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A skeleton for the Plenary Council agenda

  • 25 March 2021
Continuing the Journey, the working document (or instrumentum laboris), is another stepping stone towards the Plenary Council (PC). How you view this document, provided explicitly both to those few hundred called to be PC participants and to the whole Catholic community, depends very much on your expectations. Few Catholics had any prior idea because the document was mysterious and written behind closed doors. As well as the writing team, presumably the Australian bishops and perhaps the Vatican shaped the final product. 

The document describes itself as an initial reference point and as a skeleton for a future PC agenda. The job of putting flesh on the bones will be crucial and must be done as openly as possible. This one was written by a four-person team, including Archbishop Timothy Costelloe, Fr Kevin Lenehan and two other church employees, Daniel Ang and Dr Trudy Dantis, the lone woman. There was no public discussion. 

The document is meant to be widely read. It contains a preface and five chapters, of which the agenda will come largely from the third and the fourth, a distillation of ‘what the People of God have expressed, especially — though not exclusively — in the Listening and Dialogue and Listening and Discernment phases of the Plenary Council journey’. In other words, they are a distillation of the six Listening and Discernment papers. The first chapter is an informative historical introduction, ‘the story so far’. The second chapter is a theological reflection, and the fifth chapter proposes St Mary Mackillop as a model of Australian discipleship and issues an invitation to follow in the footsteps of her ‘practical spirituality’. 

The whole document is not just about possible agenda items but, perhaps more significantly, about the style, approach and process by which topics will be discussed. Ignatian discernment is at the heart of this approach. It is through such discernment by all participants that the Holy Spirit will be revealed. 

The difficult task of producing such a document must be acknowledged. We should appreciate its strengths and recognise its purpose. It discusses most possible agenda items and in doing so offers some bold statements and striking summaries of the situation the church finds itself in. 

But it does contain critical failures in both style and content. Some of these flow from the fact that, as someone described it to me, it is a distillation of a distillation of a distillation of the original 17,