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ADELAIDE, Australia (ChurchMilitant.com) - Sweeping changes are coming to the Church "Down Under," and the faithful are expressing alarm.
The Australian hierarchy announced that, in October 2020, episcopal leaders will convene in Adelaide to determine a way forward for a Church decimated by years of sex abuse scandals, collapsing vocations and parish closings.
"Plenary Council 2020" will summon every bishop, auxiliary bishop, titular bishop, vicar general and episcopal vicar in the country to South Australia to "discern what God is asking of us." This will largely be facilitated by gathering feedback from laity over the next two years on where the Church needs to change to correspond with the new times.
Toward that end, Catholics are being asked to weigh in and offer their response to the question "What do you think God is asking of us in Australia at this time?"
In the lead-up to the council, organizers have launched a two-year series of nationwide "dialogue and listening encounters" to help decide the future of the Church in Australia.
Participants — "all of God's people," according to the council website — are asked to reflect on the question: "What do you think God is asking of us in Australia at this time?"
Organizers explain these encounters "will help us to prepare to listen to God by listening to one another."
They note the council "has the authority to make church laws on the results of its discernment." The decisions made at the council, they add, will become "binding for the Catholic Church in Australia."
After its opening session in Adelaide, the council will reconvene (likely in Sydney) in mid-2021. Organizers say this format will "enable deeper discernment, further learning, dialogue and listening where it may be needed" and allow documents to be written or rewritten "in response to the dialogue of the first session."
The national gathering is being organized in response to moral crises inside and outside the Church.
"[T]he Church is not the presence in our society it once was," conceded Brisbane Abp. Mark Coleridge after the council's unveiling. "We need to take a measure of that and make decisions accordingly. The [c]ulture in which we have to proclaim the Gospel is very different to what it was even 20 or 30 years ago."
Addressing the decline of the Church in August 2016, Bp. Vincent Long Van Nguyen of Parramatta observed, "In Australia, we seem to have reached a critical juncture."
"Not only are we afflicted by such things as the decline in Sunday worship, the fall in religious practice, the death of the priesthood and religious life ... we also face the biggest challenge to date, which is the loss of our moral credibility and trust capital due to the sexual abuse crisis," he said.
The answers to these crisis, the bishops assert, will come from "listening to the Spirit" in Adelaide.
Among Australia's faithful Catholics, concern is growing that these "listening sessions" will be used as a pretext to enact radical changes in Church discipline.
They find the language being used troubling. For example, in a video message introducing the Plenary Council, Abp. Costelloe describes the national gathering as "a call to action," suggesting that God is speaking to Australian faithful "in all kinds of ways."
"Before everything else, our job is to listen," he urges. "We will need to listen to many different voices, for God speaks in many different ways, some of them likely to surprise us."
Archbishop Costelloe explains that during the "dialogue and listening encounters," God will speak "through the realities of our own lives and the challenges of our times" — an ambiguous statement that seems to elevate personal experience alongside Sacred Scripture and Tradition.
The Perth prelate continues:
No matter where you might find yourself in relation to the Church — deeply involved, only partially engaged, uncertain or disillusioned or even angry, on the margins, or perhaps a friendly or critical outsider looking in — we need to hear from you for we are sure that God speaks to us all, and the Church needs to listen to everyone. Listening can sometimes be a difficult or confronting thing. Sometimes when we listen really carefully, we hear things that surprise us or even unsettle us. We might have some of our strongly held views challenged or even turned upside down.
"Each person's perspective will be valued," he adds.
The council's Bishops Commission is not inspiring confidence among faithful Catholics.
"[T]here must be space for everyone, especially those who have been hurt, excluded or alienated, be they abuse victims, survivors, divorcees, gays, lesbians, women, disaffected members," he said in an August 2016 address. The Church "will be less than what Christ intends it to be when issues of inclusion and equality are not fully addressed."
Observers are also noting similarities between Long's advice in the lead-up to the 2017 same-sex "marriage" referendum and that surrounding the Plenary Council.
In a September 2017 pastoral letter, for example, Bp. Long told his flock the question of gay marriage "should not be a matter of a simple answer — yes or no." Instead, he described the vote as "an opportunity ... to listen to what the Spirit is saying through the signs of the times."
Faithful Catholics are wondering which "spirit" the Plenary Council will reflect: the Holy Spirit or the spirit of the age.