With the Brisbane Archdiocesan Synod due in May 2003, the challenge for Archbishop John Bathersby is to unite his divided local Church in total fidelity to the Magisterium.
A serious re-evaluation of the state of affairs in the Archdiocese is undoubtedly necessary, given the catastrophic level of regular Mass attendance - now 13 percent, according to Archbishop Bathersby, and even fewer among the young - and the dearth of priestly vocations. This is a familiar picture in many Australian dioceses.
While many church groups in Brisbane are undoubtedly committed to the teachings of the Catechism of the Catholic Church and the program of the Statement of Conclusions, others have signalled their strong disagreement.
Certainly, the limbo of two Churches cannot be allowed to continue.
In recent years, various conferences and workshops in Brisbane have called for consideration of women priests, emphasis on "lay ministry" rather than on more priestly vocations, a more "authentic Australian Catholic identity" and less stress on dogma and doctrine. Private confession, Mass obligation, opposition to contraception, the priesthood as we know it, and central Vatican authority have been declared to be "dead" or "dying."
One conference in Brisbane in July 1999 saw the Statement of Conclusions dismissed as "these simplistic Vatican condemnations", a demand that "theology must be ecology-centred" and the Catechism and Code of Canon Law denigrated.
On 25 July 2000, the Archbishop announced a new phase to focus on evangelisation and named it Setting Hearts on Fire with an Archdiocesan Synod scheduled for 2003. The convocation decree on 3 December 2000 identified four areas as critical: the spiritual treasure of the Church, the spiritual hunger today, the spiritual life of young people, and nurturing the mission, ministry, and vocation of priests and people.
Unfortunately, a cacophony of self-assertive views and an attitude of dissent have dogged the consultative phase to date, with some calling for changing the Church to include women priests, married priests, liturgical roles for priests who have left, and a restoration of the Third Rite of Reconciliation.
In the Archbishop's September 2002 Pastoral Letter on the conclusions of deanery and special consultations, the call for the ordination of women was described as an indication of "the tension in the Church between its local and universal reality", while at the first Preparation Day in October, references by Fr David Pascoe and the Archbishop to theologians continuing to debate the possibility of women priests reinforced the impression that the irrevocable nature of the Pope's declaration on male-only priests was being widely misinterpreted or disregarded.
Fidelity to truth
So far there is a singular lack of strategies to re-evangelise the ecclesial community first before mission, or to have true dialogue based on listening to and accepting the interpretations of the Magisterium as required by John Paul II's Reconciliatio et Paenitentia. "Educating in Faith" has emerged as the top "Focus" so far, but is meaningless without the fidelity found so wanting in the "parallel church" identified by Professor Denis McLaughlin of ACU's McAuley Campus in Brisbane (see page 6).
Informed observers hope that foci and strategies will now be directed to solve the ever-deepening crises, with a real dialogue on vocations and formation for the priesthood and a stress on fidelity to truth - in formation and methodology for teachers and catechists, in Catholic school religious education curricula, parishes and the Catholic media. This should be based solidly on the Catechism and on sustained attention to crisis areas identified by the Australian Bishops in the Statement of Conclusions.
The second Preparation Day will be held in March 2003 and the Synod Assembly from 1 to 5 May (to finalise recommendations for Action), with the Proclamations to be made by the Archbishop on 8 June.
On the record so far, the Archbishop will need the Holy Spirit's guidance to prudently direct the outcome for the glory of God and the re-evangelisation of the flock.
Peter D. Howard is President of the Brisbane Association of Catholic Parents.