27 March 2023, The Tablet

Synod demands 'non-defensive' listening says archbishop

“We are listening not to see whether or not people have understood the right things but where people are at.”

Synod demands 'non-defensive' listening says archbishop

Archbishop of Perth Timothy Costelloe
YouTube screenshot

The Archbishop of Perth, a leading figure in the Church’s synod process, is urging bishops to listen in a “non-defensive way” and has rejected the criticisms of the synod by his late compatriot Cardinal George Pell.

Archbishop Tim Costelloe, the president of the Australian bishops’ conference, said that the synod required church leaders to understand “where people are” and to find ways of sharing the message of the Gospel with the contemporary world. 

“We are listening not to see whether or not people have understood the right things but where people are at. I think that’s been very important,” he said.

“It’s been very important that the bishops are genuinely listening, and listening respectfully and listening in a non-defensive way. Because otherwise, how can we respond if we don’t really understand the situation.”  


Timothy Costelloe is the Archbishop of Perth, the president of the Australian bishops’ conference and part of the team preparing the global synod summit. As a senior figure in the Australian Catholic Church, he has been deeply involved in synodality, and what it means for the Church. An expert listener, he is an example of a bishop who adopts and lives the synod style of the Church.

In this episode, Archbishop Tim explains to The Tablet’s Rome correspondent Christopher Lamb how the synod process can revitalise the Church globally and in Australia, but that it is not something that is going to happen overnight.


The archbishop has emerged as a leading figure in the church’s synodal reform process in Australia and globally. He was part of the Frascati team that synthesised the worldwide synodal dialogues and was recently appointed to the planning committee organising the synod assembly in October.

He was also president of the plenary council in Australia, a national synodal process that laid out a blueprint for renewal and whose final decrees await Rome’s approval. 

Speaking to the “Church’s Radical Reform” podcast, the archbishop also responded to Cardinal Pell’s attack on the synod, which the late Australian prelate described as a “toxic nightmare” in an article published posthumously in The Spectator

“I don’t think it is a nightmare,” Archbishop Costelloe said. “I think it is a fantastic opportunity for the Church. I think it is full of promise for us.” 

He added: “It is inviting us to remember who is at the heart of the Church. It’s not me and my opinions or me and my certainties. It is Christ who is at the heart of the Church – the Spirit guides the Church.”

Cardinal Pell was appointed by the Pope to reform Vatican finances and to serve on his council of cardinal advisers. His legacy continues to influence the Australian Church and the English-speaking Catholic world.

But after his death in January 2023, it was revealed Pell had written an article attacking the synod and was also responsible for an anonymous memo describing the Francis papacy as a “catastrophe”. 

By contrast, Archbishop Costelloe insisted Francis was challenging the Church to adopt a more Christ-like, pastoral approach. He said the opposition that Francis faced was “distressing” and drew parallels with the Pope’s critics and the religious authorities who attacked Jesus. 

“We have to model ourselves on the pastoral methodology of Jesus. At its heart it is to meet a person where they are, and respond to them where they are with openness, and with warmth, and with generosity and with hospitality and then hopefully accompany the journey,” the archbishop said. 

“I think that’s Pope Francis's gift to us…he’s asking us to make Jesus our model in the way we encounter with people.”

Archbishop Costelloe also emphasised the importance of listening and respecting those “fearful” of the synod.

He said that contested topics – from the role of women to LGBTQ Catholics – must be addressed through the synod’s listening and discernment process. 

“My understanding of Pope Francis’ ministry so far in the Church is precisely to invite the Church to recognise these realities – the question of women, for example, the LGBTQI+ question but many others as well– and say ‘okay, how do we deal with these very pressing questions in the light of the Gospels and in the light of the ongoing presence of the Spirit throughout the 2,000 years of the Church’s history,” said. 

Archbishop Costelloe is a Salesian, a religious order that strongly emphasises education and works closely with young people. He said the disconnect between the institutional church and younger generations was repeatedly raised in the synod discussions and said it was time for the Church to consider a “preferential option for the young.”

He noted that Catholicism “runs the risk sometimes as being understood as a religion of rules and regulations” and while rules are necessary, “they will make no sense to anybody unless there is a spirituality behind them”.

The archbishop said it was necessary to underline that the Catholic faith is built on relationships.


The “Church’s Radical Reform” podcast series is sponsored by the Centre for Catholic Studies at the University of Durham.  

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