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By Father Gerard Kelly
The Apostolic Nuncio, Bishop Charles Balvo, in his address to the closing session of the Plenary Council, noted that many were following this event in Australia with great attention.
This was because Australia was engaged in a synodal process and the notion of synodality was growing throughout the universal Church.
The Synod of Bishops of the Catholic Church on Synodality opened in Rome in 2021 and will hold its final assembly there in 2023. The world was eager to see how Australia modeled what a synodal church might look like.
The Plenary Council was constituted according to the canonical norms of plenary councils: approval had been obtained from the Holy See; the president had been appointed by the pope; and the statutes had been duly drafted and approved by the Holy See.
But there were factors other than the canonical that shaped the evolution of the plenary council.
In October 2015, Pope Francis delivered an address on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the institution of the synod of bishops. He explained that since the beginning of his ministry as bishop of Rome, he had sought to enrich the Synod.
This meant not only making it more effective, but also allowing the principle of synodality to permeate the whole of the life of the Church. The path of synodality, he said, is what God expects of the Church in the third millennium.
Synodality was typical of ancient church life and is still a vital feature of Eastern churches today. It had practically disappeared in the Western Church and was revived by Pope Saint Paul VI immediately after the Second Vatican Council. Its reappearance is another example of the universal church breathing again with both lungs.
In the October 2015 address, the pope noted that synodality is a “constitutive element of the Church.” The word “synod” means to walk the path together, and thus refers to the pilgrim people of God journeying together through history toward that final fulfillment and communion with God.
The roots of this are deep in our tradition. We see it in the journey of God’s people out of Egypt, through the desert and into the promised land.
We see it in the Gospels when the disciples walk with Jesus, who is the Way, following him to the cross and to his resurrection.
We see this in many places in the Acts of the Apostles where Christians are called disciples of the Way. Thus, to be a disciple is to be synodal.
Such a journey is not an aimless wandering. As we see in the apostolic church and in later centuries, it is inherently pastoral.
A prime example is the well-known assembly that takes place in Jerusalem (Acts 15) to determine how to deal with the challenge that Gentile membership will bring to a Church that was still a predominantly Jewish community.
The Church of Antioch had asked for help from the Church of Jerusalem. Through a process of listening and discernment, a decision was made “which seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us” (Acts 15:28).
In this we also see the beginning of the understanding that the Church is a communion of local churches. This principle was very present during the Fifth Plenary Council of Australia. First, it was a regional gathering, with different parts of the Church coming together. Each local Church (diocese or eparchy) was present, bringing its own experience and history, and ready to learn from the experience and history of others.
Religious communities have also contributed their experience.
But the experience of synodality did not stop there. There were observers from neighboring churches, namely from New Zealand (Cardinal John Dew, Archbishop of Wellington) and from Asia (Cardinal Charles Bo, Archbishop of Yangon, Myanmar, and President of the Federation of Bishops’ Conferences of Asia).
The apostolic nuncio provided a direct link with the pope. Another observer was Dr John Gilmore, president of the National Council of Churches in Australia.
None of the observers to the full council voted or contributed to the conversation on the floor of the assembly. However, they brought greetings from their local churches, for whom what we were doing was important.
Their presence was a constant reminder that the plenary council was indeed a synodal assembly, not solely centered on itself, but aware that its actions were intended to build up the communion of the whole Church.
Throughout the week-long Plenary Council, members learned the truth of the Pope’s words in his October 2015 address that “synod” is a concept easy to put into words, but not so easy to put into practice. in practice.
The starting point of synodality is listening – listening to the Holy Spirit by listening to one another. The presumption must be that the other person has something to say that is true, good and important.
Moreover, as the pope said in his Pentecost homily this year, “oddly, the Holy Spirit is the author of the division, of the heckling, of a certain disorder. … He creates division with the charisms and he creates harmony with all this division”.
This runs counter to the modes of operation that prevail in a society like ours. In recent years we have seen a growing intolerance of views that are not like mine. They call it “cancel culture”. With synodality, all points of view are listened to carefully.
Societies like ours are also accustomed to parliamentary debate as a mechanism for decision-making and law-making. The success of this system is based on an adversarial model and vote counting.
The synodal way is not contradictory; it’s not about winners and losers. It is a question of discerning, in the midst of different voices with often contradictory opinions, where the Holy Spirit is leading, and what is the way forward at this time on the path of the people of God.
The evolution of this understanding became clearer as the week progressed. Bishop Shane Mackinlay, vice president of the full council, often reminded members as they prepared to vote that this was not the last word, but something that would move the Church forward in its moment. It is about reaching a consensus.
In a synodal church, decisions are made as an act of communion. The full council was a regional gathering, but also part of the fellowship of the whole Church. The decrees of the Plenary Council will now go to the Holy See for recognitio (recognition) by the pope.
This is another principle of synodality. It involves the exercise of the sensus fidei of “all”, the leadership ministry of bishops (“some”); and the unity ministry of the Bishop of Rome (“one”).
During the week of the second assembly, Australia learned and we will continue to learn. And we can be sure that the full council has enhanced the appreciation of synodality in the world church.
Father Gerard Kelly is a lecturer in theology at the Catholic Institute of Sydney