All we want for Christmas is bishops who listen and act

Dec 29, 2018

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.

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