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.
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.