BRISBANE Archbishop Mark Coleridge has been elected to chair a special bishops’ commission to plan and run an historic plenary council of the entire Church in Australia.
It is to be held in 2020, only the fifth time in Australia’s history, and 79 years after the previous plenary council meeting.
Archbishop Coleridge was elected during the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference meeting in Sydney last month to chair the six-member special bishops’ commission.
“What the plenary council is all about is planning for the future of the Church in this country at a very complex time,” Archbishop Coleridge said.
He said the plenary council 2020 would have to consider deep questions of culture and the Church.
There would have to be genuine and thorough responses to all that had come to light in the Royal Commission into child sexual abuse.
“We can’t just put up a sign saying business as usual,” he said.
“The Church is not the presence in our society it once was. We need to take a measure of that and make decisions accordingly.
“The culture in which we have to proclaim the Gospel is very different to what it was even 20 or 30 years ago.”
A plenary council, or synod, can discuss and legislate on a wide range of issues, including matters of faith, morals and discipline.
They are a rarity in Australian history.
The last was held in 1937, and before that in 1885, 1895 and 1905 – each exclusively male gatherings, with only bishops, theologians and superiors of male religious orders attending.
“I think the bishops are very conscious that this call to the plenary council has come from God and the whole process will be the work of the Holy Spirit,” Archbishop Coleridge said.
“We have to discern what the Spirit is saying to the Church at this time.
“If it is just us, all it can be is politics. But there is something greater than Solomon in this plenary council, the journey to which has already begun.”
Archbishop Coleridge said the plenary council would involve three years of preparation, the celebration in 2020, and implementation of the outcomes in the years that follow.
The special bishops’ commission will consist of archbishops from Adelaide and Perth, bishops from Parramatta and Armidale, and the Maronite Bishop for Australia.
The bishops agreed to set up an advisory body to the commission, which will consist of about 12 representatives.
A position of executive secretary to the commission will be advertised before Christmas.
Archbishop Coleridge said consultation to generate the agenda for the plenary council would involve many people.
“We have to make it genuinely a council of the whole Church and that will take time and we need to devise processes for that to happen,” he said.
Archbishop Coleridge said he had spoken informally to bishops in New Zealand about their participation, although no detailed decisions about how regional Pacific countries might be involved.
“I’m certain the neighbouring bishops’ conferences will somehow be part of the journey,” he said.