Plenary Council 2021

From 3 -10 October 2021, the Catholic Church in Australia will gather for the first Assembly of the Plenary Council to be held since the Second Vatican Council (1962-65).

The 278 members have been drawn from dioceses, eparchies, ordinariates, personal prelature, leaders of religious congregations and representatives of church ministries.

The Catholic Social Services Australia (CSSA) representative at the Plenary Council is the Chair of the CSSA Board, Francis Sullivan AO. Mr Sullivan will provide a daily report on his experience of this momentous event for the Australian Catholic Church.


10 October 2021

Light from the Southern Cross – 10 October 2021

Blog by Francis Sullivan, CSSA Chair

I have left the First Assembly of the Plenary Council optimistic that change is coming. What that looks like is unclear. Plenty of balls have been tossed in the air. Resolutions have been crafted somewhat hastily. But the Show is moving and the collective imagination has been ignited.

Councillors have been positive and constructive. The magnitude of the task is dawning as the diversity of views and appreciations of the role and purpose of the Church percolate through the discernment groups reports and the interventions from Members. I assumed that this was always going to be the case. The organisers deliberately designed a process that would elicit the varieties of ways Catholics understand their faith, their practice and their Church. So, to that end, the Assembly has done its job.

Yet, the real job is to confront the crisis the Church faces. A crisis that is both of its own making but also one that asks squarely what is the value of religious faith in our world today? People have left the Church either through disgust with the history of abuse scandals or because they no longer could relate to it for various reasons. Certainly, on the latter, it seems Pope Francis wants the Church to make the shift from its usual propositional stance to one of mission. A shift that emphasises mercy and compassion before seeking to engage in a dialogue of ideas and philosophy.

When it comes to the abuse scandals, the Church has nowhere to hide. The civil authorities did what the Church could not do for itself. That is, fess up! The culture of the institution is ingrained with a self-protective instinct. There are endless excuses why those in positions of authority and influence did not discharge their duties morally and legally. There is an almost knee jerk submission by the laity to senior clerics that stifles honesty and perpetuates secrecy and concealment. Church leaders and their advisors take an “institution first” risk management approach to victims’ complaints and abuse allegations. This is a culture that is prepared to set itself up against the world to the very point that it paid lip service to the laws of the land and the dictates of human decency.

It is this culture that must change and change quickly.

Calls for improved governance come straight from the Royal Commission’s damning finding on the Church leadership. Calls for increased participation of women in governance and ministries, like the diaconate, come from revelations at the Royal Commission over the toxic influences of clericalism. These are just two areas that must be addressed upfront.

Let’s not kid ourselves; with all the best will in the world, these issues will be strongly contested. That contest will be held within the context where Councillors are grappling with the balance between a restorationist/rehabilitation instinct and a reimagination/reformist instinct. It’s time for a “Catholic Third Way” in order to triangulate these tectonic plates on which the Assembly teeters.

In a structure as conservative as the Church, gradual change is in itself a major step forward. However, some steps have already been laid out clearly by the Royal Commission findings and they must be implemented in full and seen to be. Otherwise, the same instinct to dismiss criticism as unwanted and misguided will only further entrench distrust and have the Church itself dismissed and unwanted.

Fortunately, there is a considered and intelligent roadmap available. The Light From the Southern Cross Report, commissioned by the bishops and religious leaders, published in 2020, outlines measures to improve Church governance within the confines of the Canon law. It addresses the findings of the Royal Commission and instils contemporary standards of accountability and transparency. It offers solutions to the paucity of formation of Catholic adults and it suggests measures for the renewal of seminaries. Frankly, it has done the work but awaits the nerve from church leaders to be implemented in full across the whole Church.

Councillors could do themselves a big favour between now and next July’s Second Assembly. They could read it!


9 October 2021

Cultural Change – 9 October 2021

Blog by Francis Sullivan, CSSA Chair

Take heart, the drumbeats of change are echoing through the Plenary Council. Reports on the Assembly’s work are making the cases for change. Across many of the working groups, there are calls for solidarity with the aspirations of First Nations people for constitutional recognition; adoption of innovative models for lay/clerical governance; expansion of programs for contemporary lay and religious formation (academic and other); professional supervision for clergy and Church workers and importantly, the expansion of the influential participation of women, including consideration of women deacons. So, thankfully, these issues are on the table and cannot be discarded or ignored.

That said, our Church attitude and culture appears to be based on an outdated understanding of personhood. In other words, the understanding of Christian anthropology has not kept pace with the insights of the human sciences and contemporary understandings of personal development, including around gender and its diversity. It underpins why there is such a disconnect with the Church in the western world at least. It risks rendering our attempts at missionary outreach to be far less effective than they could be. Whether we are talking about being relevant to young people as they explore their place in the world or bridging the chasm with LGBTIQA+ people and their full participation in the life of the Church. A more nuanced understanding of personhood would better inform our pastoral practice, including resolving the issue of access to the reception of the Eucharist for divorced and remarried Catholics.

The late Bishop Geoffrey Robinson spent years leading a more enlightened and pastorally driven whole of Church response to the sex abuse scandal. He penned a book-length reflection entitled “Confronting Power and Sex in the Catholic Church”.

It stirred the pot. He was not popular with some of his episcopal colleagues or with Catholics unsettled by his critique. But his main points still stand. Whether consciously or not, the Church culture posits real power with men and clerics in particular. It dismisses the insidious effects of denying human sexuality and its repression. It scapegoats the influences of homosexuality and pays lip service to the equality of women at all levels. Those in positions of power and influence have been found to misuse or ignore canon laws that would have revealed the abuse of their authority.

This is a cultural problem. We are still by instinct a closed system, with our own codes of conduct and entitlement. Some are more privileged than others and have better access to real influence and decision making than others. The inertia that characterises the organisation can be devastating for those who long to be identified with a vibrant and welcoming Church.

The upshot is that the best will in the world will not break through if we remain isolated from the best insights into human development and interpersonal growth. To break through, we definitely need a “missionary impulse”. We can’t remain content as a “people set apart” as if an alternative universe somehow is attractive. So far, the numbers just don’t prove it.

At the heart of our current crisis is the disinterest of the wider society, including those Catholics who have drifted from meaningful participation. Disinterest tells us plainly that we need to become relevant and relatable. At the same time, we need honest appraisals of the attitudes the Church projects to people who feel at odds with a conventional understanding of being “a good Catholic”. Despite some pastors best efforts, there are still undertones of discrimination and judgment. This is divisive and ultimately counterproductive to any actions motivated by a ‘missionary impulse’.

The Plenary Council has a unique opportunity to overtly express the heart of our Church. The deliberations of this First Assembly suggest we are well on the way in this important journey. Pope Francis calls us to the “art of accompaniment”. He draws on the book of Exodus, saying that accompaniment “teaches us to remove our sandals before the sacred ground of the other”. The image is poignant and speaks of staying with the other in a spirit of reverence for their dignity and worth. 

Talking about ourselves with only ourselves won’t help. We will need to be informed about the emerging understandings of personhood. We need better access to the insights of applied theologies in this field if ultimately our Church can shift to being relevant and relatable as a Church of the Now!


8 October 2021

The Times They Are a-Changin’8 October 2021

Blog by Francis Sullivan, CSSA Chair

Leaving today’s Assembly reminded me of a story from a good mate. He recalled pouring out of a Dylan concert and overhearing the bloke in front saying to his girlfriend that the songs bore no resemblance to their peak in the 1970s. And even the newer tracks just didn’t hit the mark.

Gradually over the week, the Assembly has heard a wide spectrum of heartfelt suggestions, ranging from the nostalgic through to the revolutionary. Almost like Catholics in therapy! Some things hit the mark and others hark back to times that I remember fondly but no longer work for me.

Pope Francis warns the Church to not miss the change in era. The old ‘rock stars’ need to step aside. There are only so many ‘Farewell Tours’ the fans can take! And the fans are voting with their feet.

By its nature, a change in era implies a change in the terms of engagement. A paradigm shift is essential for the effectiveness of the mission of the Church. It is not about efforts to restore or even to renovate ‘business as usual’. It is more than rehabilitation. A renaissance, a reimagining, best hits the mark. Being a Church on mission requires new information and a committed disposition to engage and affirm. It is about compassion, not imposing convention or compliance. But we need new methods to accomplish this.

We live in times where new knowledge arising from new social and scientific understandings, including cosmic and ecological, provide new insights into emerging personhood. We also have the data on a society defined by gross inequities, breaches of human rights and intractable inter-generational poverty. A vibrant Church will insist on being at the coalface of these challenges. Not with a set of propositions but rather with a driving desire to restore human dignity, balance the scales of justice, and reverence the people and land we work with and live on.

As it currently stands, the Assembly seems to teeter on tectonic plates. Some are comfortable with the traditional notion of the Church, almost as a bulwark against society. An alternative universe, determined to preserve beliefs and traditions from the corrosive influences of secularism. Then there are those calling for the Church to embrace the new sciences and the unfolding appreciations of human development to better relate to the world around it. Little wonder the Councillors express frustration with the process to date.

Many of us have been formed in the tribal culture of old or enlivened by the new ecclesial movements. However, the challenge is to avoid becoming ‘museum pieces’ to use Pope Francis’ term. We all need to resist ‘pumping air into old tyres’. That is, our complex world does not require simplistic, static answers. Our theology needs to evolve as God’s creation evolves. 

A case in point is how we can get stuck on our understanding of the human person. We need to be conscious of notions of personhood that are actually prescientific concepts that don’t do justice to those who stand before, with and apart from us. Again, I think of the rainbow people in particular.

I feel a degree of apprehension at this moment in the Assembly. I worry that the Councillors, myself included, do not have the information or time to digest the profound paradigm shift that is before us. Serious scholarship and spiritual direction led the enlightenment of the Second Vatican Council. We need access to similar input and formation if the magnitude of the task can be embarked on with authenticity and hope.

With so much still ‘up-in-the-air’ perhaps tomorrow will provide the direction we need for a strategy to take us further on this path of renewed mission and relevance.


7 October 2021

Confronting Abuse – 7 October 2021

Blog by Francis Sullivan, CSSA Chair

Today was very powerful. In a Special Plenary focused on those who had been abused and hurt by our Church we were led through a lamentation session and on into serious reflection and discussion. The atmosphere was solemn, the burden far from light.

This was an important session. Confronting the shameful history of abuse is vital. That history is alive today. It is something we carry as a Church, and it must shape us as a Church.

Unless all the implications of the sex abuse scandal are faced head-on, I fear the Church will struggle to be identified for anything else in my lifetime. Of course, there are many fine works conducted in the name of the Church. I am involved in both the social service and health ministries. But the dark shadow of the scandal lurks. It will continue to for as long as the Church appears not to have fully atoned for the crimes and the cover-ups. It will continue until the Church comes to terms with itself. What were the cultural factors that permitted concealment and complicity? What instincts drove Bishops, leaders and their advisors to disbelieve victims and to seek to silence them? 

These are difficult questions that go to the fundamental question of why a Church would treat people, children firstly, so badly. Why also would a Church harbour criminals and go to great lengths to protect them? What were the ‘working assumptions’ for those in positions of power and influence that ultimately put the institution before the welfare of children?

I know that Church processes of accountability and safeguarding are light years better today than in previous times. I also know that administrators and ecclesial leaders are far more determined to ensure safety for children. But still, things are less than best practice.

The Church effectively still investigates itself in meeting safeguarding standards and addressing initial complaints. There does not appear to be a consistent approach to dealing with reparations for victims across the Church. The voices of victims seem absent from the governance structures charged with dealing with abuse cases. The recommended accountability and professional supervision measures for clergy and Church personnel are far from implemented. There has still not been a comprehensive national report on the ‘state of play’ of the current cases of abuse, the resolution of cases and the financial reparations made.

Councillors have been asked to ‘see through the eyes of those who have been abused’. The best way for that to happen is to allow the experiences of the abuse to influence what we see, what we decide and what we do.

Councillors also are continually reminded of Pope Francis’ call to respond to a ‘missionary impulse’. Reaching out to the abused, be they sexually or otherwise, will help ignite that impulse and burn the flame for change.

Related media: The Plenary Council confronts Church abuse, The Catholic Leader


6 October 2021

The Journey – 6 October 2021

Blog by Francis Sullivan, CSSA Chair

Today more than any other, brought home to me that we are just four days into a 9-month journey. The Councillors are becoming more familiar with the listening process, and probably if they are like me, more patient in how resolutions and final motions will be developed. As it happens the Plenary Council President, Archbishop Tim Costelloe, made it clear that final motions will be voted on in the next Assembly listed for July 2022. He encouraged the drafting of resolutions now. So, the heat is on to craft some tangible proposals or miss out on advancing issues that the Steering Group will in turn sift.

This is where the rubber hits the road. Obviously, the Steering Group is key and so too are the criteria they will use to assess whether a resolution can be morphed into a formal motion. Issues of Church law, doctrine and pastoral practice evidently form the basis of that determination. I hope this doesn’t mean that proposals to amend, even change Church positions will not be discounted outright. We need to test a range of issues within the full Assembly: increasing influential participation of women, expanding inclusion of the laity in governance, stripping our culture of the toxic influence of clericalism, and overtly bringing about our communion with LGBTIQA+ people. To do less than these things means we would have failed.

I could not let the day pass without mentioning the devastating reports of the Independent Commission into the sexual abuse of children in the Catholic Church of France. An estimated 216,000 children suffered abuse and the French Church was described as showing ‘cruel indifference’. As one Councillor and friend said to me today, he struggled to breathe after hearing the reports.

It can sound trite, but here we go again! The French bishops ask for forgiveness and promise to act. It has a familiar ring to it. We must act with resolve and definitively. We must resist any temptation to ‘put the scandal behind us and move on’. That is too defensive, too self-protective, too institution focussed. Unless those who have been abused and those who have been traumatised by this scandal can experience real atonement from the Church, then the scandal has not been properly faced.

Tomorrow the Council will have a special plenary concentrating on the hurt caused and the abuse perpetrated by the Church. On behalf of us all, the Plenary Council needs to speak loudly and compassionately to those we know have been victims and to those who silently look from afar. And actions speak the loudest.


5 October 2021

Inclusion – 5 October 2021

Blog by Francis Sullivan, CSSA Chair

Today’s sessions enabled more participants to have a say. Passionate, heartfelt interventions on a range of issues so typical of a ‘Catholic free for all’! It was heartening to hear members raise concerns over the participation of women, the outreach to new Australians and the missionary agenda for the Church. However, what struck me most starkly were the voices that have been effectively silenced in the Plenary’s Agenda. This was even more clear to me after our small group session of Scripture reflection.

As it stands, we are not being directed to seriously contemplate the plight of the LGBTIQA+ people in the Church. This raises distinctive issues that need attention. The experiences of ‘rainbow’ people in our Church have been fraught and still are overshadowed by discrimination, even exclusion. The residue of the same-sex marriage debate still lingers, as do the unresolved pastoral matters of access to the sacraments, including the Eucharist. For some Catholics, this is a bridge too far and they resist any practical measures that would seem to ‘change Church teachings’. 

But, is this the heart of the Gospel? Is our Church practice consistent with the Gospel? 

From my perspective, we have a lot to learn from wider society. The stigma and barriers surrounding LGBTIQA+ people have been rapidly dismantling in recent years as enlightened understandings are assimilated. The respect for diversity in personal development and human relationships has led to more harmonious and healthy attitudes. The insistence on the non-discriminatory treatment of people based on sex, gender and religion has contributed to more inclusive authentic communities.

Yet, the Church runs the risk of leaving LGBTIQA+ people at the margins. Rather than meeting them there and bringing them into the fold with the promise of full participation, they remain ‘off the agenda’, left in the ‘too hard basket’.

Like many practising Catholics, this issue is close to my heart through the experiences of my own family. Whether they realise it or not, the tone and impact of the language of Church spokespersons and others declaring what they call ‘Church teachings’, is judgemental, demeaning and hurtful. It is simply not enough to say that everyone is loved by God and then draw a line in the sand over the full participation in the faith community of our ‘rainbow’ sisters and brothers, daughters and sons, grandchildren and friends.


4 October 2021

Listening – 4 October 2021

Blog by Francis Sullivan, CSSA Chair

Today’s sessions have stressed the importance of listening as the key to the discernment process. Not as simple as it sounds. I certainly have entered this process having read plenty and talked to many. We were asked to take this seriously and I assume most members have likewise done some homework and sought the views of others. The degree to which members have been involved in support groups, discussion nights or even formal renewal organisations will vary. What probably doesn’t differ is the sincerity of their involvement and desire to help bring about change.

That is why I am perplexed by those who express concern that the Plenary Council could simply be a political play and a tussle akin to factional politics. To reduce Church dynamics to that of mere politics is too simplistic. Of course, there will be strongly held views. These often come from very educated people, theologically trained and pastorally experienced. Others are widely read or have lived through tough times and struggled to remain engaged with the Church, and so express themselves accordingly. There will be people who have grown frustrated by what they have encountered as the rigidity of the Church, its judgmental tone and absolutist postures. They, too, can express disenchantment, even despair that their sense of belonging is being undermined. There are others too who feel unsettled by challenges to their understanding of Church and religious practice. They likewise express trepidations over the future of the Church through the lens of what has worked for them and the communities they belong to. These are not political statements, nor are they weaponised chants to either bring down or fortify the institution, as if they are part of some political crusade. Nor are they shots over the bows of episcopal authority. 

For me, they are genuine voices that cry out to be heard. They are the groans of a people wanting to cultivate a place of nurture and spiritual and moral direction. A place that is inclusive and respectful of differences. A place that actually makes real our belief that God is love, and we are here to explore how love works.

Some bishops, for years now, have been concerned that the Plenary Council will be used to weaken the notion of an episcopal led Church. Frankly, we don’t have the time to entertain that reactionary approach. We do need bishops and laypeople to stand shoulder and shoulder together, looking in the same direction, implementing a strategy of mission that builds unity across differences.

To that end, the Assembly will need to get down to specifics. As I indicated in my blog yesterday, I raised the issue of women’s participation in governance and ordained ministries in the Open Assembly today. I will respect the privacy of those discussions but be reassured that many members have contacted me expressing support for this issue and indicated their desire to advance it in the course of the Assembly’s dialogues.

We also began the small group process this afternoon. I have been allocated to a group that is exploring two questions:

(1) How might we better accompany one another on the journey of personal and communal conversion, which mission in Australia requires?

(2) How might the Church in Australia respond to the call to ‘ecological conversion’? How can we express and promote a commitment to an ‘integral ecology of life’ in all its dimensions, with particular attention to the more vulnerable people and environments in our country and region?


3 October 2021

Opening Eucharist – 3 October 2021

Blog by Francis Sullivan, CSSA Chair

In today’s opening Eucharist Archbishop Tim Costello stressed that we are a Pilgrim People. For me, this means being a community humble enough to keep seeking the truth. To keep striving for authentic ways to relate to each other; to those who are not in the community and to those who feel at odds with the community. 

As I participated in the mass online, I couldn’t help but be reminded of the diversity of ways Catholics identify these days. Some practice in conventional ways. Others find their religious expression through good works and community services. Others still have found nurture and sustenance in specific movements and spiritualities, including being involved with social justice groups, refugee support and meditation communities. 

We know that nearly 90 per cent don’t attend regular weekend worship. But it doesn’t mean that they still don’t value a spiritual search and are not embarked on a life of meaning and service. Often they find real congruency between their religious values and the life choices, daily decisions that mark their place in the world and their disposition to others.

The variety of Catholic identities is a healthy sign of a Church on the move. It shows that to be Catholic is to be adaptable to the times. It shows a willingness to embrace the social context and work with the cultural parameters that often define how ordinary people find ways to navigate the questions of life. It is what Pope Francis means when he calls for a Church that ‘goes to the streets’, relates ‘at the margins’, has ‘the smell of the sheep’.

As we assemble to discern what God is asking of the Church in Australia, I want to be ever mindful of the diversity of Catholicism in Australia. I want to resist being caught up in an image of Catholicism that is ‘too white bread’, too conventional. Rather I hope the Assembly can recognise the varieties of ‘being Catholic’ and affirm people on that journey.

And related to that are the various voices from the diverse corners of our Catholic community. Throughout the consultation period leading to this Assembly many voices called for particular issues to be addressed by the Plenary Council. Such as the central concern of the full participation of women in governance and ministry. Groups like Catholic Social Services Victoria have suggested that an additional agenda item, Justice and Equity, should be included. Whether it will or not is unclear. Surely the organisers should address this upfront.

We have been told that those voices have been heard. We have also been told that the issues will be addressed in the course of the Plenary Council. Yet the current agenda is less specific. We are told not to stress, that it all be accommodated.

Well, tomorrow morning in the first plenary session, broadcast live, the formal agenda will be approved. Members can ask for clarifications or make specific interventions of concern. To do so, members flag any intervention with the Steering Group the night before. I have asked the group to consider informing all the Plenary Council members how specific issues raised in the consultations will actually be able to be discussed and voted on. Hopefully, the answer will be there for all to see!

Related media: Australia’s historic Plenary Council gathering that could reshape the Church, The Catholic Leader


1 October 2021

Assembly of the Plenary Council needs to deliver reform

Blog by Francis Sullivan, CSSA Chair

I am a delegate for the Plenary Council which starts with the first Assembly from 3rd to 10th October. Because I am locked down in Canberra, like the majority of delegates, I will be attending all sessions online. Not my preference but it is what it is!

I intend to send out a blog at the end of each day. It will be my reflections on the discussions held and the evolution of the agenda. Speaking of agenda there has already been a fair bit of disquiet over what actually will be discussed at the Assembly. When the Plenary Council got underway over four years ago the organisers encouraged Catholics to get involved. We were asked to “discern” what God was asking of the Church in Australia. A tall order indeed! That said, the organisers received 17,500 submissions covering the views of well over 200,000 Catholics. Impressive in anyone’s language. 

Since then the submissions were distilled into 6 thematic papers for discussion within the Church. Ultimately the Assembly is presented with 16 broadly based questions. They are somewhat anodyne and difficult to see where the specific issues raised in the submissions will be brought to the table. But brought to the table they must. There has been too much consultation for issues to be swept aside or placed in the ‘too hard basket’.

I like other delegates will enter the Assembly open-minded, with a disposition to respectfully listen and then discuss issues without prejudice. At the same time, this is a time for our Church to face facts. We are in crisis. On any indicator, be it participation rates, financial health or public influence, the Church is in decline. The sex abuse scandal has eroded the public’s trust in the Church. Ordinary Catholics likewise have been confronted by the shameful cover-ups, secrecy and deceit that characterised the scandal. The moral failure of the Church leadership was castigated by the Royal Commissioners.

Unless we confront, head-on, the culture that enabled the scandal to go on for so long, I fear that we will continue to see the decline and irrelevancy of the Church in my lifetime.

These days a common catch cry is that there is no synodality without spirituality. Pope Francis wants the spirit of synodality to echo the humble, listening Church he has often spoken about. He calls for a poor Church of the poor. This must be our starting point. We need to shed the vestiges of the medieval authority structure, the entitlements of clericalism and the male dominated decision making and policy formulation processes. We need a Church that better reflects the diversity and composition of the communities it seeks to serve. A Church that has an institutional instinct to be missionary, not propositional. A Church that doesn’t insist on people fitting into a predetermined mould, but rather is a place where unity across differences is its hallmark. A Church where compassion, not convention, is the term of engagement with society. Well, the dialogue begins this Sunday and I am keen to be involved. After my years working for the Truth Justice and Healing Council, I feel privileged to have this opportunity to once again contribute to my Church which has been so integral to my life and how I go about life. Please feel free to respond to my blogs and let’s pray that the Spirit gets a say too!


Media Statement – 1 October 2021 – Catholic Church policy summit needs to deliver reform