Will the Bishops listen, will anything change?

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A couple of months ago I was invited to give a presentation on the Plenary Council at a Spirituality in the Pub session. I prepared what I thought was a good talk, but a couple of minutes into my presentation something, perhaps the Spirit, moved me to stop and ask my audience “what did they think?”. One man started with question, “Will the bishops listen?” It was quickly obvious that he was not alone. There was a great deal of scepticism in the room. So my “beautiful talk” remained on the lectern and we had ninety minutes of sharing.

Criticising bishops is a Catholic sport. It doesn’t require entrance fees or any special equipment. We have been enjoying it for decades. But unfortunately because of the Royal Commission, clericalism, the laity’s sense of being excluded from ministry and governance and a growing feeling of distrust in institutions across society we have now reached a serious level of distrust in the Church. In a few decades we have moved from uncritical respect to deep criticism. I believe a central function of the Plenary Council 2020 is to help us learn to trust one another.

Fr Noel Connolly SSC

That is why the process for the first year of preparing for the Plenary Council is devoted to Listening and Dialogue Encounters. Some of my friends suggested that we need social analysis and professional theological reflection etc. These may be needed before the Council is over but at the moment we need to share our stories, our questions, our doubts, our concerns and our spiritualties. Many people want to speak and to be listened to. If we don’t learn to respect and trust one another all the other changes will be in vain.

On World Communications Day 2014, Pope Francis wrote a letter on communication. He quotes Pope Benedict,

“Effective Christian witness is not about bombarding people with religious messages, but about our willingness to be available to others by patiently and respectfully engaging their questions and their doubts as they advance in their search for the truth and the meaning of human existence” (Benedict XVI, Message for the 47th World Communications Day, 2013).

Francis goes on to say, “To dialogue means to believe that the ‘other’ has something worthwhile to say, and to entertain his or her point of view and perspective. Engaging in dialogue does not mean renouncing our own ideas and traditions, but the claim that they alone are valid or absolute.”

Archbishop Coleridge in calling for the Plenary Council and responding to the Royal Commission has always stressed that it is a question of culture. “You can talk strategy and structure all you like, but if it doesn’t change the culture, you’re really adopting a cosmetic approach." You do not change culture through analysis or papers but through developing new practices and processes and getting to respect one another.

Pope Benedict shortly before he resigned warned us that, "The laity should not be considered as collaborators with the clergy, but as the people truly co-responsible for the life of the church."

Many lay people are freed and invigorated when they feel we clerics are genuinely listening and are inviting them to participate in an adult way. They love their church and want to be involved and have their say. They have theological and pastoral insights that don’t occur to us, clerics.

Pope Francis calls for a synodal church in which people, bishops and the Bishop of Rome are all listening to each other and to the Spirit, realising that everyone has something to learn.

The Plenary Council provides us with an opportunity and a process to draw close to one another, to share our faith, our insights and our questions. If we can all learn to share vulnerably and fully, people, priests and bishops, that will help us to become a listening church and help develop a culture of relatedness, freedom, co-responsibility and hope. That will be a different church and real cultural change.

Columban Fr Noel Connolly is a member of the Adult Formation Team with Catholic Mission Australia and is a member of the Facilitation Team for the Plenary Council 2020.

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Comments (7)

  1. Michael Rose:
    Sep 20, 2018 at 10:31 AM

    I found this a most interesting "blog". For me my criticisms are not a "sport" but a sign of my disillusionment. As an aged "orthodox" catholic, in the past our bishops & priests were beyond reproach but I have now almost given up on them. Their failures to really lead on the issue of SSM was the final straw. As for being "co-responsible" it just isn't happening. Thanks for the item. Some honesty indeed.


  2. Joe barr:
    Sep 20, 2018 at 01:08 PM

    The bishops often seem very remote from lay Catholics. They are obviously very busy with administrative matters and meetings leaving little time to listen and be pastoral. Sometimes I wonder if they should feel able to delegate more of these aspects to lay people to free themselves up for more pastoral matters. One visit to each parish in the year really isn't enough to build relationships with lay people even when parish priests can relay the concerns and attitudes of their parishioners.


  3. William Smith:
    Sep 20, 2018 at 01:25 PM

    Sadly all ou r Bishops in Australia are yes men who lack the ability to think outside the square. One example Pope Francis empowered Bishops to review the translation for the Mass in light of widespread criticism of the existing translation. What did they do.? Ask the laity of their opinion? No they simply ignored it.


  4. Will Brooks:
    Sep 21, 2018 at 07:30 AM

    This is a very good article. Genuine criticism is good but if anyone is really concerned about the state of the Catholic Church they should take action. Form a prayer group, a social justice group, be involved in church activities, get facilities for people to use. In other words, show leadership themselves. It works!


    Sep 21, 2018 at 11:35 AM

    All the glorious wonder of the church has drifted away. There is no ceremony any more. There is little Bendiction and Adoration. Most churches are closed during the day. There is no time for silence and peace. We need younger vocations not just to the priesthood but also to nuns and brothers so we can have proper guidance in our schools and pastoral work. We need to accept the tradtional Latin mass and all its beauty and so much for the rewording of the english mass. It leaves a lot be desired. "'In nomine patris, et filio, et Spiritu Sancto"


  6. Garry Everett:
    Sep 23, 2018 at 12:29 PM

    Thanks Noel. No one can argue about the need for listening. We have just had 5 years of listening and external forensic examination of the Church in Australia. We have been told quite clearly as Bishop Coleridge acknowledges, that the main issue is culture. Why are we now listening to a whole raft of issues that cannot be implemented until we change the toxic culture?
    Why are we not focussing all the listening, creative thinking and determination on the best ways and means of changing the culture. The Council seems to have mis-placed its focus on listening .


  7. Marna Couve de Murville:
    Sep 26, 2018 at 12:39 PM

    Thank you Father Noel for this blog. My biggest fear is the secularization of Christianity in our Australian Society. 'Christianity' and 'Jesus Christ' are dirty words. The Catholic church needs serious change. We need to re-engage with youth and to listen more closely to the needs of the victims of abuse. This is our last chance to revamp our beautiful church otherwise I fear we will become a Godless society and an open market for the devil.


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