DAVID TIMBS. Archbishop Comensoli needs to cut the ecclesiastical umbilical cord.

Peter A Comensoli has been the Catholic Archbishop of Melbourne for just on a year. So far he has demonstrated very little understanding of the disastrous situation he inherited. Nor has he shown any clear indication of the kind of vision and leadership needed to navigate a way though.

For the twenty year administration of Archbishops George Pell (1996–2001) and Denis Hart (2001–2018) there is no substantive public record of how either of them personally assessed the state of the diocese committed to their care and the pastoral problems they faced. Nor is there a similar record of the pastoral plans they formulated to deal with them. Neither published any annual reports of the diocese for public viewing, and the detailed 5-yearly Quinquennial Reports that they are required to forward to the Holy See have remained ‘top secret’, never to be revealed nor even to find a home in the archdiocesan secret archives.

What we do have is the 1998 Statement of Conclusions prepared by the Australian bishops (including Pell) and several high-level officials of the Holy See which, while purporting to be an accurate account of the state of the Church in Australia, made not a single mention of the clerical child sexual abuse that was then wreaking havoc throughout the nation. In July, 2011, Pell boasted to his fans in Cork, Ireland that:

Let me now explain what I have tried to do in Australia. First of all I had to deal with the abuse scandal and in this I was given some very good advice from a former Supreme Court Judge. He told me that the scandals would bleed us to death year after year unless we took decisive action.. So we did clean it up; we set up an independent commission, we set up a panel to provide counselling and a system to pay compensation — and please God the worst of it is behind us.

While Pell in particular deconstructed the Archdiocese of Melbourne, both he and Hart did everything they could to block and stall the implementation of the diocesan structures for the synodality and co-responsibility recommended by Vatican II. Neither wanted a diocesan pastoral council (recommended but not mandated by Vatican II) nor a diocesan synod (‘Let them flourish with vigour’ said Vatican II), the last being held in 1916!

It was only the 2012 Victorian Parliamentary Inquiry into the Handling of Child Abuse by Religious and other Non-government Organisations that put both Pell and Hart in a position where they had to be accountable: not to their fellow Catholics, but to the State. Neither had been in a hot seat like this before and both emerged from the experience rattled and stunned. From that time, the Catholic Church in Melbourne became publicly and effectively rudderless, adrift, and profoundly demoralised.

When Archbishop Comensoli arrived in Melbourne this time last year, he had a golden opportunity to offer the Catholics of Melbourne a fresh vision and a new start. Through a wise and synodal process he could have devised a plan to turn things around and put the Archdiocese on the path of reform and renewal. But he would first have to distance himself from the flawed clerical culture and dysfunctional governance of his predecessors and embrace the vision of Vatican II with its call for synodality and co-responsibility. He would also need to put an end to the former autocratic, secretive, and closed-circle, clericalist governance of the past, with its ‘‘we have always done it like that’ mentality so strongly denounced by Pope Francis.

The best decision the Archbishop could have made to understand what God was asking of him in his new diocese would have been to immediately establish the first ever Melbourne diocesan pastoral council, enabling him to listen to the collective voice of people who knew the diocese inside out. None of his predecessors had ever established such a council, and he could have shown up front that he really wanted to listen and to learn. Instead, he chose to employ a paid personal policy advisor from ‘out of town’.

He could also have convened a diocesan synod to listen to a broader spectrum of voices, including his priests, religious and laypeople, women and men. Soon to be canonised Blessed John Cardinal Newman insisted that for bishops, listening to the people is not an option, or some sort of concession, or random act of kindness. It is, he said, their duty as their brother. If the Archbishop didn’t want a synod, he could have convened a less canonical diocesan assembly for the same purpose, or even took advantage of the already established deanery structure in the archdiocese to truly engage with and listen to his people.

He could also have requested the Plenary Council organizers to allow him to publish on the Melbourne diocesan website as many as possible (where permission was granted) of the 2440 (791 group and 1649 individual) submissions made by Melbourne Catholics to the Plenary Council, the largest number of any diocese in Australia. That would have provided a wider audience for the views expressed by so many concerned and committed people – not only Catholics, by the way.

In June this year the Archbishop joined the other Australian bishops for their periodic Ad Limina visit ‘to the thresholds of the Apostles’ in Rome, to reaffirm their unity with Pope and to present their comprehensive Quinquennial Reports to the Holy See on the state of the dioceses in their care. In these reports they are required to set out the challenges faced by their particular dioceses, provide details of their pastoral plans and the actions they intend to take to address the challenges. But all these reports are secret. The Faithful of the dioceses have no right to know what their bishops report, even though good governance demands that this prevailing culture and cult of secrecy must end. Accountable and transparent behaviours are not courtesies; they are necessities that have to be obvious to all, especially in a community of Faith.

Plenary Council

There is a growing suspicion among many Australian Catholics that the preparations for the 2020/21 Plenary are being micro-managed by a group within the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference who appear determined to ‘dumb down’ the Council’s agenda. This is now showing up in the second stage of the Council’s consultation and discernment process.

A friend recently recounted the experience he and his wife recently had at a parish gathering:

We attended a second round Plenary meeting on Saturday. Very small number there. The guy running it seemed a good enough bloke, but we came away with the feeling we had been patted down. We were asked to put aside thinking and attend to how we feel. It was good to spend some time in prayer and assuming the mantle of humility, but I had the uneasy feeling the powers that be were trying to quieten us down. Something like ‘there…there… just the positive please’. I might be totally misreading this, but my wife had a similar feeling. A long way from ‘speaking boldly of your truth’. I guess there has to be a balance, but if the rage isn’t maintained and expressed….
 We were told that something like this would be a Christ-centred response to our concerns. I asked if there had been a survey taken of which bishops were open to the voice of the People of God, since they would be making this Christ-centred response. With types like Archbishops N and N, it sounds awfully like business as usual. The old 11th commandment might be something to hang on to: ‘Expect nothing and you will never be disappointed’.

If such a perception is widespread there should be great concern. The fragile remaining hope of many Catholics for an open, reform minded Plenary must not be allowed to be dashed.

It is still not too late for Archbishop Comensoli to begin listening and listening closely, to the concerns of the Faithful of his diocese. But to do this, he must immediately put in place the essential structures. As Pope Francis has pointed out, a bishop must have ‘a desire to listen to everyone and not simply to those who would tell him what he would like to hear’. Nor is he entitled to say ‘We have always done it this way’, for that signals ‘business as usual’ and most Catholics know where that has landed the Church in this nation.

Now is the time for synodality: ‘not some of the bishops meeting some of the time, but all of the people meeting all of the time’. If Archbishop Comensoli wants to rethink the goals, structures and methods of evangelization for the Archdiocese of Melbourne, he needs to be bold and creative, but he has to do it as part of a communal search. If he thinks he can do it otherwise, ‘it will inevitably’, says Pope Francis ‘prove illusory’.

Immediately following his June meeting with Pope Francis, Archbishop Peter tweeted: ‘Wow!’ The Pope had engaged him and his fellow bishops in a real conversation that was ‘spiritually intense, deeply honest, pastorally astute, free and frank’. Perhaps is it not too late yet for Archbishop Comensoli to follow the example of Francis and have a real conversation with his own people that is spiritually intense, deeply honest, pastorally astute, free and frank. They, too, may even find themselves being wowed.

David Timbs is a member of Catholics for Renewal and writes from Melbourne.


David Timbs is a member of Catholics for Renewal and writes from Melbourne.

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8 Responses to DAVID TIMBS. Archbishop Comensoli needs to cut the ecclesiastical umbilical cord.

  1. Avatar Tony Hamilton says:

    Reading David’s analysis and the comments,
    I am so sad for my church,
    along with Himself, looking down on His beloved Jerusalem:
    “and Jesus wept”.
    But (I think Gough W) said,
    “maintain the rage”. Keep up the pressure on Commensoli et al

  2. Avatar Stefan Gigacz says:

    One important thing Archbishop Comensoli (and the Vatican) could do is to break Melbourne up into smaller dioceses. With Melbourne expected to reach 8 million by 2050 not to mention Geelong being included, it is just ridiculous that this has not happened sooner – particularly since Vatican II specifically called for more human-sized and manageable dioceses. For positive examples, just look at how Broken Bay and Parramatta have blossomed over recent years.

  3. Avatar Garry Everett says:

    Commensoli said he believes both the victim and Pell. Joh Bjelke Petersen called this “straddling a barb wire fence”. The bishop was singularly un-convincing on this issue as he is on all the issues you mention, David
    I understand the fears that people have that the Plenary Council is already being corroded. The process has lacked transparency and accountability.
    However, we must all try to make the best efforts to save it. If we cannot, then we are free to disown the outcomes and to voice our concerns about the future.
    The Church is at the crossroads in Australia, and a failed Council, in the eyes of the laity, will probably be its death knell.

  4. Avatar Peter Johnstone says:

    Thanks, David, for encouraging Archbishop Comensoli to lead while highlighting the unChristlike secrecy and autocracy of Church decision-making – Comensoli could show the way for real Church renewal if he is inclined to break out of the mould. It is notable that Vatican II’s support for diocesan pastoral councils and diocesan synods is actually reinforced in Canon Law, yet still bishops ignore such provisions. Good leaders have the courage and common sense to listen to the people they are privileged to lead; poor leaders resort to arrogance with secretive exercises of authority without the benefit of their people’s wisdom. Regrettably, Church structures permit and promote poor leadership by not requiring accountability. Worse, the Australian Plenary Council 2020/21 preparations show little sign of concern for the sense of faith of the faithful: to receive submissions secretly is a denial of basic good process; for diocesan bishops to fail to consult directly with their people is business as usual; both are an insult to the faithful. Let’s pray that Archbishop Comensoli has the humility to take up the challenge for truly Christian change.

    • Avatar Rosemary O'Grady says:

      When I spoke with co-organizer Mark Metherell following a prompt from these pages I was met with a sharp: What’s Your Point?
      How to Win Friends and Influence People? Plus ca change – c’est le meme…

  5. Avatar Trish Martin says:

    David, what you have articulated is the result of a self referential, self serving and flawed Church system being left without challenge for centuries. Thank God for the Royal Commission because the sad fact is that the faithful have been deceived whilst children have been left open to abuse by men who live double lives (anointed for Christ on the one hand whilst being emotionally infantile on the other).
    The system is designed so that evil can flourishe whilst good men do nothing to stop it. The faithful whose children’s lives have been destroyed can do nothing to change the system and if you are female then you are not even allowed inside the system in order to change it for the better. David if Archbishop Peter Comensoli reads your last paragraph and takes up your suggestion then there may be reason to hope for change.

  6. Avatar Vincent Mahon says:

    Archbishop Comensoli is a Pell acolyte. He owes his rapid rise to the patronage of Pell. Pell is gone but his modus operandi continues by his disciples.

  7. Avatar Pierre Louys says:

    I concur with the observation made about the plenary council being micromanaged by a few
    I submitted my application to be part of the discernment groups and was promptly dismissed, I think my radical views might be the reason for this

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