General Interest


Pope Francis has never visited Australia nor spoken directly to the Church in Australia. He did quote the Australian Catholic Bishops’ Conference [ACBC] on two occasions. Once in Laudato Si’[1], “The Australian bishops spoke of the importance of such conversion for achieving reconciliation with creation: “To achieve such reconciliation, we must examine our lives and acknowledge the ways in which we have harmed God’s creation through our actions and our failure to act. We need to experience a conversion, or change of heart.”[2] And again in Amoris Laetitia[3]when he referred to a child’s “need and natural right to have a mother and father”.[4]

Francis is popular in Australia. Even taxi drivers tell me that “they like my Pope”. His pastoral approach and emphasis on: a joyful mission, a warm and beautiful church, a missionary and merciful church, a poor church with and for the poor and a discerning, pilgrim church is both popular and enabling with most Australian Catholics. He comes across as a Pope who is a practical pastor and who is genuinely concerned about us. A Pope who wants to talk with us rather than tell us what to do. That is popular with Australians who value equality and like religion “with its sleeves rolled up”.

Rather than indulge in a theoretical discussion on how the many things Francis has said could be applied in Australia, I thought it would be best to start from the reality of the Church in Australia and see what Francis might contribute.

“The biggest crisis in our history”

Speaking to The Tablet,[5] Archbishop Mark Coleridge, Archbishop of Brisbane and Vice President of the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference, claimed that the Church in Australia “is facing the biggest crisis in its history”. This is largely caused by the Australian Government’s Royal Commission into Institutional Responses into Child Sexual Abuse. The Commission began in 2013 and presented its final report on 15th December 2017. The process and report have been damning for the Church. Part of the Bishops’ response has been to call a Plenary Council of all the Dioceses in Australia for 2020. But as Archbishop Coleridge said the Plenary Council is meant not only to review the findings of the Royal Commission but also “to undertake a broad review of the Church’s mission, including how to give more responsibility to lay people. One major criticism of the Australian Church has been of the institutionalised clericalism within its ranks. Another topic to be discussed at the plenary council is how to involve women in the running of the Church”.[6]

That quote from Archbishop Coleridge sums up the major issues I would like to discuss in this article: the changes demanded by sexual abuse crisis, the importance of the Plenary Council 2020 and of growing a synodal church, the challenge of clericalism, and the need for increased involvement of laity, especially women, in ministry and governance, the need to learn from the poor and finally the need for transformation rather than just reformation.

I. Royal Commission into Institutional Responses into Child Sexual Abuse

Following on inquiries in Victoria and New South Wales and growing complaints about sexual abuse by institutions, including churches, in November 2012, Prime Minster Julia Gillard announced a Royal Commission into Institutional Responses into Child Sexual Abuse. The six commissioners met for five years and held 57 case studies during which it heard evidence about child sexual abuse within institutions, from 1,300 witnesses over 400 days of hearings. They also heard almost 8,000 survivors in private sessions. Their final report runs to 17 volumes and one of those volumes includes a major part devoted to the Catholic Church.

It was a deeply humbling experience for the church because a large percentage of the allegations investigated by the Commission involved Catholic Institutions. In the Preface and Executive Report, the Commissioners say, “As at 31 May 2017 we had heard from 6,875 survivors in private sessions, of whom 4,029 (58.6 per cent) told us about child sexual abuse in religious institutions. The largest proportion of these survivors spoke to us about child sexual abuse in Catholic institutions. We heard from 2,489 survivors about child sexual abuse in Catholic institutions, representing almost two-thirds (61.8 per cent) of survivors who told us about child sexual abuse in religious institutions and more than one-third (36.2 per cent) of all survivors we heard from in private sessions. In private sessions we heard about child sexual abuse occurring in 964 different Catholic institutions.”[7] 37 percent of all known alleged perpetrators were non-ordained religious; 30 percent were priests and 29 percent were laypeople. The report also states, “Of all Catholic priests included in the survey who ministered between 1950 and 2010, taking into account the duration of ministry, 7 per cent were alleged perpetrators.”[8]

These are frightening statistics for disciples of Jesus who said, “Suffer the little children to come unto me.” (Matt 19:14). Children were sexually abused by adults who should have cared for them. Victims were not believed and crimes were covered up and not reported to protect the reputation of the Church.

Report specifically on the Catholic Church

In Volume 16, one third of which is devoted to the Catholic Church, the Commissioners state, “Our inquiry revealed numerous cases where senior officials of the Catholic Church authorities knew about allegations of child sexual abuse in Catholic Institutions and failed to take effective action.” Several Bishops were called to give evidence and admitted to the Church’s lack of leadership and responsibility. Archbishop Costelloe [Perth] described it as a “catastrophic failure of leadership” and Archbishop Fisher [Sydney] as “criminal negligence” and the Archbishops of Adelaide and Melbourne agreed. Archbishop Coleridge [Brisbane] went further, “It strikes me that the failure, which was colossal, was in some ways a colossal failure of culture”.[9]

That was one of the major questions the Commissioners were interested in. Why were there so many cases of abuse in the Catholic Church. Was it the culture, the structures, governance and leadership, processes, style of formation, etc.?

In their Final Report they made 21 recommendations explicitly about the Catholic Church. The most important for the purposes of this article are:

That the ACBC [Australian Catholic Bishops Conference] “conduct a national review of the governance and management structures of dioceses and parishes, including in relation to issues of transparency, accountability, consultation and participation of lay men and women”. (Recommendation 16.7).

That the ACBC request the Holy See to “publish criteria for the selection of bishops” and “establish a transparent process for appointing bishops which includes the direct participation of lay people”. (Recommendation 16.8)

That the ACBC “request the Holy See to amend canon law so that the pontifical secret does not apply to any aspect of allegations or canonical disciplinary processes relating to child sexual abuse.” (Recommendation 16.10)

That the ACBC “should request the Holy See to consider introducing voluntary celibacy for diocesan clergy.” (Recommendation 16.18)

“In order to promote healthy lives for those who choose to be celibate, the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference and all Catholic religious institutes in Australia should further develop, regularly evaluate and continually improve, their processes for selecting, screening and training of candidates for the clergy and religious life, and their processes of ongoing formation, support and supervision of clergy and religious.” (Recommendation 16.20)

That all people in religious or pastoral ministry (bishops, provincials, clergy, religious, and lay professionals) should “undertake mandatory, regular professional development”, “undertake mandatory professional/pastoral supervision” and “undergo regular performance appraisals”. (Recommendation 16.25)

Finally, they questioned “the seal of confession”. (Recommendation 16.26)

Predictably, the media has focussed on the issues of voluntary celibacy and the seal of confession, but as Francis Sullivan, Chief Executive Officer of the Church’s Truth, Justice and Healing Council (TJHC), said in the National Catholic Reporter, “recommendations that deal with broader concerns around church governance and the mutual participation of women. If these recommendations are fully implemented, the ramifications will be far more significant than the suggestions around celibacy and the confessional. So, too, the commission's recommendations dealing with seminary training, quality of candidates and the professional supervision of priests and religious. If implemented, these suggestions stand a real chance of changing the very nature of the church in Australia”[10]

These are the issues on which Pope Francis’ vision of a synodal, servant church can help. He also has much to say about the dangers of clericalism. That was a strong theme in the Royal Commission’s Final Report, “Clericalism is at the centre of a tightly interconnected cluster of contributing factors. Clericalism is the idealisation of the priesthood, and by extension, the idealisation of the Catholic Church. Clericalism is linked to a sense of entitlement, superiority and exclusion, and abuse of power.

‘Clericalism nurtured ideas that the Catholic Church was autonomous and self-sufficient, and promoted the idea that child sexual abuse by clergy and religious was a matter to be dealt with internally and in secret.

‘The theological notion that the priest undergoes an ‘ontological change’ at ordination, so that he is different to ordinary human beings and permanently a priest, is a dangerous component of the culture of clericalism. The notion that the priest is a sacred person contributed to exaggerated levels of unregulated power and trust which perpetrators of child sexual abuse were able to exploit.”[11]

How Pope Francis can help the Church in Australia win back credibility

Interestingly, Pope Francis can help us greatly but not so much directly. His credibility on handling the issue of sexual abuse is not high in Australia. He can help us, however, on the questions of the culture of the church, of building a synodal, participatory church where all clergy and lay can “walk together”, he can help us with the dangers of clericalism, with building a servant church, with learning to dialogue with our secular brothers and sisters, and in his understanding of mercy he may give us a healthy launch pad for mission in Australia.

Pope Francis and the issue of sexual abuse

This is one of the few issues on which Francis does not enjoy universal respect and admiration in Australia. For many it is still an open question as to whether he full appreciates the gravity and the implications for the survivors.[12] This was highlighted by the Pope’s recent visit to Chile. People appreciate his strong statement, that there is no place in the life of the Church for those who would abuse children and that we must adhere to zero tolerance for these crimes and his meeting with survivors.

They do not understand his strong and seemingly excessive rejection of the survivors’ allegations about Bishop Barras. Questioned by journalists on January 18, 2017, Pope Francis said: “The day they bring me proof against the bishop, then I will speak. There is not a single proof against him. This is calumny! Is that clear?” The next day, Cardinal Sean O’Malley publicly corrected the pope’s words, "It is understandable that Pope Francis’ statements yesterday in Santiago, Chile were a source of great pain for survivors of sexual abuse by clergy or any other perpetrator. Words that convey the message ‘if you cannot prove your claims then you will not be believed’ abandon those who have suffered reprehensible criminal violations of their human dignity and relegate survivors to discredited exile.”[13] It is often not possible for victims to produce evidence of crimes committed in secret. It usually comes down to whether you believe them and that is what they want above all. Thomas Reese summarised the dilemma well in his column in the National Catholic Reporter. “I would argue that both Barros and the victims deserve their day in court, both in civil court and in ecclesiastical court. Francis is not helping by throwing around accusations of slander and calumny. It is wrong to declare, before the process is completed, that he is convinced the bishop is innocent and his accusers are lying. The fundamental problem is that the church has no process for judging bishops that is transparent and has legitimacy with the public. The bishop may or may not be innocent, but no one will trust a secret process that involves clerics investigating clerics, clerics judging clerics.”[14]

Fortunately, Pope Francis has now sent Archbishop Scicluna to Chile to listen to the survivors and gather evidence, because as Reese has said and the experience in Australia has shown, it is critical that Church authorities listen to all before making judgements and that our processes are open, transparent and sympathetic. The Gospel demands that, and we do not have the moral authority any more to do anything less.[15]

Having known mercy, we may be better able to show it

Although we may be in the middle of “the biggest crisis in our history” and our credibility is seriously compromised this crisis may provide a more Gospel like and healthier launching pad for mission. As Bishop Vincent Long van Nguyen [Parramatta] said, “A healthier Church is not possible until its leaders have reclaimed the core Gospel values of powerlessness, vulnerability and servant leadership. These are not just private virtues but the antidote to the disease of clericalism. Much that is unhealthy with the Church today stems from the travesty of Christian leadership and service.”[16]

Pope Francis has frequently reminded us of our vocation to “warm hearts and heal wounds” to be a “field hospital after battle”. And many of us have been inspired by this call. However, we need to remember that in the Gospels it is only people who have received mercy who can show it. When Francis was asked by Antonio Spadaro, “Who is Jorge Bergoglio?” He replied, “I am a sinner whom the Lord has looked upon.” And he repeats: “I ??am one who is looked upon by the Lord. I always felt my motto, Miserando atque Eligendo [By Having Mercy and by Choosing Him], was very true for me.”[17] It is the experience of God’s mercy that is the source of his spirituality, his joy, his vision, his mission and his effectiveness. It sets him free from sin, sorrow, inner emptiness and loneliness and makes him look like a redeemed and happy man.

When we Christians talk about mercy, we normally presume that we will be the ones showing mercy. But because of the sexual abuse crisis, we are the ones who need mercy and forgiveness. We cannot demand it. We must wait to be forgiven and some victims may never be able to do that. However, the sexual abuse crisis may force us to be humble, silent and human. We have been taken down from the pedestal and freed from perfection and power, to know shame, to feel powerlessness and to share the anxieties, struggles and “sins” of our brothers and sisters. We are called to live in humble solidarity with those to whom we are missioned. Having needed and received mercy we may be better able to show it. And having known sin we know the need for conversion, for salvation and for God and others.

Perfect people, looking down from pedestals, are rarely able to convincingly “heal wounds and warm hearts”. A more “sinful” church may be a more convincing church, less self-sufficient, arrogant and closed to both God and others. We may be better able to be “a place of mercy freely given, where everyone can feel welcomed, loved and encouraged to love the good life of the Gospel.”[18] We may also be a more credible witness, “The Church’s very credibility is seen in how she shows merciful and compassionate love.”

II. Plenary Council 2020

At their May meeting in 2016 the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference called a Plenary Council for the Church in Australia. This will be the first Plenary Council of the Australian Dioceses since 1937 and only the fifth in our history. The Chairman of the Bishops’ Commission for the Plenary Council and the key instigator of the Council is Archbishop Mark Coleridge. According to the ACBC News Release, Archbishop Coleridge said, “For the Church this is certainly not the time to go on as if nothing had happened, and if any proof were still needed, the Royal Commission has given it. We have to deal with the facts, and in light of the facts – which are not always pleasant – make important decisions for our future.” 

Archbishop Coleridge explained: “It was in listening to the Pope’s speech on synodality in the Church, on the morning of 17 October,” he said, “that I began to realize, in a clear and powerful way, that the time had arrived for the Australian Church.” And, the method should be the same: “I hope that the agenda of our Plenary Council,” continues Coleridge, “will be the result of genuine consultation within the Church, to be held between now and 2020. Anyone who wants to can have a say, as it was for the Synod in Rome.”[19]

But although discussion of the Royal Commission’s Final Report will naturally be an important part of the Plenary Council, the Council will be much wider. We need to plan for a more missionary future for the Church in Australia. We face many issues: how to give more responsibility to lay people; how to give women a major role in the ministry and leadership of the Church; institutionalised clericalism; how to be a poor church for the poor, how to be missionary in a secular and plural society, one that speaks convincingly of the Gospel; the dramatic drop in Mass attendance especially by the young; the shortage of priests and religious.

It is important the Plenary Council be a faith process, that we must “listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches” Revelation 2:7; 2:11; 2:17; 2:29; 3:6; 3:13; 3: 22. Recently “Listen to what the Spirit is saying” has been adopted as the official motto of the Plenary Council. And the key question being posed to all the faithful is “What do you think God is asking of us in Australia at this time?” As Massimo Faggioli has pointed out, “This could be a kairos, critically opportune and decisive moment for the church in Australia, on the condition that Catholics don’t think about it in purely legal and political terms.”[20]

So few synods?

Even though Vatican II encouraged collegiality and in Vatican II’s Decree Concerning
the Pastoral Office of Bishops in the Church even desired, “that the venerable institution of synods and councils flourish with fresh vigour.”[21] There have been relatively few synods and almost no plenary councils throughout the world. Our Plenary Council will be the first in Australia in over eighty years and it will be one of the first in the world since the Council. Only five Australian Bishops have called Diocesan Synods since 1965.

Talk on the 50th anniversary of the Synod

In his Talk on the 50th anniversary of the Synod Francis spoke of the need for all Pope, Bishops, pastors and people to listen to one another and journey together. He even went so far as to say, “It is precisely this path of synodality which God expects of the Church of the third millennium.”[22] In this, Francis returns to a major insight of Lumen Gentium that the most fundamental Christian calling is baptism and that all the baptised share in Christ’s prophetic, priestly and kingly offices.[23]

“In the Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, I emphasized that “the people of God is holy thanks to this anointing, which makes it infallible in credendo”, (EG 119) and added that “all the baptized, whatever their position in the Church or their level of instruction in the faith, are agents of evangelization, and it would be insufficient to envisage a plan of evangelization to be carried out by professionals while the rest of the faithful would simply be passive recipients”. (EG 120) “The sensus fidei avoids a rigid separation between an Ecclesia docens and an Ecclesia discens, since the flock likewise has an instinctive ability to discern the new ways that the Lord is revealing to the Church.”[24]

Bishop Bill Morris, the former Bishop of Toowoomba, commenting on “Cardinal Newman” has said, “It must be a ‘breathing together’ of the faithful and their pastors, a cooperative venture. The teaching Church, before teaching, must discover what the believing Church really believes, so that the believing Church ‘recognises’ as authentic that which is presented to it as doctrine. When the believing Church does not recognise teaching it is clear the necessary breathing together has not happened.”[25]

Why we must listen to the sensus fidelium

Australian theologian, Ormond Rush, commenting on Pope Francis claims, “the sensus fidelium must be listened to because it is a locus theologicus, a place where the revealing God can be heard speaking to the church today. Why listen to the sensus fidelium? – “to find out what the Lord asks of his Church today.”[26] The hierarchy have no exclusive access to that ongoing dialogue with God: “’Let us trust in our People, in their memory and in their ‘sense of smell,’ let us trust that the Holy Spirit acts in and with our People and that this Spirit is not merely the ‘property’ of the ecclesial hierarchy’.”[27] “In other words, the Church needs to be synodal so that it can listen to God communicating at this time in history, in Christ through the Spirit…. But the Church listens to the Spirit when we all listen to one another.”[28]

Pope Francis’ vision for the Church in Australia is, “A synodal Church is a Church which listens, which realizes that listening “is more than simply hearing”.12 It is a mutual listening in which everyone has something to learn. The faithful people, the college of bishops, the Bishop of Rome: all listening to each other, and all listening to the Holy Spirit, the “Spirit of truth” (Jn 14:17), in order to know what he “says to the Churches” (Rev2:7).”[29]

“Journeying together”

He goes on to say, “Synodality, as a constitutive element of the Church, offers us the most appropriate interpretive framework for understanding the hierarchical ministry itself. If we understand, as Saint John Chrysostom says, that “Church and Synod are synonymous”, inasmuch as the Church is nothing other than the “journeying together” of God’s flock along the paths of history towards the encounter with Christ the Lord, then we understand too that, within the Church, no one can be “raised up” higher than others. On the contrary, in the Church, it is necessary that each person “lower” himself or herself, so as to serve our brothers and sisters along the way.

‘Jesus founded the Church by setting at her head the Apostolic College, in which the Apostle Peter is the “rock” (cf. Mt 16:18), the one who must confirm his brethren in the faith (cf. Lk 22:32). But in this Church, as in an inverted pyramid, the top is located beneath the base.”[30]

This will be a huge task. It will require conversion of all. For the bishops and priests to listen and for the laity to learn to speak up. These are skills that are not common because of a history of obeying and not deciding for yourself.

A standard lifted high

“A synodal Church is like a standard lifted up among the nations (cf. Is 11:12) in a world which — while calling for participation, solidarity and transparency in public administration — often consigns the fate of entire peoples to the grasp of small but powerful groups. As a Church which “journeys together” with men and women, sharing the travails of history, let us cherish the dream that a rediscovery of the inviolable dignity of peoples and of the function of authority as service will also be able to help civil society to be built up in justice and fraternity, and thus bring about a more beautiful and humane world for coming generations.”[31] This is a strong, challenging and yet somewhat ironic statement for the Church in Australia. Given our history, especially in sexual abuse and the handling of allegations, we could hardly be described as a “standard lifted up”. If anything, we must be humble enough to admit that we have much to learn about participation, accountability and transparency from the secular world. But we must not give up on our hope that we may become a standard among the nations.

Francis’ practice of synodality

Pope Francis is an unusual Pope who is bringing real change to the church by encouraging open discussion and refusing to silence dissent. In fact, he has said, “Open and fraternal debate makes theological and pastoral thought grow…. That doesn’t frighten me. What’s more, I look for it.”[32] Many people would like to see him clarify matters and crackdown on dissent but Francis is patient and wants people to speak their minds because he believes in a synodal church. He trusts that the Holy Spirit will guide us in the right direction.

Pope Francis talking to the Bishops before the first session of the Synod on the Family told them, “You need to say all that you feel with parrhesia” [boldly, candidly and without fear]. “And at the same time, you should listen with humility and accept with an open heart what your brothers say.”

Parrhesia or speaking boldly, listening humbly and always with an open trusting heart is Francis’ prescription for synodality and discernment. Francis is not in a hurry. For him initiating processes is more important than forcing or arriving at quick decisions.

At the Synod on the Family, the Pope invited the bishops to speak up even if they thought he might not want to hear what they had to say. We are invited to speak boldly even if it may seem to be something the Bishops and priests might not want to hear.

This is a new approach to what it means to be church. Lay people have not always been encouraged to speak up and we clergy have not always appreciated our responsibility to invite the “sensus fidelium” and to listen humbly. We all have much to learn and it may be a messy and hurtful in the process.

Francis is a humble but confident pope. He models the virtues which he attributes to Mary. “In her we see that humility and tenderness are not virtues of the weak but of the strong who need not treat others poorly to feel important themselves.” (EG 288) Humble confidence frees him in his exercise of power. He does not feel that he must control everything. He wants to promote “sound decentralization”. He encourages local Bishops (EG 16) and Episcopal Conferences (EG 32) and is open to conversion of the papacy (EG 32) Hope and energy are in short supply so humility and confidence are virtues the Churches in Australia badly need.

The Program for the Plenary Council 2020

The preparations for the Plenary Council are under way. A Bishops’ Commission, an Executive Committee and a Facilitator and Facilitation Team have been appointed. At their November 2017 meeting the Australian Bishops decided that the Plenary Council will be held in two sessions, one in October 2020 around the tenth anniversary of St. Mary Mackillop’s canonisation and the second in May 2021. One of these sessions will be held in Central Australia and the other in one of the major cities on the East Coast.[33]

Right now, the Facilitation Team and the Executive Council are preparing a website, social media access, a Plenary Council logo and prayer, a survey [online and on paper] and other instruments to ensure that all Catholics can participate in as full, free and productive a way as possible. Meanwhile, the Bishops are to appoint working groups to ensure that the people in their dioceses, parishes, schools, health care and social welfare facilities can contribute.

The official launch will be on Pentecost Sunday 2018. That will begin a year of consultation through diocesan and parish meetings, family conversations, facilitated community discussions, meetings in schools, health care and social welfare agencies, with aboriginal groups, the poor, listening sessions with the bishops and so forth. There will also be consultation and reporting back through the website and discussion through social media. The hope is that many Catholics, active and disaffected, will take the opportunity to help plan the future of our Australian Church.

After Easter 2019 the feedback will be reviewed and consolidated in the hope of beginning a second phase of consultation and prayerful discernment after Pentecost 2019.

Early in 2020 the main issues and directions should be clearer and we can prepare documents, merciful and inspiring ones along the lines of the Vatican II documents. These can then be shared and attract feedback and discernment before the October 2020 first Session. They may also be accompanied by legislation to ensure they are implemented.

Attendance at the Plenary Council

According to Canon Law, all the active bishops, vicars general, episcopal vicars, representatives of major superiors, rectors of ecclesiastical universities, rectors of major seminaries (Canon 443) must attend the Plenary Council. It is also hoped to have many lay people, priests and religious present. Bishops have a deliberative vote and others a consultative vote. This distinction in voting rights will be a challenge as Australians are by history and culture committed to democracy and many may initially be alienated, feeling that what is the use if the bishops are the only ones who can decide in the end. That emphasises the need for all, especially the bishops, to listen and to reflect deeply on what the lay people and others are saying through the eighteen months of sharing, listening and discernment. As Archbishop Coleridge is fond of saying the Plenary Council does not begin when the delegates gather but has already begun.

Then, as with Pope Francis’ recent two Synods on the Family, the results of the first session will be published and open for consultation in the seven months of prayerful deepening before the final session where the bishops, having listened to the Australian church, will finalise the documents, any necessary legislation and a record of the discussions to be submitted to the Pope for approval.

Because this is meant to be an open consultation where “everything is on the table” it is difficult to say at this stage what the major themes will be and what legislation will be required. But one thing is clear, whatever legislation is required, our bigger need is to talk to and appreciate one another. There is a certain amount of fatigue in the church these days that no law will resolve. We need to rediscover the Spirit in the church and among ourselves.

Challenges in preparing and celebrating the Plenary Council
The challenge of consulting and discerning properly

The thing I found most challenging about Pope Francis’ exhortation Evangelii Guadium was his insistence on a discerning, decentralised and consultative church. He expressed his confidence in local bishops (EG 16) and Episcopal Conferences (EG32) and spoke of a desire for a profound decentralisation and for Christian communities to come up with solutions “proper to their own country” (EG 186).   I was surprised because, except for Pope Paul VI in Octogesima Adveniens, I had never heard a Pope encourage countries to come up with their own local solutions. Building a discerning, consultative and truly local church will demand a new level of faith, greater courage, deeper spirituality, new structures and a new inclusive culture, if we are to learn to discern for ourselves after decades of waiting for Rome to speak.

We are not used to that level of responsibility. It will demand a much more adult approach to our faith and courage and wisdom to discuss and decide the important issues which up till now Rome has decided for us. Even now many Episcopal Conferences have not taken up the freedom that the present Pope seems to be challenging them to.[34]

The importance of the sensus fidelium

For the last century and a half, the emphasis has been on the Pope and the hierarchy and this has led us to an institutional and clerical emphasis that has blinded us to the value of the sensus fidelium. That is why Pope Francis insists that we must invert the pyramid. Leadership must be one of service; that we must “journey together” in a synodal way.

Given our history and deeply ingrained culture, becoming synodal will not be easy. Many lay people will take some convincing that they can and should speak up. Others are cynical and wonder if the bishops will listen. Others are angry and have plenty to say. We clerics do not always encourage our people to speak up and are not good at listening, especially to criticism. It is going to require conversion on the part of all. But how?

For the Pope, the surest way to conversion is encounter. In Evangelii Gaudium he speaks about the need for “face-to-face encounter with others, with their physical presence which challenges us” (EG 88).

This is the promise of the 2020 Plenary Council. Hopefully in the process of preparing for the Plenary Council we will have many encounters during parish and diocesan consultations, in group meetings, through social media, through Bishops’ listening sessions and so forth. If we are generous, joyful and open we may survive the hurts and misunderstandings and get to know, respect and enjoy one another.

Learning to discern

We will also have to develop the skills and spirituality for discernment. Discernment is a skill which takes time and practice to develop. It is not something learnt from a book. It also demands conversion, an ability to face our own areas of “unfreedom” and a deep spirituality. The preparations for the Plenary Council must be done in a spirit of prayer and an openness to what the Spirit is saying to the Church in Australia.

The art of consultation

People also need the experience of speaking up and being heard to grow in the confidence and ability to contribute and learn constructively. I imagine that the first time we speak boldly we may be clumsy, shallow or angry. It will only be through dialogue that we will learn what is truly of the Spirit. It will probably be even more difficult for us to listen humbly. Many people need to say what they want to say before they can hear what they need to hear.

Structures for consultation

We need to develop the structures that will enable widespread and effective consultation. They do not exist uniformly across the country. Many parishes still do not have Parish Councils and most dioceses do not have Diocesan Pastoral Councils. But without clear and enabling structures individual Catholics can only speak as isolated individuals and consultations will be shallow and superficial. Individual letters can be frustrating for both writer and bishop and often lead to disappointment and anger. Without structures, consultations will be dominated by the “right people” or the compulsively articulate and the voices of the ordinary catholic, of minorities and of people on the peripheries will not be heard. The real questions and true wisdom may not emerge.

The process is almost more important than the end result

Plenary Councils are designed to legislate, so the danger with preparations for this Plenary Council will be racing to legislation and forgetting that the more pressing need is to talk and listen to one another. As Pope Francis is always keen to point out, “time is more important than space” or it is the process, the change of attitudes, the new type of church that this generates that is as important as any legislation. What Pope Francis wants is a synodal church not just an occasional “synod”.

III. Ending clericalism

One of Pope Francis’ constant priorities is to end clericalism and empower the laity. It was also a key concern of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses into Child Sexual Abuse and will be a critical factor in the success of the Plenary Council 2020.

The Royal Commission in Book 16 of its Final Report and its section on the Catholic Church was concerned, “Clericalism is linked to a sense of entitlement, superiority and exclusion, and abuse of power.” They recommended more transparency and accountability. This was also highlighted by the evidence of Bishop Vincent Long Van Nguyen [Parramatta] to the Royal Commission, “Yes, Commissioner, I do believe that the marginalisation of women and the laity is part of this culture of clericalism that contributes not insignificantly to the sexual abuse crisis, and I think if we are serious about reform, this is one of the areas that we need to look at.

‘Accountability in that perfect Church model only works upwards. You’re accountable to the person above you. As long as the bishop has the backing of the Pope, he’s safe. As long as the priest has the backing of his bishop, he’s safe. There’s no accountability that reaches outwards or downwards, and that’s the critical problem, as far as I see. That discipleship of equals calls into question that upward accountability that is in operation as a result of that ecclesiastical model of a perfect society where everyone knows their place and the pecking order is strictly dictated by ordination.

‘The laity have no meaningful or direct participation in the appointment, supervision and even removal of the parish priest. I think that needs to change. Or even at the episcopal level, the appointment, supervision and removal of a bishop is virtually excluded from the faithful. The Morris affair is a typical example of that. There’s no accountability to the faithful there. So that needs to be examined if we are serious about creating a new culture of accountability in the Church today.”[35]

And at a forum on the child sexual abuse crisis at the Yarra Theological Union on October 25, 2017 Bishop Long “spoke about the continuing danger of clericalism and the way it undermines the mission of Christ. We must not divert from the task of listening, conversing and understanding each other in the spirit of mutual trust… A healthier Church is not possible until its leaders have reclaimed the core Gospel values of powerlessness, vulnerability and servant leadership. These are not private virtues but the antidote to the disease of clericalism. Much of what is unhealthy with the Church today stems from the travesty of Christian leadership and service.”[36]

In his Ann D Clark Lecture on August 18, 2016 Bishop Long called for servant leadership modelled by Pope Francis. “Pope Francis challenges all of us to divest ourselves of clericalism and elitism, and return to the purity of the Gospel. His constant call to the church to be less concerned with itself and to be more outward looking encourages us to walk with our people in the ambiguities and complexities of their lives.”[37]

Taking too much responsibility

Clericalism is often understood as the clergy taking too many privileges to themselves but an equally dangerous form of clericalism is taking too much responsibility to ourselves. Many of us clerics have “messianic streaks”, doing everything and implicitly showing little faith in the laity. We fail to notice the talents and competencies of our people. Too often we priests spend most of our energy on managing rather than generating lay energy and involvement.

On his visit to Brazil for World Youth Day, in 2013, Pope Francis spoke to the Bishops of Brazil and the episcopal council of CELAM and posed these and similar questions to the Bishops,

“Is pastoral discernment a habitual criterion, through the use of Diocesan Councils? Do such Councils and Parish Councils, whether pastoral or financial, provide real opportunities for lay people to participate in pastoral consultation, organization and planning? The good functioning of these Councils is critical. I believe that on this score, we are far behind.

‘As pastors, bishops and priests, are we conscious and convinced of the mission of the lay faithful and do we give them the freedom to continue discerning, in a way befit