The Spirit will surely move a new thing among the people gathered at the first session of the Plenary Council in nine days’ time. 278 delegates from around the country will meet online to discern ways forward for the Catholic Church in Australia. The Plenary process, begun by the bishops’ conference, kicked off in 2018 with an ambitious local level “communal discernment” project involving 222000 people.
Local and national groups
Each local group spent time in active listening and intentional speaking, discerning their responses to the question “What do you think God is asking of us in Australia at this time?” 17500 submissions were prepared and a small team wrote a 300 page report “Listen to what the Spirit is saying”. Out of that report came six national themes for discernment.
Six “Discernment and Writing groups” formed in October 2019, to listen for the Spirit within a particular area of church life. This involved sitting with and sifting all the perspectives and experiences both at the grassroots and within each group.
Prayer (personal and communal) was essential. A second round of “Listening and Discernment” was happening concurrently at the local level. Hundreds of short submissions were then sent directly to the six national groups, who each prepared a 5000 word thematic paper. [Note: I was part of the Prayerful and Eucharistic group.]
Final preparations for the Plenary Council
Bringing it all together, a working document was drafted, and out of that formed the agenda questions across themes of ‘conversion, prayer, formation, structures, governance, institutions’.
The 278 delegates have been preparing via formation sessions since June. Most recently the expert advisers (‘periti’) to the Plenary Council have been named, from scripture scholars to legal minds, and church historians to social justice experts.
The fact that the Council is happening for me is a sign of hope, so I’m just going to let the Spirit emerge as we go and I’m not going there with any preconceived expectations, I’m just going into it ready for what comes. Everyone has different hopes from it, but I think if we just go into it, ready to take on the journey then I think it will be really good.Plenary Council member
Prayers to the Holy Spirit
The delegates go to the Plenary Council asking the People of God in Australia to pray for and with them. I am reminded of the Christian Life Community Asia Pacific Assembly in Korea 2019. When a leader from the Animating Team called on the Holy Spirit with confidence, we then had five to ten minutes of quiet prayer, asking the Spirit to be with us in our conversations.
This moved me greatly, and I felt encouraged to a deeper trust in God’s Spirit moving among the community. The Spirit can speak through each person (through you, through me), in the spaces between us, and deep in each of our hearts:
Come, Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of your faithful.
And kindle in them the fire of your love.
Send forth your Spirit and they shall be created.
And you will renew the face of the earth.
The Plenary Council preparations have given the People of God in Australia an experience of “communal discernment”. This way seeks to follow the presence, movement and action of the Holy Spirit working within a group. It presupposes that each participant is discerning God’s presence, movement and action personally in their own life. As such the work of communal discernment draws deeply from the well of Ignatian Spirituality.
Nourished by the Scriptures and at Eucharist, we can ask for the grace to know where we are being drawn as a community. [At heart, we are drawn by God towards love and deeper into relationships, whereas we are driven to fear and mistrust by a contrary spirit.]
Together we can discern, as Jesuit John Dardis puts it “What’s the Trinity trying to do in the world today?” and then How can we best cooperate?
On the larger scale, this way of proceeding has been called “Synodality” within the Catholic Church. Pope Francis and the Synod of Bishops have asked the global church to prepare for a 2023 synod looking deeper at this way. For Australia, at least, this path is being trod. May the work of the Plenary Council be fruitful.