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Strapped in for the Plenary Council ride

  • 26 August 2021
Those of us who are members of the Plenary Council are now strapped in for what looks likely to be an uncertain ride. Some members, having concluded their initial formal formation and training, are now meeting in officially organised discussion sessions to build up their preparation for the first assembly which is now just over a month away. The wider community is also making final efforts by whatever means are possible to make its concerns known to members, including through the official Microsoft Teams website. 

Since their selection early last year the ground has been shifting under the feet of PC members under the influence of the Covid-19 pandemic. First the assembly was delayed by twelve months. Then it was reduced from a national face-to face assembly in Adelaide to a mixed-mode assembly conducted virtually from five hubs in the major state metropolitan cities. Ten days ago, it was changed again to a fully virtual assembly in which members will be based in isolation in their homes, supplemented by very limited social gatherings in some centres where that is permitted by government regulations. The situation remains fluid, but the members are increasingly isolated. 

The metaphor ‘strapped in for the ride’ has several meanings, each of which emphasises the fact that the members have almost no ability to influence the journey we find ourselves on. We are passengers in a vehicle which has been imported from Rome to facilitate the task of discerning the future of the church in Australia. The Plenary Council vehicle is not Australian-made, although the Australian authorities have been allowed to make some minor local modifications. 

The consequence of the changes which have been made under the duress of the pandemic are enormous and should not be overlooked. They make the chance of successful outcomes, however they might be defined, much more problematic. Yet the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference has deliberately downplayed the latest change towards the bottom of a media release headed ‘Technology in place for first plenary council assembly’. The leader of the Plenary Council Facilitation team, Lana Turvey-Collins, described the latest change as a ‘pivot’ rather than a ‘detour’.  

PC members, other than bishops, still remain in the dark about significant matters, which appear to have been decided by the bishops months ago. These include the list of non-voting experts and observers. The PC assembly process has failed to be a model for the synodality under which it