It is now ten years since the release of the Statement of Conclusions in 1999, following the Australian Catholic bishops' ad limina visit to the Vatican. Regular readers of this journal will be familiar with this document which set out in clear detail the spiritual shortcomings of the Church in Australia and the need for strong leadership and remedial action.
Cardinal George Pell in a subsequent interview described the Statement as 'a fair and accurate description of what's going on in Australia - but a bit understated'.
This response contrasted with the complaints of several bishops that the Statement was overly harsh.
Archbishop John Bathersby of Brisbane, for example, said he was 'hurt, bothered, distressed and above all angry', and asked himself, 'How could the Pope have so badly misjudged the Australian Church?'
He said he knew the Church in Australia 'wasn't perfect' but he 'didn't think that it needed the rather sharp criticism present in the Statement'. He was unhappy that 'the great strength of the Australian Church, its pastoral intimacy' seemed to be 'called into question'.
Bishop Brian Heenan of Rockhampton thought the Statement failed to present 'the overall picture of the strength of the Australian Church'. It had, he said, 'sections that show lack of appreciation of the Local Church living out the Gospel in our culture'.
Yet the recently publicised scandals in the parish of South Brisbane, which Archbishop Bathersby has been addressing (under Vatican pressure) since last August, were already starkly evident at the time of the Statement of Conclusions.
Lack of progress
Five years later, in March 2004, Australia's 44 bishops made their next ad limina visit, but were apparently not questioned regarding the lack of progress in meeting the directives of the Statement, which were agreed to by the Australian Bishops' Conference in April 1999.
In an interview during the ad limina, Cardinal Pell remarked that the overall response since 1999 had been 'a little bit uneven across Australia' and that there was 'no spectacular progress to report.'
After five more years, apart from the beneficial after-effects of World Youth Day, his words could have been repeated.
Normally the next ad limina would have been due early in 2009 but it seems this will not occur until next year at the earliest.
Significantly, the future Pope Benedict XVI played a major role in framing the Statement of Conclusions. As Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith for over 20 years he had a detailed knowledge of the state of the Church in Australia. He would be in a particularly strong position to assess the level of progress at the next ad limina.
His predecessor, John Paul II, was very clear in his expectations of the Australian bishops in 1999: '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 ...
'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 also makes this point clearly: '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'.
Further, a bishop should 'exercise vigilance over the celebration and administration of the sacraments in his diocese' ensuring these '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'.
The Statement called on Australia's bishops to confront the reality of liturgical abuses. 'In today's rapidly changing world,' it said, '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 stopped.
The Statement 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'.
Strong words indeed, but in too many parishes over the past ten years it has remained business as usual.
With several episcopal vacancies remaining to be filled, and in light of the daunting challenges, it is imperative that fearless and capable men be appointed if there is to be any progress.