Last October the Australian Catholic Bishops proclaimed a Year of Grace for the Church in Australia, to begin on Pentecost Sunday 2012 (27 May). Archbishop Philip Wilson of Adelaide, the President of the Australian Catholic Bishops' Conference, revealed the plan for the Year of Grace during a private audience with Pope Benedict XVI, as the Australian bishops completed their ad limina visits last year.
Speaking to Pope Benedict on behalf of the Australian hierarchy, Archbishop Wilson said that tensions within the Church had made it difficult for bishops to preserve Church unity. He continued: "In the attempt to 'start afresh from Christ' ( Novo Millennio Ineunte, III), in the communion which is in Jesus, we have decided to call the whole Church in Australia to celebrate A Year of Grace from Pentecost 2012 to Pentecost 2013."
During that time, the Archbishop continued, the Church in Australia "will implore a new sending of the Holy Spirit, who alone can breathe new life into the Church."
The Year of Grace in Australia will overlap with the Year of Faith announced by Pope Benedict XVI, which will begin on 12 October 2012 and continue until 24 November 2013, the Feast of Christ the King.
There is no question that Australian Catholicism urgently needs another spiritual uplift to complement the positive impacts of World Youth Day 2008 and the canonisation of St Mary of the Cross MacKillop.
The difficulty regarding Church unity to which Archbishop Wilson refers is a deep-seated product of divisions that opened up following the Second Vatican Council between those who espoused, in the words of Pope Benedict, a "hermeneutic of continuity", and those wedded to a "hermeneuitic of discontinuity".
The Pope emphasises that the former is the correct approach, namely that Vatican II must be understood in light of the Church's 2,000 year history, its traditions and previous councils, and not as a break with the past.
Unfortunately, Vatican II's timing was not conducive to a balanced implementation of its teachings, with its immediate aftermath coincided with the cultural revolution of the late 1960s. Catholics, like others, were affected in their attitudes to authority and tradition.
Since that time, proponents of "discontinuity", seeing Vatican II as a blueprint for radical changes to the Church's authority structures, doctrines, liturgy, disciplines, religious life, seminary formation, etc, have mostly dominated the key decision-making areas affecting religious education in schools, priestly formation, liturgy and sacraments, and the religious orders.
The abrupt changes in these and other areas have caused widespread confusion and disaffection over several decades with a consequent decline in belief and practice.
With the Church's limited means of communication, making contact with and re-educating the non-practising majority is a daunting task, even if recent projects like "Catholics Come Home", with its encouraging successes in the US and soon to be introduced in Sydney, offer some hope.
While Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI have striven to steer the universal Church back to the true teachings of Vatican II, including production of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, their efforts have too often been thwarted at the grass roots by recapcitrant church bureaucracies.
While more recent episcopal appointments have seen a growing proportion of bishops prepared to implement a "hermeneutic of continuity", with reforms to seminaries and Catholic education, much of the damage done over the past 30-40 years will be difficult to undo.
Without discounting the power of prayer for divine intervention and a new Pentecost for Australian Catholicism, the success of the Year of Grace and Year of Faith will also depend on the calibre of episcopal leadership in each diocese along with the level of spiritual commitment of those on whom the bishops must depend to implement their policies, e.g., CEO officials, teachers, parish priests, liturgists, theology institutes, etc.
The extent of the problem was underlined in last month's AD2000 and the report on efforts to introduce same-sex "marriage" with the key role of the former Dux of a Catholic secondary college in spearheading this misguided policy in the Federal Parliament.
Leaving aside the various pockets of vigorous orthodoxy, which this journal regularly reports on, the broader picture is one of ignorance and apathy. Barely 10-15% of Catholics darken the doorstep of their churches on any regular basis, while the religious illiteracy of most Catholic school leavers is compounded by useless obsessions with fashionable issues like "climate change" and environmentalism.
With the aggressive inroads of secularism, the challenges for our Church leaders increase by the year. Internally, while most of the "horses" have long bolted, bishops need to ensure that the next generation is taught the faith in its fullness.
Externally, the Church needs a united, forceful front on human life, marriage and family as it confronts the arrogance of the secularists who seek to marginalise religion from the public square.
Meanwhile, the larger than usual number of Australian dioceses awaiting new bishops during 2012, among them Brisbane, Toowoomba, Rockhampton, Hobart and Ballarat, offers a golden opportunity for a major infusion of fresh blood within the hierarchy. The recent appointment of the youthful Bishop Michael Kennedy to Armidale was a step in the right direction.