The Brisbane Archdiocese, like other Australian dioceses to a greater or lesser extent, has been challenged to address a host of major problems threatening to erode the Church's spiritual impact during the present century, e.g., the ongoing decline of Sunday Mass attendance, now 13 percent in Brisbane, the continuing shortage of priests and miniscule seminary numbers, and public pressures, particularly from the media, burdening the task of evangelisation.
In response to these and other challenges, over the past two years, the Brisbane Archdiocese has been pooling recommended courses of action via a Synod.
How relevant or effective these prove to be remains to be seen, with Archbishop John Batherby due to promulgate pastoral programs to give effect to them on 27 July 2003.
Brisbane Synod 2003
Earlier, Brisbane Synod 2003 had assembled on 1-4 May, with some 800 delegates deliberating on ways in which the Church in Brisbane can be reinvigorated in its mission of transforming the world according to the mind of Christ.
The largely lay delegation called for this purpose by Archbishop Bathersby reflected the thinking of Pope John Paul II in his letters (Christifideles Laici, 1988, Novo Millenio Ineunte, 2000), and in the decentralised episcopal synods of the 1990s, to which the Pope had invited lay delegates. Subsequently, he called for diocesan synods at the start of the new millennium.
Through the Brisbane Synod assembly, seven broad action proposals, each containing outcomes and their implementation details, were recommended. Nine outcomes were also selected, to indicate priority in the recommendations.
This brief report can comment on just a few of these.
One of the proposals, "Building Communities of Faith", includes reference to a need for faith formation through small groups, with formation material requested from the archdiocese. The success of this approach will obviously depend on the calibre and reliability of the materials, e.g., being solidly grounded in the Catechism of the Catholic Church.
This proposal also recommends a closer connection between parishes and schools. Here one might envisage a more active exercise of a parish priest's catechetical role per medium of the new Catechism - as the Holy Father has recently urged.
The drop in priestly vocations is widely lamented, although reasons for, let alone awareness of, the significant resurgence of seminary numbers in other Australian dioceses are not touched upon. An obvious approach would be to pool ideas from the more successful seminaries in Perth, Melbourne and Sydney.
The Synod's call for "parishes to be welcoming and inclusive", while commendable in principle, needs to clarify that this "inclusiveness" is not open-ended, e.g., involving an unlimited 'right' to Holy Communion for people in a state of serious sin.
The zeal for sanctity, if not apparent in the Synod's highest priority outcome, "vibrant, meaningful and inclusive liturgies," is mentioned in other parts of "Celebrating Liturgy".
Since Vatican II, the liturgy has become a veritable battleground. Cardinal Avery Dulles summed it up neatly, recalling how he walked into a church hall, saw butcher's paper hanging on the wall marked "God is other people", and wished he could insert a comma to make it read: "God is other, people."
Now, with the recent release of Pope John Paul II's encyclical on the Eucharist - including a call for an end to liturgical abuses - it is more urgent than ever for Australia's dioceses, including Brisbane, to make this an explicit pastoral priority.
Spirituality was given a commendably high status by the Archbishop, with his reflection on a poem by St John of the Cross setting the tone as he reminded delegates that all possibilities could arise from a deep, interiorised faith - a faith which, he said, God continues to cultivate precisely when it seems most absent.
Some of the Synod's more promising recommendations appear under the heading of "Effective Communication."
These call for major archdiocesan resourcing for re-evangelisation in the local community and through the media in particular. The use of professional services and a public advisory group have been identified to enable a pro-active media presence. The Synod emphasised that if the Church does not speak for itself and its values, others, usually hostile to the Church, will.
By contrast, "Christian Mission in Daily Life" established a framework but few concrete details for carrying out "Christian mission in daily lives and social justice". The inclusion of "ecological" concerns was as conspicuous as the absence of any articulated defence of life in all its aspects. This was puzzling given the storm of the recent embryonic stem cell debate.
While one hopes Synod 2003 - as a pioneering Australian response to the Pope's call for local synods - will prove important and successful for Brisbane, its experience and contributions could prove helpful for other dioceses contemplating such a move.
On the other hand, Synod 2003 is also a reminder that local circumstances and inclinations should not inadvertently undermine the universal reality of the Church - as the one Body of Christ.
Ultimately, the last word on the Synod will come from Archbishop Bathersby when he announces the pastoral programs to implement the Synod's recommendations. This is a challenging and onerous responsibility and he deserves all of our prayers.
This report was based on inputs from several Brisbane Synod participants.