PETER WILKINSON. All we want for Christmas is bishops who listen and act.

This is a modified version of the Christmas editorial of Catholics for Renewal, an Australian group seeking to make the Catholic church more Christ-like. It is hoped that the Australian Church’s Plenary Council, to be held over two sessions in 2020 and 2021 and the first since 1937, will be energised by the condemnations of the Royal Commission on Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. For the Plenary Council in 2020/21 to deliver, individual bishops must engage and listen to the people of their dioceses. 

In 2016 Australia’s bishops decided to convene the Catholic Church’s first Plenary Council since 1937. In March this year Pope Francis approved their decision, and at Pentecost the preparatory phase of the Council – to be held over two sessions in 2020 and 2021 – was officially launched. Catholics nationwide are being encouraged to consider the key question: “What do you think God is asking of us in Australia at this time?” Within that is another key question: “Will our bishops listen?

This Council will be the most important gathering of Australia’s 35 ‘particular churches’ – 30 dioceses, 3 eparchies, 2 ordinariates – for over 80 years. It must give all Australia’s Catholics – bishops, presbyters, deacons, religious, lay women and men – the opportunity to make input to the future of their Church through listening, talking to one another, discerning, raising their voices, speaking boldly, and making written submissions.

The Council’s principal theme is “Listen to what the Spirit is saying”. That has to involve bishops listening to the sensus fidei – the ‘sense of faith’ – of their people. Council president Archbishop Timothy Costelloe has said: “Our job is to listen”, which means bishops listening to the faithful who are listening to the Spirit.

So, are the bishops listening?

On the reasonable premise that the official websites of the 28 territorial dioceses are a current and reliable source of information on diocesan activities for this most important gathering of the Catholic Church in Australia since 1937, a recent review of each of them found a very mixed promotion of the Council. A strong priority commitment of bishops to engage with their people was not a common thread.

The websites showed varying degrees of diocesan activity: Council working groups in 20 dioceses; parish, deanery or regional gatherings in 17; effective resource materials in 5; facilitator training in 2; pastoral letters, podcasts, or special appeals to get involved in 6; and just 5 dioceses with scheduled assemblies or synods to prepare for the Plenary.

Only two websites mentioned bishops sitting in on local listening sessions, and just six mentioned the local bishop asking his people to send him copies of written submissions.. Surprisingly, only 16 websites highlighted the Plenary Council on the home page, though a concerted search turned up another 9 with references to the Council. Three websites did not mention the Plenary Council at all or even publish a link to the official Council website.

Bishop Tim Harris of Townsville has said: “By listening we learn, by listening we discern, by listening we understand each other better, and by listening we can respond better to the new landscape that is now before us.” That applies to all of us, but especially to bishops. If they want to be attuned to the sensus fidei of their own people and learn what wisdom has been gained from their listening to the Spirit, they have to enter personally into the Council’s listening processes, and even make and share their own submissions.

All Catholics should check out their own diocesan website (see list) and make a submission to the Plenary Council through their website. And when posting it, forward a copy to the local diocesan bishop (see list of email addresses).

As consultation for the Council will only be effective if there is a continuous and open feedback loop, it is good to see the Plenary website now asking those making submissions for permission to publish a copy (de-identified) online, and permission to forward a de-identified copy to their local diocese. However, anonymity as a general rule is questionable, for it can prejudice effective analysis.

Certainly, better processes are needed, especially those which ensure effective lay contribution to council outcomes, as Fr Frank Brennan SJ recently pointed out in Eureka Street.

So what do we want for Christmas? Nothing more and nothing less than all our Australian bishops strongly encouraging their people to be involved in the Plenary Council by listening to the Spirit and speaking up; but above all, we want all bishops to listen more closely to the sensus fidei of their people.

Peter Wilkinson has posted this editorial as President of Catholics for Renewal.


This post kindly provided to us by one of our many occasional contributors.

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7 Responses to PETER WILKINSON. All we want for Christmas is bishops who listen and act.

  1. Avatar Michael Flynn says:

    We could apply the example of the Labor Party National Conference just done in Adelaide to plan for the Plenary Council 2020 and 2021 and have a “fringe” for those who are not delegates under Canon Law ( most of us). I attended a national ALP Conference in Melbourne as a member but not to vote and was pleased to be there. We could ask for speakers at “The fringe” who might not please the Holy See. Mary Mc Aleese is good value on canon law and as a past President of Ireland has street cred. This could be in 2020. The 2021 event perhaps to make decisions could invite the Holy Father to legislate for Australia. The Roman Pontiff has the power that is personal to him and is not vested in officials in Rome. Let us ask for some new, better canon law.

  2. Avatar Michael Byrne says:

    I fear sometimes that the “sensus fidei of the..people” is expected by some to reflect the desire of the “lay faithful” to appear relevant as a progressive body in an increasing secularised society.

    With views that would find full consensus at a Greens Party gathering – women clergy, SSM, climate change fear and loathing, equalitarianism through flattening structures/roles rather than building people up….

    Prayerful discernment as an individual to live out his/her life in openness to God’s love and will rarely gets a mention. It is more – hands to action to discuss the agenda.

    On the matter of sensus fidelium, this is a good read…

    Last Paragraph…..
    “The commission members said the lay faithful are able “to sense what Pope Francis has called ‘new ways for the journey’ in faith of the whole pilgrim people. One of the reasons why bishops and priests need to be close to their people on the journey and to walk with them is precisely so as to recognise ‘new ways’ as they are sensed by the people. The discernment of such new ways, opened up and illumined by the Holy Spirit, will be vital for the new evangelisation.”

    Plenary Council 2020 is a most important event to be welcomed as a cumulative occasion for invited honest discussion and submissions from all who wish to engage, a process of summation of matters brought forward by a few, and then deliberation by the fewer entrusted with it.

    Within the open discussion of the Church the Plenary Council has to incorporate imaginative reflection – the long journey and the shorter 50 year journey – of where we are, how have we ended up here – and, importantly, why bother to even consider beyond our personal salvation the need to discern the “new ways for the journey”.

  3. Avatar Rosemary Breen says:

    There is a group that meets here weekly for prayer, reading and discussion. We have already compiled a significant numbers of points we would like to be discussed. However, many of the parishioners I have spoken to do not even know there is a Plenary Council in the offing and that they may put forward submissions. I am not even sure whether our priests are aware of it – I have heard nothing from the pulpit and there is nothing in the weekly parish newsletter. How do we get the message through in country parishes, in schools (teachers AND students), to those who have already left the church and so on? Does it depend on encouragement from the local bishop to the priests in each parish so that news of the Plenary Council percolates down to parishioners? I am trying to remain positive but even yesterday I met two parishioners (both in education) who had never heard of the Council and that they could participate by making a submission.

  4. Avatar Joan Seymour says:

    In my parish, our overworked parish priest has done his best to inspire interest in the Plenary and our possible contributions to it. The pastoral team have done their best to help. We’ve had meetings, attended by the same people who come to all meetings, god bless them. Yet it’s hard to discern any passion, or any sense that this may be our last chance. Most of those who had serious questions about the way the Church is operating at present have already stopped coming to Mass. We made no effort to contact them – it was just too hard, and we’re not used to having any authority, just a duty to help Father when he asks. I’ve also noticed that most people I speak to are unaware of the name of our Archbishop, or indeed that we have a new one. It seems that some of our Bishops will assume that the sensus fidelium fidei is telling them that everything is fine. Is it all too late? Do we have to wait for the Church to die out before it can rise again? And – yes – I do blame the Bishops.

  5. Avatar Leah Dobrejcer says:

    A gadfly response.
    Taking into account the fact that Jesus was scathingly critical of the self-serving pharisaical legalistic nit-picking of the ecclesiastical establishment in his time and place, for which they conspired with the Romans to have him executed, what would Jesus have to say about this equally self-serving charade.
    A charade which only intends to consolidate their very worldly power and privileges.
    And of course the situation is now muchly worse that in Jesus’s time.
    Because the “catholic” church is very much a key player in applied politics all over the world.
    Remember the statement about how power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely – especially when it is “authorized” via the name of “God”. Such applies to the “catholic” church. Indeed in many countries its political power is given preferential power via the force of law via various legally binding concordats. See
    It is also a truism that in all times and places those who have political power will use whatever means they can to consolidate and protect their political power. The “catholic” church is no exception.

    Do a search on the topic the vatican and world politics

    • Avatar Peter Bowron says:

      Leah, if a concordat is a treaty between the Vatican and a sovereign nation, surely the legislature of that nation can vote to withdraw from the treaty. There may be some repercussions, but I can’t see they can be of any significance. Australia is signatory to many international treaties, some of which it sadly appears to ignore at will. What will the Vatican do – stop exporting priests to us, or excommunicate us as a nation? Stop taking our beef, iron ore and coal? Treaties are tools of state, agreements between nations. If there is no longer agreement, the treaty is broken and a new one is put in place, or not.

  6. Avatar Nicholas Agocs says:

    Even if the local diocesan site is encouraging participation just what action is taken at local parish level?
    What about the “sensus fedei” of all those who still believe but are disillusioned with the Church – how can they make their voices heard? Will the bishops listen?
    What about the “final” say of what will be debated and voted on – this will be retained by the hierarchy ONLY participating in the Plenary Council’s deliberations? Does that mean that Holy Spirit only speaks to the hierarchy?

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