The Holy Father delivered a stern challenge to Australia's bishops to uphold the faith, at the end of the hierarchy's ad limina visit to Rome late last year.
The ad limina visits (literally visits to the tombs of the Apostles) are undertaken every five years. On these occasions, the bishops appointed by the Pope report back on developments in their dioceses and receive guidance, where necessary, on how better to administer the local Church.
Never in Australia's history, however, has the guidance been as wide-ranging and pointed as on their recent visit.
The Pope met the Australian bishops at the end of their visit, which also included attendance at a Synod of the Bishops of Oceania and consultations between representatives of the Australian Episcopal Conference and the heads of key Vatican congregations - including the Congregation for Bishops and for the Doctrine of the Faith - on the state of the Catholic Church in Australia.
These consultations culminated in a lengthy Statement of Conclusions which was signed by the Australian and Curial representatives.
Commenting on the Statement the Pope said, "I earnestly recommend to your prayer and reflection, to your responsibility and action, the document which summarises your meetings with the various Dicasteries of the Holy See." He then lent emphasis to many of the document's key recommendations.
"Your meetings with some of the Congregations of the Roman Curia have focused on questions of doctrine and morality, the liturgy, the role of the Bishop, evangelisation and mission, the priesthood, religious life, and Catholic education. In each of these areas, your own personal responsibility is vital ... Each individual bishop, then, is called to assume his full responsibility, setting his face resolutely against all that might harm the faith that has been handed down (cf I Cor 4:7)."
The Statement of Conclusions briefly acknowledged at the outset that there were some positive aspects to the Church in Australia, including the increasing proportion of Catholics in the population. But this was dwarfed by what followed - a long list of problems to be tackled, encompassing major areas of Church life.
As John Paul II rather tellingly remarked in his closing address to the Australian bishops: "Until recently, the Catholic community in Australia knew nothing but consistent growth ... Now perhaps it appears that the momentum has slackened." With weekly Mass attendances down from over 50 percent in the 1960s to less then 10 percent in places, and vocations to the priesthood almost non-existent in some dioceses, that was putting it generously.
The Statement of Conclusions offered a number of general observations about the "crisis in faith" in Australia that reflected the influence of secularism. The crisis encompassed a declining belief in God, an afterlife and the inspiration of the Scriptures, with Christ reduced in many cases to just "a great prophet of humanity" and the Church to a body of purely human origin. Truth for many was now based on "the shifting sands of majority and consensus."
Central to any progress in addressing this crisis of faith, as it has impacted on the Church, was the responsibility of each bishop to "affirm, admonish and correct according to what the specific circumstances require." The clear implication was that some bishops needed to lift their games: "The People of God look to their shepherds for guidance and leadership now more than ever in these confusing and increasingly secularised times." Each bishop is called to exercise "the three-fold office of teaching, sanctifying and governing."
The Statement was clear and direct in this regard:
The teaching of the bishops must be "In union with the Holy Father and the Magisterium of the Church ... The People of God who are entrusted to their care have a right to receive authentic and clear Catholic teaching from those who represent the Church in its various institutions ..."
"It is their grave responsibility, clearly and unambiguously, to proclaim the Church's teaching and to do all that they can to preserve the faithful from error ... The bishop may not tolerate error in matters of doctrine and morals or Church discipline, and true unity must never be at the expense of truth."
In his office of sanctifying, a bishop should "exercise vigilance over the celebration and administration of the sacraments in his diocese" ensuring "the sacraments are administered according to the proper liturgical norms ... If he discovers that these norms are not being followed properly, with integrity and reverence, he acts quickly to correct the error or abuse ... The Australian bishops realise that the sacred Liturgy is at the heart of their pastoral responsibilities."
As for the third area, governing, in "choosing their collaborators in the diocesan administration, seminary and in parishes, bishops need to make these appointments with a careful eye and with great attention, always giving emphasis to sanctity of life, orthodoxy and pastoral competence. Continual vigilance is imperative in order to safeguard the integrity of the Faith and to ensure that it is clearly taught and explained at all levels of diocesan life."
The Summary then examined specific areas of the Church's life that had been under challenge in recent decades.
The priesthood: A priest's identity needed "strong affirmation and almost constant clarification." In order to "ensure this understanding it is fundamental that correct intellectual, ascetical and doctrinal formation, as well as dutiful and inspired discipline, be assured in seminaries."
Priests in difficult pastoral situations ought not compromise: "No pastoral solution can be so-called that is not flowing from God's Revelation as this is interpreted by the Magisterium of the Church. Thus a practice in pastoral life, which is contrary to the teachings of Christ and His Church, is not an act of compassion, but rather one that radically disorders pastoral charity and has long term negative consequences for the faithful."
In a particularly telling move, and one likely to cause unease in some Catholic Education Offices and schools, the document declared that "the matter of catechesis cannot be left solely in the hands of others, no matter how skilled they be. The transmission of the Faith is to be actively attended to by priests as this is an essential part of their ministry [in the course of which they should refer to the new Catechism]."
Religious life: The Summary pointed to the sometimes defective formation of religious with problems arising "because the selection of formators or of centres of ongoing formation was not made in view of full communion with the Magisterium of the Church." The widespread practice among the larger established religious orders of having their members live in flats and private houses was criticised as fragmenting "the life and witness of an Institute" and prejudicing "the corporate witness of an Institute which was founded with a specific charism for a specific purpose." It urged a restoration of community life.
The not-infrequent public dissent on the part of prominent male and female religious was noted: "Consecrated persons are called to be mindful of the ancient dictum: sentire cum ecclesia, to live and think and love with the Church. In this regard, Vita Consecrata is very explicit. A distinctive aspect of ecclesial communion is allegiance of mind and heart to the Magisterium of the bishops, an allegiance which must be lived honestly and clearly testified to before the People of God by all consecrated persons, especially those involved in theological research, teaching, publishing, catechesis and the use of the means of social communication."
The prominent place religious enjoyed within the Catholic community placed a particular onus on these religious to demonstrate "a more evident fidelity to the Magisterium than is required of ordinary faithful." Obviously taking note of several publicly dissenting statements from leaders of religious orders in recent years, the Summary insisted: "What is true of all religious is even more true of major superiors, by reason of their office. What is true of major superiors is still more true of a conference of major superiors erected by the Holy See." The Summary no doubt had in mind a joint statement by leaders of Australia's major religious orders that publicly criticised the Pope's Ordinatio Sacerdotalis when it was released in 1994.
Liturgy: The document recommended "a special reverence for the Real Presence of Christ in the Holy Eucharist at the Mass and reserved in the tabernacle" and called for Australia's bishops to confront the reality of liturgical abuses: "In today's rapidly changing world it is all the more necessary to return constantly to the authentic teaching of the Church on the Liturgy, as found in the liturgical texts themselves ... The tendency on the part of some priests and parishes to make their own changes to liturgical texts and structures, whether by omissions, by additions, or by substitutions, occasionally even in central texts such as the Eucharistic Prayer" had to be checked.
The document continued: "Practices foreign to the Roman Rite are not to be introduced on the private initiative of priests, who are ministers and servants, rather than masters of the sacred rites ... The bishops of Australia, then, will continue to put their energy above all into education, while correcting these abuses individually."
The Sacrament of Penance was of particular concern: "Energetic efforts are to be made to avoid any risk that this traditional practice of the Sacrament of Penance [individual confession] fall into disuse ... Unfortunately, communal celebrations [Second Rite] have not infrequently occasioned an illegitimate use of general absolution. This illegitimate use, like other abuses in the administration of the Sacrament of Penance, is to be eliminated."
Seminaries: Along with the decline in priestly vocations, the quality of seminary education has been an area of concern. Significantly, those Australian seminaries which have reverted in recent years to a more orthodox approach have enjoyed increasing numbers of entrants. The Summary indicated what it regarded as basic to any seminary education: "It is essential for the seminary to achieve its task, that the education imparted there be characterised by a clear and authentic idea of the ministerial priesthood, its specificity and its relationship to the priesthood of all the baptised." This education "should be based on a sound Christology and ecclesiology, as transmitted by the Church" with these understandings "clear in the minds of both the teachers and the students." A conviction about the "relationship of celibacy to their priestly vocation" should be nourished among seminarians along with a commitment "to its observance."
Catholic education: At the tertiary level, bishops "should be attentive to safeguarding the [Australian Catholic] university's Catholic identity." This pertained especially to the orthodoxy of theology-related courses: "The local ecclesiastical authority, who may seek the assistance of the Holy See in the matter, should follow with understanding and with active concern the question of the doctrinal soundness of the theological formation given either in departments of theology in Catholic universities or in other theological centres, called 'theological faculties' in Australia." This need for orthodoxy also applied to "the publications by their professors."
In the case of primary and secondary schools, lay teachers (constituting about 95 percent of staffs) "must be properly formed in the Faith, especially principals and those who teach religion." This had particular relevance for the theology and RE curriculum course contents of Catholic teacher-training institutions. Maintaining the Catholic identity and atmosphere of schools and colleges was also essential: "Students should know as soon as they set foot in a Catholic school that they are in a different environment, one illuminated by the light of faith and having its own unique characteristics."
During the first week of the Synod of Oceania (which took place between 22 November and 12 December 1998), most of the bishops had opportunities to address the assembly via 8-minute interventions.
Among the more outspoken was Bishop Patrick Power of Canberra-Goulburn, who urged greater Church tolerance for divorced Catholics who remarried without annulments and for more "solidarity" on the part of the Church with divorced and remarried couples, priests who have left the priesthood, homosexuals and women.
Auxiliary Bishop Peter Ingham of Sydney criticised what he called "unnecessary" Vatican delays in approving [inclusive] liturgical translations and complained of the impact of "zealots making their voices heard through the Church's authority structures."
There were a number of calls for a stronger role for women, more participation by Catholics in decision-making and ministries and greater space for local innovations and expressions beyond the "Western cultural model."
Cardinal Thomas Williams of Wellington, the senior prelate for New Zealand's half-million Catholics, said that "inculturation is going forward in our dioceses and will not stop," but bishops were seeking more latitude for local action and experienced "frustrations" with Vatican policies. He complained of the Church's stance on the reception of Communion by non-Catholic spouses as well as by divorced and remarried Catholics.
Archbishop George Pell of Melbourne, however, said Catholics had "no right to abandon or reject essential elements of the apostolic tradition" and warned that relaxing the Church's norms would not increase its growth.
Bishop Geoffrey Mayne, the ordinary for the Australian Defence Forces, said "Compassion cannot be exercised at the cost of objective truth. We must strive to correct erroneous consciences, especially in those who call themselves 'Catholic'." The teaching Church, he said, had the authority and the responsibility to articulate the faith of the whole Church. Archbishop Barry Hickey of Perth said that the Church should not rule out a rise in vocations in coming years based on the enthusiasm he has seen among young people for the priesthood.
Pope John Paul II will prepare his apostolic letter to Oceania some time next year. Meanwhile, it will be interesting to observe the levels of implementation of the Statement of Conclusions in various Australian dioceses. Clearly, the Statement has hit a number of 'nails' on the head.