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Evaluating plenary: One journey ends, another begins

  • 28 October 2021
Ten days after the conclusion of the first Assembly of the Plenary Council each member was sent an Evaluation Form to complete. As well as reflecting on our experience we were asked to consider how we would complete the phrase ‘It would have been good if…’. The authorities told us that our responses would help to plan the second Assembly. 

In my own response I noted that the working of the first Assembly itself could not be separated from the preparations for it. These preparations got us to the Assembly starting point and that point shaped where we halted. 

The preparation for the second Assembly is very much a case of ‘Here we go again’. We are replicating a previous journey and we must learn the lessons in a way which improves the whole experience. The quality of the second Assembly will depend upon it.  

The nine-month journey from the Working Document to the first Assembly Agenda Questions looks to me very much like the similar length journey which faces us from now to next July. 

The ingredients are very similar. There are inputs, internal mechanisms such as committees to process the inputs, and finally outputs. 

Prior to the first Assembly there were the 17,500 submissions from the faithful of Australia. These were then summarised in national and diocesan reports from the National Centre for Pastoral Research of the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference (ACBC). The first subsequent dilution came with the work of the six Writing and Discernment groups organised around themes chosen by the Plenary Council authorities. Following this stage a four-person drafting committee produced the Working Document (Instrumentum Laboris). The final step was again taken by the PC authorities themselves, producing the 16 Agenda Questions, which shaped the Assembly itself. These questions were then distributed for discernment across ten small groups of about thirty members each. 

'Like all church matters, the governance of the Plenary Council must be more synodal than it has been so far. For this to happen it must be more transparent, inclusive and accountable.' 

The regular calls for greater transparency in this process by reform groups were not a theoretical synodal exercise, but a practical attempt to improve the outcomes of the process by opening it up to wider scrutiny. Those in responsible positions, such as the Bishops Commission, the Executive Committee and the Facilitation Team, failed to seek the assistance of the wider Catholic community. Good process was ignored, and