 December, the council followed the same processes as those of 1885, once more attracting large crowds to its public events.
The sessions included a long discussion about remedies for alcoholic priests, whose difficulties were thought to have been compounded in an Australian context by the problems of distance and loneliness.
Two new dioceses were recommended for Western Australia (Geraldton and Coolgardie), and two for Queensland (Townsville and Maranoa).
Decrees included a requirement that clerics commit to ongoing development through reading and attending conferences, as well as regulations around missions in parishes (to be conducted in each parish at least every five years).
Cardinal Moran wrote to the prefect of Propaganda Fide, under whose auspices Australia would remain until 1976, asking if another council would be opportune.
Receiving a reply in the affirmative – including a positive reaction to his suggestion that the New Zealand bishops be again be included, as they were in 1844 – Moran seized the opportunity of a May meeting to capitalise on hospitable weather.
Perth had to be represented by a priest sent in Bishop Matthew Gibney’s stead, the bishop having been hospitalised in Sydney after falling ill during the sea-journey.
This time around, the committees into which the bishops and priests were divided numbered only three: Faith and Sacraments, Discipline, and Education.
Priests expressed their views on a number of subjects, including teachers’ colleges and the prohibition of sending children to government schools, treatment for alcoholic and mentally ill priests, the challenges of the mission areas of WA and the NT, and some priests’ unhappiness at being prohibited from the racetrack and theatre.
Educational issues, as well as mixed marriages, were again addressed in the meetings and subsequent decrees, with one decree stipulating that there should be a Catholic teachers’ college in each ecclesiastical province.
Archival records reveal other things, too. The Bishop of Geraldton, for example, is recorded as voicing frustration at trying to relieve himself of the Diocese of Victoria and Palmerston (now part of the Diocese of Darwin), pleading with Rome, apparently with no success, for the previous four years.
Anyone imagining an unbridgeable chasm between our own time and 1937 might consider what had transpired in the world between the 1905 council and its successor.
Catholics, no less than other Australians, had felt the ravages of war and Depression, and the plenary council decrees manifest a more outward looking and socially concerned church, although not along the polemical, progressive-conservative lines of today.
The council passed 685 decrees, some along the same ecclesial grooves as before – a requirement to preach twice a year on the evils of bad reading and cinema, for example – but many others addressing the broader needs of the populace.
The resulting joint pastoral letter evinced a concern that wage earners be afforded justice by governments and employers, that the good work of nuns in educating rural children be celebrated, and that the state should establish a meaning safety net for the unemployed and their families.
The bishops also decried “the evils of atheistic communism … (an) insidious anti-Christian movement that had already spread like cancer through a large portion of the body of society”, and called for, in the words of the then-pontiff, Pius XI, “a sincere renewal of private and public life according to the principles of the Gospel by all those who belong to the fold of Christ”.
From pages 14 to 17 of Issue 17: ‘Plenary 2020: A whole Church entering into mission, dialogue and discernment’ of The Record Magazine