Reflecting on the Plenary Council

Scripture scholar and Jesuit priest, Fr Brendan Byrne SJ, was appointed as one of twenty "periti", Latin for “experts”, for the Plenary Council. He shares his experience of the First General Assembly, held online last week.

About a month before the first session of the Plenary Council of Australia (3–10 October, 2021), I was appointed, along with nineteen other experts in various fields, as a peritus (Latin for “expert”) for the meeting. Canon law allows for the appointment of such advisors for officials assemblies of the Church, the most significant of which in recent times has of course been the Second Vatican Council. So I found myself, along with fellow Jesuit, Fr Frank Brennan SJ, among a group of scholars, women and men, drawn from a wide range of expertise and experience—administrative, canonical, social, but predominantly theological. Alongside me as a Scripture scholar was long-standing colleague and friend, Fr Frank Moloney SDB.

The prospect of having the meeting and all personal interaction conducted entirely in digital format was daunting. It took a day or so to find one’s way through the technical challenges but a superb facilitation team in this respect meant help was always at hand. After a while one did have a sense of community forming. In fact, one of the things I found most moving each morning was the “checking in” process, of over 300 hundred participants, from all over Australia, usually beginning with an acknowledgment of country from where the member was joining. Each day’s first plenary session also began with a formal acknowledgment of country lasting up to fifteen minutes, with an emphasis on young people.

As advisors we attended all the Plenary sessions, including those closed to the public. We did not participate in what was really the “heart” of the process—the small group reflection sessions in the afternoons that followed the Ignatian discernment process that Br Ian Cribb SJ had introduced to the bishops. However, we heard the reports from the groups and also direct three-minute interventions by members towards the end of the plenary sessions. These gave an overall sense of the meeting as it proceeded.

Our role was a rather passive one at this stage of the overall process. We did not offer interventions off our bat. We were there to offer advice in areas of our specialty when it was asked for. Only once did an advisor make a public intervention in this session. This occurred when Richard Lennan, an Australian theologian currently based at the Jesuit School of Theology and Ministry at Boston College (Boston, USA), was asked to give a brief, seven-minute input on “The Church as Mission”, which he did superbly. Our role will become more active, we were assured, in the months following the meeting when proposals arising out of it are being drafted for presentation and enactment at the second full session in early July 2022.

After each morning’s session, the advisors “met” (digitally) as a group to reflect on what we had heard. Granted the quality of the expertise present, from a variety of perspectives, these discussions, ably chaired by Adelaide theologian James McEvoy, were very engaging,

On the whole, I found the whole process of the Plenary “edifying” in the traditional sense. The witness of discipleship and commitment to the Church that came in from so many regions of our vast country and from such a variety of people—young and old, women and men, lay and cleric—was truly impressive. Of course, people were coming from different perspectives, different ecclesiologies. Achieving an overall unity will be a task for the Holy Spirit. But, having long had misgivings about the wisdom of holding a Plenary Council at all, I am now more hopeful that, under God’s grace, something will be achieved.