QUEENSLAND Catholics appointed to advise the Plenary Council Bishops’ Commission say the Church needs to listen to the experiences of the faithful in order to plan for a viable future.
Former Emmanuel Community moderator Shayne Bennett, ACU campus minister Sally Hood and Townsville theologian Fr Orm Rush are among 14 Catholics appointed to the plenary council executive committee.
This committee will work with the special Bishops’ Commission for the Plenary Council to prepare and implement the historic meeting in 2020.
With 40 years’ experience in mission work including youth evangelisation, Mr Bennett said listening to the experiences of Catholics, both the good and the bad experiences, needed to be a central part of the plenary council.
“I think one of the challenges is to engage with the reality of people where they’re at today,” he said.
“No one is pretending that there’s not a lot of disillusionment around, but in spite of that there are many faithful people who are seeking to work positively towards a future.”
As well as a more listening Church, Mr Bennett said there needed to be a refocusing on equipping lay people to be missionary or face the reality that “the Gospel won’t be heard”.
“Because ultimately people aren’t running into churches to hear the Gospel, so it’s either they hear the Gospel through their peers, or the mission of the Church needs to be rethought in fact in the light of our current experience,” he said.
“Historically we’ve thought about people coming to the Church but I think things have been flipped on their head a little bit and we are now talking about the Church going out.”
The plenary council is just one of the ways the Church in Australia hopes find out how to reach out to Australians on the fringes of the faith, or at least find out their struggles and hopes.
Earlier this year, the Australian Bureau of Statistics released data from the 2016 Census, pointing to an increase in the number of people reporting to have no religious affiliations.
For Mrs Hood, the second Brisbane member on the executive committee, the data was both “dispiriting” and a challenge to face head on.
“What can that information tell us to then help us respond better to meeting those people and then reaching out to those people with the hope of Christ,” she said.
As a young lay Catholic woman working for the Church, Mrs Hood’s involvement in the plenary council will be historic.
She and seven other women on the executive committee – who make up a majority of the group – will be the first lay or religious women invited to participate in any plenary council for the Church in Australia.
While encouraged by the appointment, Mrs Hood said the Church was living in a time where women leadership or input should not be surprising.
“For me, if it was the opposite way; if there weren’t any women on the committee, if there weren’t any laywomen even, I’d be worried,” she said.
On issues related to young Catholics, Mrs Hood said the Church needed to offer more opportunities for young people to work for the Church.
“I see a lot of very well formed, very well trained young Catholics wanting to serve the Church and potentially wanting to work for the Church for the rest of their lives but then there not being many avenues for them to move into,” she said.
But there was no point in creating these new works or missions “where there’s no work to do”.
As a solution, the Church needed to re-evaluate its “evangelising strategy”.
“The hope is that in five years’ time, there’s a greater unified understanding of our evangelising missions as a Church because I think if we do that better as a Church in Australia, our parishes will be fuller, our youth groups will be more dynamic, our ministries across the board will be thriving the way that God wants them to thrive and in doing so I think that will create a more fertile kind of ground for opportunities for young people,” Mrs Hood said.
Fr Rush said the 2020 Plenary Council was a deliberate response to Pope Francis’ call for a “synodal Church, a listening Church”.
“The plenary council will be an opportunity for us all to listen to the voice of the Holy Spirit by listening to all the faithful from the different dioceses of Australia,” he said.
“It will be hard work, but I believe it will be a time of rejuvenation for the Church in Australia.”