Plenary2020: Exploring communal discernment

Staying fresh to the mission 

Over 100 parish priests and parish representatives from across the Archdiocese (and beyond) gathered on Saturday 10 August at the Cardinal Knox Centre for an opportunity to learn about the next phase of the Plenary Council process. On hand to present were Rev. Dr Kevin Lenehan (Associate Dean, Catholic Theological College) and Lana Turvey-Collins (Facilitator for the Plenary Council).

Fr Kevin began the session by reflecting on the practice of discernment, which he said has long been part of the Christian Tradition, and was in fact integral to the survival of the first-century Christian community. He pointed out that in the Acts of the Apostles, Luke offers a window into the context within which the early Church operated.

'Luke dedicates chapters 10-15—five chapters—of the Acts of the Apostles to the church trying to cope with, respond to, and discern its way through to the first issue that could have brought the church to an end … and that challenge, of course, was the Gentiles responding to God and the gospel and the holy spirit and seeking to be part of the church.'

'Gradually… Peter and those with him recognise that the Holy Spirit is at work in Cornelius [the Roman centurion] and in his household, and Peter baptises him.'

It is interesting to note, Fr Kevin said, that this was happening at a time when persecution came from within and outside the church community. He said that Luke’s focus on the developments within the early church presents us with a model for how we—the church today—might move forward and grapple with the challenges facing us.

He reminded participants that discernment is not limited to reflection without action, stressing that any form of discernment must involve methods for testing and seeking responses. 'There is no stasis in matters of the Spirit—the Spirit is always moving—in response to the needs of the times but always in fidelity to the original mission.'

Fr Kevin offered that any kind of communal discernment must involve:
• respectful listening to the narratives of faith, the prophetic voices, how they have experienced the Lord’s presence
• reflection on Scripture and Tradition
• the role of leadership in listening, facilitating, and proposing next steps
• a willingness to ‘sit in the fire’ (A. Mindell) of conflict, resentment, stagnation, fear
• testing results of decision-making against communal consent, early positive outcomes and a confirmation of more authentic mission
• communication of decisions (and their reasons) to all levels of the community.

In the second half of the session, participants listened to Lana Turvey-Collins (Facilitator for the Plenary Council), who offered an update on the plans and preparations for the Plenary.

Lana outlined the process that was taken to reach the six national discernment themes, and in doing so acknowledged the work of the parish leaders present, many of whom shared that the Plenary had given their local communities a tool for parish renewal and a re-focusing on the mission.

Lana said that the first phase of listening and dialogue had provided a rich tapestry of ‘anecdotal realities’ from people across the country. 'This has enabled us to say something of the past; to acknowledge the current realities, but it does not cast a vision. That’s what this [next] discernment stage is all about.'

The next stage of the Plenary, the listening and discernment stage, is an invitation to move from the question of 'what is God asking of us?' to addressing how the People of God can become a Christ-centred Church in Australia that is:

• Missionary and Evangelising
• Inclusive, Participatory and Synodal
• Prayerful and Eucharistic
• Humble, Healing and Merciful
• A Joyful, Hope-Filled and Servant Community
• Open to conversion, Renewal and Reform.

Lana said that this next phase invites communities to enter into the practice of ‘spiritual conversations’. “This is not meant to be a debate of ideas but a prayerful, spiritual conversation ... It’s a process that involves prayer, listening, discernment, and having our minds and hearts moved,” she said.
Lana also said she felt confident that the bishops were listening. 'They had a retreat prior to their Ad Limina that we [the Plenary Facilitation Team] designed and constructed. Br Ian Cribb sj and I led … they [the bishops] are giving over to being led into different habits and practices. The discernment and writing groups are a synodal model—they’re clerical and religious and lay together.'

She said that she and the Facilitation Team were buoyed by the 460 applications they’d received from people wanting to be part of the discernment and writing groups for this next stage of the Plenary. 'Four hundred and sixty people have put up their hand to do the discernment and writing [only 50 are needed] which is so inspiring and humbling to read all those applications … this is a great show of the grassroots, community faith leaders.'

As the church moves into this next phase of the Plenary journey, Lana encouraged parish leaders to make use of the listening and discernment guides and snapshot reports that are available from the Plenary Council website.

The Archbishop’s Office for Evangelisation has also prepared a parish engagement resource which offers parishes a model for how they might explore the six national themes for discernment locally.

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