Preparing to be a synodal church in Australia

Fr Noel Connolly SSC

The Australian church is about to enter an exciting, challenging and hopefully rewarding three-year process of consultation.

Last August Archbishop Mark Coleridge of Brisbane announced that the Australian Bishops will convoke a Plenary Council at which “everything is potentially on the radar screen”, and at which a wide representation of the church, lay and clerical, female and male will be present. From now till the Plenary Council there will be a wide consultation of the entire Australian Church so that all voices can be heard.

This is going to be a massive and possibly messy task but if we do it well it could change the nature of the church in Australia. To some degree the process of consulting and talking with one another will be more important than the decisions the Plenary Council may make. 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 style of consultation, the different type of church that this generates is as important as the results. What Pope Francis wants is a new synodal church not just an occasional “Synod”.

During the last Synod of Bishops in Rome, Pope Francis gave an extraordinary speech to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the first Synod of Bishops [17th October 2016] in which he explained his vision for a synodal church, “A synodal Church is a Church which listens, which realizes that listening ‘is more than simply hearing’,” “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’ (Rev 2:7)”.

“The Synod of Bishops is the point of convergence of this listening process conducted at every level of the Church’s life,” the pope continued. But the hierarchy’s authority is best interpreted within this Synodality of “journeying together”. Pope Francis often compares the church to an inverted pyramid where the top is located beneath the base and listens to, learns from and serves the base.

We are not used to that kind of authority nor 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 till now many Episcopal Conferences have not taken up the freedom that the present Pope seems to be challenging them to. Our Plenary Council will be one of the first national “synods” in the modern Church.

We will need structures to be able to consult widely. Right now, they do not exist. Many parishes still do not have Parish Councils and most dioceses have not had Diocesan Synods. Without clear and enabling structures, consultations will be shallow and superficial. They will be dominated by the “right people”, the compulsively articulate or the angry and the voices of the minorities and the people on the peripheries will not be heard. The real questions and true wisdom may not emerge.

We will also have to develop the techniques and spirituality for discernment. Discernment is a skill which takes time and practice to develop. It is not something learnt from a book. People also need the experience of speaking up and being heard to grow in the confidence and ability to contribute and learn constructively.

All this amounts to a difficult but exciting challenge. No longer can one group be set apart and take all the responsibility. That is the clear lesson of the Royal Commission. We are going to need more lay and female involvement in the governance of the church in Australia on a national, diocesan and parish level. Women and lay people have insights, sensitivities, imagination and skills that are powerful, complementary and cannot be done without. It is the future and it is not only theologically desirable, psychologically necessary and administratively indispensable it is also enjoyable and life-giving for all of us.

Fr Noel Connolly SSC is a member of the Columban Mission Institute in North Sydney and a lecturer in Missiology at both the Broken Bay Institute and the Catholic Institute of Sydney.

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Comments (14)

  1. Regina T Abraham:
    Jul 19, 2017 at 09:57 AM

    Each Diocese should appoint a few reps, to engage, consult and work with a selection of the most active Parishes. Secondly Questionnaires should made available to all Parishes to answer/ input. Regional meetings to consolidate issues and how to tackle them in a more secular persecuting world. Importantly recognizing "the times" and stressing on Christian Unity and focus on prayer for the protection of Christian values and rights, so that we may live peaceably. I and many others I know would be happy to lead in our Diocese of Sale, having previous experience of similar consultations with Arch Bishop Christopher Prowse.

    Last Edit: 19 Jul, 2017, 04:10:33 by Columban Missionaries


  2. John Thornton:
    Jul 19, 2017 at 10:10 AM

    I find the content very interesting - will there also be representatives of people who identify as being of homosexual orientation e.g. Acceptance (Australia) and yet are active members of their faith communities. I await with interest. Perhaps the spirit of Francis Rush (former Archbishop of Brisbane) will live on - he established the Church-Acceptance Dialogue which produced "We are Church too' subtitled 'towards an understanding of being gay and Catholic', This was a programme developed over a number of years and presented in some 17 Brisbane parishes.

    John Thornton
    former President of Acceptance (Brisbane)


  3. Peggy Spencer:
    Jul 19, 2017 at 10:56 AM

    When Pope St. John XX111 threw open wide the windows of the church to a modern world, it affirmed the essential role of lay Catholics although some of the reforms adopted are still a point of debate and dissension. However, the fresh air that blew in back then, and is so urgently needed today, is once again about to make its presence felt as the Australian Church enters an exciting process of consultation. It may 'well be a massive and possibly messy task' but we have only to recall Pope Francis' words at the World Youth Day in Rio in 2013. He urged them to 'make a mess' and 'to stir things a Church closed in upon itself.' Congratulations. Peggy Spencer


  4. Bernie:
    Jul 19, 2017 at 04:06 PM

    Please God, the laity of the church will have the courage to speak up about "grass roots power" which is all we have known. Let us be equal, and complimentary, as we acknowledge each other's gifts. Gifts to proclaim the kingdom of God here amongst us. Help us to be guided by the Spirit.

    Last Edit: 19 Jul, 2017, 04:09:28 by Columban Missionaries


  5. Roy Fanthome:
    Jul 19, 2017 at 04:26 PM

    This is a bold and constructive move. Only. Let us not spoil it by appointing, or, electing representatives. Have open meetings (or internet interactions) so that voices are heard and responsibility accepted for opinions. It would remove notions of "Power" and elitism, the very things we seek to overcome through a "Synodal" approach.

    Last Edit: 20 Jul, 2017, 12:27:15 by Columban Missionaries


  6. Dennis Sleigh:
    Jul 19, 2017 at 06:58 PM

    Before the Synod on the Family, the Australian Bishops distributed a survey to ask us for our views, but (without now being able to recall the actual questions used) I recall that the tenor of the questions was very "clerical". Can we make sure this time that the questions used are free of ecclesiastical jargon and are written by ordinary lay people (presumably in line with the directions set by the bishops)? This will make it more likely that we will respond to them.


  7. Phil harris:
    Jul 19, 2017 at 09:12 PM

    Fr. Noel .I read your article with scepticism. The history of the Roman Catholic Church from the time of Constantine and before has been permeated by power under control of Bishops.
    Vatican 2 brought about a new spirit which was quickly diluted on the death of Pope John the 23rd and the appointment of Popes who reverted to to the old ways.
    I like many of my age group have little confidence that a meeting of Bishops does not have the ability to bring about any change.
    In Adelaide questionnaires were distributed prior to the last Synod of Bishops in Rome which raised questions which laity have no control in and comments were of little apparent value.
    Trying to find a church and a priest who can give a sermon that is relevant rather than a dumbed down version of Theology gives me no confidence that a meeting of Bishops will listen the the people who have lost confidence in the Church .


  8. Darryl Anderson:
    Jul 19, 2017 at 09:57 PM

    I fear this will become just another talk-fest with no real meaningful outcomes. Unfortunately the hierarchy resist change. Very sad really.

    Last Edit: 20 Jul, 2017, 12:43:52 by Columban Missionaries


  9. Joseph Cincotta:
    Jul 20, 2017 at 09:59 AM

    I was more interested in the comments than the article. Yes by all means let the church always look at where it is heading, and yes the top must listen to its base but also let the base remember that it also stands on a base and that base is made of all the martyrs and saints whom are now well forgotten by the church and by many and their anniversaries are no longer celebrated. Yes by all means let us go forwards but also never forget our past. I also like to mention that in its journey the church does not forget, and, find out why so many are dropping away from practicing but not forgetting their faith?

    Last Edit: 20 Jul, 2017, 12:40:37 by Columban Missionaries


  10. P Grey Fingleton:
    Jul 20, 2017 at 01:04 PM

    I wish to get my Parish involved. Please keep me informed.


  11. Galerimo:
    Jul 20, 2017 at 01:31 PM

    A much better idea would be a once off convention of practicing and non-practicing Catholics with an invitation to a selection of Australian pastoral Bishops to attend and listen. After the Synod it would reconvene to examine how well the pyramid model of authority is working.

    Last Edit: 20 Jul, 2017, 02:09:36 by Columban Missionaries


  12. John Brennan:
    Jul 20, 2017 at 07:31 PM

    I have read Fr Connolly's article and the comments: my suggestion is that everyone involved in the Plenary Council should start, if not doing so already, to meditate daily for a quarter of an hour on a passage from Sacred Scripture. The main reason is to prepare our hearts and minds to receive the inspirations of the Holy Spirit. Then our ideas and suggestions will hopefully be attuned to what the Holy Spirit wants and will be discernible as coming form the Spirit, not from human ideas or even from the devil. This seems to me to be a practical suggestion.

    Last Edit: 21 Jul, 2017, 11:25:24 by Columban Missionaries


  13. Michael Connor:
    Jul 21, 2017 at 09:19 AM

    It is sad. But I have lost faith in the Church Hierarchy. My faith rests SOLLY with God. And even He is taking His time to do anything about this MESS. But despite His apparent lack of interest I refuse to lose my faith in Him.

    Last Edit: 21 Jul, 2017, 11:26:53 by Columban Missionaries


  14. Joseph M Ballagh:
    Jul 30, 2017 at 01:32 AM

    Like others making comments, I too am skeptical about change. I fear that the majority of Australian Catholic Bishops are so steeped in clericalism that they do not understand the need for change and therefore are likely to try to control the Synod by selecting Delegates who share their views, and if this does not work they will continue to do what they do best - procrastinate.
    The Royal Commission showed how out of touch they are and this is reinforced by their failure to respond in any meaningful way to the Open Letter from Catholics For Renewal although it is within their authority to start the reform process. The Church will continue to go backwards until the Laity have a major say in the selection of Bishops. The latest census shows that, for the first time, there are more "No Religion" than Catholics. Perhaps the Laity should conduct their own Synod and advise Pope Francis of what Australian Catholics actually think.

    Last Edit: 2 Aug, 2017, 11:42:49 by Columban Missionaries


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