Australian bishops' five-yearly ad limina visit March 2004
Australia's bishops will be in Rome from 14-28 March for their visit ad limina apostolorum (to the threshold of the apostles) which occurs every five years. Each bishop will have a personal meeting with Pope John Paul II and with the heads of various Vatican congregations.
This visit will enable the bishops to set out clearly how problem areas identified in the Statement of Conclusions (see John Paul II throws down the gauntlet to Australia's bishops, AD2000, February 1999) have been addressed over the past five years.
Five years ago, the bishops' ad limina visit was combined with the Synod of Oceania and special consultations also took place between a number of the bishops and heads of the leading Vatican congregations. These meetings resulted in a summary document titled Statement of Conclusions, which was signed by the Australian and Curial representatives and later endorsed by the Conference of Australian Catholic Bishops in May 1999.
For the first time since Vatican II, the Church's leadership in Australia collectively accepted the reality of a deepening crisis of faith and the need for strong remedial action.
Five years on, it is instructive to consider how far the position has changed for the better in any of the areas identified.
Regarding the priesthood and seminaries, the Statement indicated that a priest's identity needed "strong affirmation and almost constant clarification" and it was "fundamental that correct intellectual, ascetical and doctrinal formation, as well as dutiful and inspired discipline, be assured in seminaries."
This approach is now being largely followed in most major dioceses and there has been an upturn in seminary numbers with the spiritual benefits gradually becoming evident in some parishes and dioceses.
However, liturgy, which is at the heart of the Church's life, remains an on-going source of concern. The Statement called on Australia's bishops to confront the reality of abuses, referring to "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". Bishops needed to "put their energy above all into education, while correcting these abuses individually."
As far as one can discern, little has changed over the past five years. It may be that some of the 1960s-1970s generation of priests, radicalised in the seminaries of the period, remain unresponsive to the Statement's calls to correct abuses, despite the endorsements of the Holy Father and the Australian bishops.
However, a younger generation of John Paul II priests emerging from the reformed seminaries is proving to be more scrupulous in liturgical matters.
The action of Archbishop Hickey of Perth last December in calling for all of his priests to observe the liturgical norms (see World News) was a clear sign of the seriousness of the situation.
The Statement's call to eliminate illicit use of the Third Rite (general absolution) had an early impact, but the practice persists in some dioceses.
Aside from Liturgy, the most deep-seated problem area remains Catholic education, especially at the secondary and tertiary levels. The spreading use over the past five years of new religious education texts based on the Catechism, in the Melbourne, Sydney and other dioceses, has been a very important development; but elsewhere there are deep-seated problems.
The Statement had asked bishops to be "attentive to safeguarding the university's Catholic identity", and to evaluate "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."
Australian Catholic University (ACU), by far the largest of the nation's two Catholic universities, remains a source of concern, given its centrality in the training of teachers for Catholic primary and secondary schools. The Statement called for teachers to "be properly formed in the Faith, especially principals and those who teach religion."
Practice of the Faith
Research over the past five years into the religious beliefs and practices of ACU students has indicated that these have been significantly out of line with Church teachings. (Although given that ACU is spread across several eastern Australian states, the position varies from campus to campus). Meanwhile, the practice level of school-leavers - after up to 13 years in Catholic schools - continues to be almost non-existent.
The bottom line for Australia's bishops is that practice of the faith keeps declining, and not merely among the school leavers. Mass attendances are now around ten percent and still falling in some dioceses, while individual confessions have all but disappeared. Most parents of children attending Catholic schools - even their teachers - no longer practise the faith and show little commitment to the Catholic identity of the schools.
As for the wider Catholic community, with the inroads of secularism, hedonism and materialism, it is questionable whether its attitudes towards divorce, abortion, "gay rights" and other moral issues differ significantly from those of the general Australian population.
At the same time, like shoots in the desert, pockets of orthodoxy - such as the various new ecclesial movements and religious communitiers, as well as Thomas More Centres - have continued to emerge and flourish despite the trends, providing hope for the future. These need to be encouraged and supported.
The upshot of the forthcoming ad limina visit will be critical for the future survival of the Catholic Church in this country.