What is a Plenary Council? Why a Plenary Council?
A Plenary Council is a formal meeting of the bishops and other representatives of all the dioceses and eparchies of the Catholic Church in Australia. Its purpose is to discern what God is asking of us in Australia at this present time. While the church should be asking that question continually, a Plenary Council is a particularly graced instrument for seeking the Holy Spirit’s guidance. And it has the authority to make church laws on the results of its discernment.
Although in the end it will be the bishops who will vote on any future directions for the church in Australia, they will be making those decisions in the light of a long listening to the Holy Spirit speaking through the voices of any of the faithful who wish to speak around Australia. This makes the Plenary Council different from the last one in 1937. Everyone has a chance to participate and to express whatever the Spirit is saying to them in their heart.
From the Council of Jerusalem (Acts 15) through to the modern era most decisions of substance rested in the hands of councils or synods. The Council of Trent prescribed annual synods and the 1917 Code of Canon Law legislated for bishops to hold one every ten years. Finally, Vatican II desired, “that the venerable institution of synods and councils flourish with fresh vigour.” (Christus Dominus, 36)
Vatican II taught that the Church should be more dialogic and participatory in its processes, involving all the baptised in the Church. The council teaches that the whole Church has been given the gift of divine revelation, as well as the gift to interpret it faithfully. The bishops have a ministry of teaching that necessarily involves a process of listening to the voices of the faithful before they speak.
One of Pope Francis’ favourite quotes from Vatican II (Lumen Gentium, 12) concerns how the bishops have access to the Holy Spirit, so that they are faithfully interpreting and applying what God has revealed and is revealing. And that access comes through a special gift that all the baptised have received at their baptism when they are anointed with chrism. That gift is called “a sense for the faith” (sensus fidei). Moreover, the whole church together has this special gift, what is called “the faithful’s sense of the faith” (sensus fidelium).
Through this, Vatican II teaches, the Church is “infallible in believing”. So, this “sense of the faithful” is a sacred conduit for finding out what God is asking of us in Australia at this present time. The bishops’ role of “oversight” is to ensure that contemporary interpretations of divine revelation are faithful to the past. But, equally importantly, to ensure that God’s present activity in human history is being attended to. This is done by attending and interpreting to the signs of the times and listening to the faithful.
This, then, is what we hope to tap into during the preparatory stage leading up to the Fifth Plenary Council of Australia. We will be having “open dialogue and listening sessions”. Each person’s perspective will be valued. No individual has an infallible sense of the faith. We only have a sense of what God is wanting by allowing as many as possible to have a voice in the conversation God wants to have with the church. Singly we see a special viewpoint; together we see much more.
We hope over the next three years “to listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches”. This was the instruction given to the seven churches of Asia Minor in the Book of Revelation. From that time on Christians have met to listen to the Spirit at times of important decisions. We are called to do so again.
Vatican II spoke of how God, who spoke in the past, “continues to converse” with the church (Dei Verbum, 8). Through our Plenary Council, the Catholic Church hopes to enter more intensely into that divine-human dialogue.