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Australia’s plenary council heads for day of reckoning

Participants in the Second General Assembly of the Plenary Council of Australia. Screenshot from Plenary Council Facebook page.

The plenary council of the Catholic Church in Australia resumed its work on Thursday, meeting for the penultimate day of voting.

Participants said the atmosphere was more settled July 7, after tensions ran high when two resolutions on women’s roles in the Church failed to pass the day before.

Sydney Auxiliary Bishop Richard Umbers told The Pillar that the mood was “much calmer” on Thursday.

“I think that after the shock of yesterday, which left almost everyone distressed, a big effort was made by all present to gather in unity and love,” he said. “It’s very important that we not debate as a parliament but as brothers and sisters in Christ.”

Underlying divisions were exposed on July 6 when the country’s bishops - who vote separately to the council’s “consultative” members - rejected a motion calling for the introduction of female deacons “should Pope Francis authorize such ministry,” as well as another on “new opportunities for women to participate in ministries.”

When the bishops’ votes were announced, there was uproar and the schedule was suspended. When the meeting resumed, around 60-70 delegates refused to take their seats, standing on the sidelines in protest.

Organizers sought to calm the waters and later a majority of members agreed to consider revised versions of the rejected motions in the coming days.

Umbers said that Thursday’s session had begun and ended with a “welcome to country and call for a general blessing by our Aboriginal sisters,” which “set a tone of joy and peace that we carried throughout the day.”

A note at the foot of the plenary council’s official website underlines that the gathering in Sydney is taking place on land linked to Australia’s Indigenous people.

“We acknowledge the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people as the traditional custodians of this great South land upon which we gather,” it says. “We honor Elders past, present, and future, and thank them for their sacrifice and stewardship.”

Following the failure of the two motions to pass on Wednesday,  all of Thursday’s motions gained a qualified majority (two-thirds or more of votes).

The council’s 277 members - bishops, priests, religious, and lay people – are nearing the end of a weeklong meeting called to vote on around 30 measures divided into eight themes.

The July 7 agenda focused on the seventh and eighth themes: governance and integral ecology. Council members backed four motions related to Church governance.

Motion 7.2 affirmed that “governance in the Catholic Church should be exercised in a synodal manner,” asking all dioceses to establish a diocesan pastoral council.

Motion 7.3 urged Australia’s dioceses and eparchies to “support parishes to establish and strengthen appropriate synodal structures by developing guidelines and providing resources for the flourishing of parish pastoral councils, parish finance committees, and other parish bodies.”

Motion 7.4 endorsed the creation of a working group to launch a “broad consultation” with a view to developing “a National Catholic Synodal Life Roundtable to foster, assess, and report periodically on the development of synodal leadership across the Church in Australia.”

Motion 7.5 called for a study of how the document “The Light from the Southern Cross” has been implemented. The text, published in 2020, made 86 recommendations for changes in Church governance. The report’s authors included Villanova University theology professor Massimo Faggioli.

Voters also endorsed two motions on integral ecology.

Motion 8.1 appealed to all parishes and dioceses “to accept Pope Francis’ invitation to join the Laudato Si’ Action Platform and either develop Laudato Si’ Action Plans, or participate in existing Laudato Si’ Action Plans.” It also backed “initiatives in Church and society which promote and defend human life from conception to natural death, especially those who are most vulnerable.”

Motion 8.2 committed parishes and Catholic organizations to joining the Laudato Si’ Platform by 2024 and engaging in a Laudato Si’ Action Plan by 2030.

July 8 is the final day of voting - and it is likely to be an intense one because the most contentious items on the agenda seem to have been left to last. They include not only the revised motion on diaconal ordination for women, but also proposals for lay homilies at Mass and wider use of general absolution instead of individual confession.

Thursday may prove to have been the calm between two storms.

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