SYDNEY — Australia’s Plenary Council could be a prophetic voice encouraging a tired, frustrated and apathetic church, Bishop Columba Macbeth-Green of Wilcannia-Forbes told delegates at the Second Assembly’s opening Mass.
As bishops, religious and laypeople gathered for an assembly to consider motions to renew the life and mission of the church in Australia, Macbeth-Green drew on the prophet Isaiah for an analogy between the Israelites’ exhaustion after their exile and the current state of the church in Australia.
“There are a lot of people in the church today who feel tired, too,” Macbeth-Green said in his homily at the opening Mass at St. Mary MacKillop Place July 3. “There’s been profound changes they’ve seen in the church and in society.”
“They’ve seen what’s dear to them, their faith, seem to dissolve before their eyes in some cases, with emptying churches, and everything seemed to be going backward instead of forward,” he said, adding, “Many people are tired because they’ve been trying for years to be heard, or to effect change.”
This exhaustion results in apathy, frustration, anger and intolerance, the bishop said. “Our Plenary Council could be, like the prophet Isaiah, a prophetic voice that communicates through the church comfort, hope and encouragement to a tired people.”
The Plenary Council process began more than four years ago. A Plenary Council is somewhat like a national synod, but it can issue decrees that, once approved by the Vatican, are binding on the church in that country.
The opening Mass was celebrated on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Sunday and was replete with First Nations symbols and references to Indigenous spirituality. In sessions the following day, council members endorsed the Uluru Statement from the Heart, which calls for a First Nations voice to Parliament to be enshrined in the Australian Constitution, and apologized formally to victims, survivors and families of child abuse.
The Mass began with a smoking ceremony and acknowledgment of country by Susan Moylan-Coombs, a Woolwonga and Gurindji woman, who exhorted the members of the Plenary Council to engage with Indigenous spirituality.
“We are the oldest living culture on the planet. My DNA predates Australia,” she said.
“First Nations people are a very proud people, and as you have come together and you’re here this evening to think about the new future and where you’re headed, think about First Nations spirituality on this land that has been here forever.”
Following the smoking ceremony, Lisa Buxton, executive officer of the Sydney Aboriginal Catholic Ministry, joined liturgical artist Anne Frawley-Mangan to pay tribute to Indigenous spirituality and apologize for the church’s role in past wrongs.
Frawley-Mangan, who identified herself as a descendant of “those who colonized this land by taking it from their traditional owners, who never surrendered it,” acknowledged “the part the Catholic Church played in the harms suffered by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island people, and its ignorance of their cultural richness.”
“For these and all wrongs, we say sorry,” she said.
Opening the Second Assembly July 4, Perth Archbishop Timothy Costelloe urged the 277 members of the Plenary Council to be open to dialogue and listening.
“Although each of us belongs to one or other communities of faith and mission, we are not here as representatives or spokespersons of any particular community, tasked with advocating for any particular interest group,” he said.
The archbishop said issues that members feel passionate about might not necessarily correspond to the will of God for the church, a “discomforting truth” that should lead them to listen humbly to others to communally discern the will of the Holy Spirit.
Preaching at an Eastern Catholic liturgy at the end of the first full day, Syro-Malabar Bishop Bosco Puthur cautioned that the Plenary Council must not become the preserve of experts and theologians.
“A problem arises, as Pope Francis reminds us, when in any church assembly decisions are made by the intellectual and theological elite and is much influenced by outside pressures, without taking into proper account the simple faith experience from the pews, or the ordinary church-going faithful.”
Wesselinoff writes for The Catholic Weekly, Sydney.