The Plenary Council-the Spirit inspires but we must act on this inspiration

The Plenary Council – the Spirit inspires but we must act on this inspiration

Nimmi Candappa, a member of the Plenary Council from Melbourne, explores the challenge of discernment of the Spirit explaining that it must be bold and courageous.   

When I was younger, I appeared to have a knack at finding things and would be asked by my family to help find a lost item. So, after a quick prayer to St Anthony, I would scoot around the house looking under this, or behind that, opening drawers, ruffling through papers. The family member with the lost item would often trail behind me, showing me likely places the item could be in but then dismissing the need to look there because “I’ve already looked there”. I would insist on re-looking anyway, and inevitably, the item would be in a place already searched. My thinking was that if I looked and it was not there, there was nothing lost.

We must do the same in this upcoming Plenary Council, open ourselves fully to the Spirit, even the areas we are sure we have ‘correct’, confident that no harm can come from opening up anything to the Spirit. Some 80 years since the last Plenary Council, with a backdrop of diminished congregational numbers, limited priestly numbers, and the Royal Commission into sexual abuse, it seems timely to formally ask the Spirit once again to help guide our Church in Australia in this next stage of our faith journey.

It is a humble yet enlightened move to revamp our God-focus. It is an initiative to help us as Church be more fully a Christ-centred Church, throbbing with love for our neighbour; and to identify obstacles to achieving this goal. So it makes no sense to put up, in some areas, barriers to the all-encompassing gaze of the Spirit, effectively saying to the Spirit – ‘look inside here but not there’, ‘come thus far but no further’, ‘don’t bother looking there Spirit, we’ve already looked there’.

In order to reap the bounteous fruits available to us from this Council, we need to be humble enough to hold up all aspects of our Church to the Spirit; be daring enough to truly hear what the Spirit has to say in all these aspects, no matter how challenging; and then be prepared to act on it all, with conviction, determination and staying power.

The agenda for the Plenary Council, as with any agenda, includes broad categories under which the details must be discussed. If however, the resulting discussion under this Agenda remains broad and safe, coy of any of the key issues raised in the first stage of discernment, we risk a perfunctory effort at discernment of the Spirit, likely to do more harm than good overall. Even during the initial discernment stages, when parishioners were asked what God is asking of us in Australia at this time, some cynicism of the possibility of tangible outcomes of this latest discernment efforts had crept in, respondents asking in return ‘why would this time be any different?’.

Perhaps the respondents remembered the 1996 attempt of the Woman and Man: One in Christ Jesus project that considered means of creating a greater involvement of women in the Church, extensive attempts that defined clear decisions and actions, actions which remain mostly undone 25 years later. Or perhaps the cynicism related to the road blocks we can create for ourselves as Church, tying ourselves up in knots through many artificial mandates, insisting that we must do in the future, what and how we have done in the past, and then wondering why we find ourselves in the same ineffective situations.

When we seek the Spirit’s guidance in this Council, we must place complete trust in the Spirit and in the Plenary Council process and dare to raise to the scrutiny of the Spirit, everything identified in the initial discernment stages. It is after all the one Spirit that guides us, in all the areas, in the past and today.

Council members must also be daring and resolute in truly hearing it all. We know only too well that as humans, few if any of us, act as the perfect conduit for the Spirit’s voice, conscious and unconscious bias, along with our own opinions, at some level, playing a part in any discernment. Yet much effort has been made by the Plenary Team to enable members to more clearly hear the Spirit amidst these other influences. It is up to the members to be willing to listen without filters, knowing the role of the Council member is to offer a voice for the Spirit, not a voice for one’s opinion. Recognising that the Spirit guides but does not impose, an unwavering focus by each member is needed to hear the challenging, as clearly as the comfortable.

Then, we must act on the discerned guidance: imagining ourselves as those first Christians, awe-struck by the presence and recollections of Jesus, intoxicated by Love, emboldened by the Resurrection, open, supple of heart, generous to a fault and protective of other believers. With this attitude, in this light, obstacles melt away, fear of change converts to hopeful anticipation, current limitations are understood and embraced with tolerance; and discerned action is inevitable. When we are open and unresisting to the Spirit, we become willing collaborators with the Spirit, united and tenacious in creating the flourishing Christ-centred Church we so desire.

Originally Published in The Swag: the quarterly magazine of the National Council of Priests of Australia.