In a conclave they bundle the cardinals into the Sistine Chapel and with the cry of “extra omnes” shut the doors. Whilst not quite as dramatic, the Church in Australia celebrated an opening Mass with 277 delegates in attendance at the chapel dedicated to Saint Mary of the Cross Mackillop.
What was special about a week-long deliberation in the school hall of St. Mary’s Cathedral College by men and women gathered as the Fifth Plenary Council of Australia? At the last one in 1937 only clergy attended, and they published decrees declaring what priests should and should not be doing, leading to a popular legend saying that they decided priests should not be going to the movies.* The rulings were promptly ignored and towards the end of the Year of Our Lord 2022 we can expect that, as is his custom, the Archbishop of Sydney will be gifting movie tickets to all his clergy. On this occasion we passed decrees that dealt with integral ecology, inclusion of our First Nation peoples, Eucharistic Congresses, youth formation, and ways of “breathing with both lungs,” West and East.
As was widely reported, halfway through the week 60 delegates staged a protest at the bishops’ rejection of the chapter on the Equal Dignity of Women. It was a day of pain and high tension. One country delegate observed that it was like a mutant parish council on steroids. It reminded me of a stormy political conference I attended 30 years ago in Cabramatta where one side walked out on the other chanting “Shame! Shame!”
Were the Plenary Council protestors just “spoiled boomers” or “uncatechized youth” (or pick your category) that should have been censured and sent packing? Thank God clergy who hold such views are not in the Australian Episcopate.
There was a clear divergence of views that had become open. Almost all of us were uncomfortable with what we thought unchristian by “the other.” And I say this not as a relativist but as someone who is quite prepared to state what is right and wrong — with a Catechism next to my laptop. Central to our belief as Catholics is the presence of the Holy Spirit – today – in the Church. And Unity is a gift from God that rises above our deeds of “knavish imbecility.”
Why did we not schism as per the infamous kerfuffle in 1993 at the Mekong Club? Because we follow Jesus, not particular ideas about Jesus, and with the exercise of faith, hope & charity were forced not only to listen, but to listen to how each one felt. Suffering together was transforming – giving us a broader appreciation of the Church and the way of synodality. The Australian bishops were shepherding by being present in the pain. This was, I believe, a great cure to the cynicism that had been expressed about us from the stage.
We remain with unresolved tension about ordination and the inclusion of same-sex attracted Catholics in Church life. Like any family, there are members who are upset or still not talking to each other. If, as bishops, we cannot and should not compromise on doctrine, leadership in our own time requires us to gather and lead a people who disagree. We are an imperfect and sinful people who worship in a ‘felt banner’ way but we all love the Church and care passionately about her.
Were it not for the great disruption on Wednesday we may have simply been left with a list of unfinanced bureaucratic committees and we would have to write it all off as a rather expensive flop. It wasn’t. We sat down and truly talked. Synodality in the Church in Australia began that day. Even if not much emerges in concrete fashion you can’t take away from us what we have already danced: time spent together where we started and finished in the same room.
* Correction July 13: Originally, this article stated that only bishops participated in the 4th Plenary Council and that the council ruled that priests should not go to the movies. A reader wrote to clarify that there were some non-bishop participants in the 1937 council. He also explained that the claim that the council prohibited priests from going to the movies is apocryphal. He writes, “No such decree was issued. Decrees regulating the lives of clerics concerned their attendance at professional theatre, the opera, horseracing, coursing (riding to hounds), prize-fighting and betting; and gave advice as to how far clerics should be involved in promoting dancing, and indulging in sport; but cinemas were not mentioned. The background of such legislation was similar legislation in the Councils of Maynooth and Westminster. It was considered questionable that the clergy should participate in activities considered the preserve of the wealthy, or which had a questionable history.”
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Bishop Richard Umbers, a New Zealand native, was ordained a priest of Opus Dei in Spain in 2002, and has been based in Sydney since 2003. As a priest, he served as the chaplain of several educational institutions. He was ordained a bishop in 2016 and now serves as an Auxiliary Bishop of the Archdiocese of Sydney. Bishop Richard is widely published in the area of philosophy, regularly addresses youth gatherings, has a large social media presence, and is the host of The Episcopal Podcast. He is proficient in Spanish, Italian, and Latin.