As Australian Catholics prepare for an historic plenary council assembly in October, a leading churchman says there’s “unprecedented momentum for deep reform”.
The Bishop of Parramatta, Vincent Long, a Vietnamese-born former boat refugee and a survivor of clergy sexual abuse, has called for the elimination of clericalism and for more women to be given roles in church governance and decision-making.
“For the Church to flourish, it is crucial that we come to terms with the flaws of clericalism and move beyond its patriarchal and monarchical matrix,” Bishop Long said, delivering the prestigious Dom Helder Camara Lectureat the Univeristy of Melbourne’s Newman College.
“There is a sense in which the Church must change into a more Christ-like pattern of humility, simplicity and powerlessness as opposed to worldly triumphalism, splendour, dominance and power.
“What is urgent is that we need to find fresh ways of being Church and fresh ways of ministry and service for both men and women disciples. New wine into new wineskins.”
The tone for sweeping Church reform in Australia was set in 2016 when the President of the Australian Catholic Bishops’ Conference, Brisbane Archbishop Mark Coleridge proposed a Plenary Council as a way to discuss “the critical issues of the times”.
Archbishop Coleridge singled out dwindling Mass attendances, a decline in vocations to the priesthood and religious life, and most critically, the damaging public fallout of a royal commission into child sexual abuse that uncovered widespread historical abuse by Catholic priests.
Mass attendances were down to below 10 per cent in about half of Australia’s dioceses with the age profile of attendees older, and with a doubling of those born in non-English-speaking countries.
At the time Archbishop Coleridge said bishops had agreed a plenary council was needed because “we are at a time of profound cultural change. Not only in the wider community, but in the Church.”
“I think we have to accept the fact that Christendom is over – by which I mean mass, civic Christianity. It’s over. Now, how do we deal with that fact?” Archbishop Coleridge said.
Bishop Long picked up on the critical issue of restoring “trust in the Church” as he delivered the Dom Helder Camara Lecture on June 30.
“Yes, it is true that we have been humbled and reduced to near irrelevancy by the sexual abuse crisis,” he said. “The Royal Commission, though being the lightning rod, has also served as a necessary wake-up call for Australian Catholics.
“Indeed, no other country in the world has conducted a similar national inquiry, which is as comprehensive in its scope as ours.
“This has brought about a heightened level of consciousness and an unprecedented momentum for deep reform.
“Could we be a leading light in the struggle for a more fit-for-purpose Church in this place and in this time? Could Australian Catholics rise to the challenge and co-create the synodal Church that Pope Francis has envisaged?
“Unless we genuinely repent of institutional failures and unless we convert to the radical vision of Christ and let it imbue our attitudes, actions and pastoral practices, we will not be able to restore confidence and trust in the Church.”
Australia’s last Plenary was held in 1937, with only bishops, theologians and superiors of male religious orders attending.
The 2021 version of the plenary council – only the fifth time such a meeting has been held in Australia – will include women, religious and lay people and will have authority (subject to approval by the Holy See) to issue particular laws for the Church in Australia.
A total of 282 members from across Australia will participate in the first of two plenary council assemblies from October 3-10. Due to Covid-19 travel restrictions it will take place in five city hubs linked by videoconferencing. A second assembly is scheduled for Sydney in July 2022.
Although planning was disrupted by the pandemic, nearly 220,000 Australians participated in the initial “listening” phase of the plenary council, and church organisers received 17,500 individual and group submissions addressing the central question: “What do you think God is asking of us in Australia at this time?”
Celibacy for priests, the role of women and the inclusion of divorced and remarried Catholics were among “strongly discussed” topics contained in the plenary council’s 2019 report “Listen to what the Spirit is saying” based on the submissions.
The 314-page report identified that it was “critical” for the Church “to humble itself in the light of the sexual abuse crisis, and for more to be done to offer healing and restoration to those affected”.
Other key topics discussed were ways to empower youth to take leadership roles in the Church, the need for greater engagement with indigenous Australians, greater inclusion of ethnic and migrant communities, a call for greater evangelisation within the Catholic community, clearer and greater faith formation and greater engagement with Catholic schools and staff.