If you haven't read Bernard Gaynor's Open Letter, here it is:
It is how many faithful and well-catechised people are feeling right now.
At this point I need to disclose where I am coming from.
There was a diocesan synod in 2011-2012 in my diocese, and the involvement of the regular laity was limited to giving answers to a survey. If it has had any long term impact, or changed anything for the better, from my limited perspective I cannot see it. Even the website set up with the synod outcomes is no longer extant. Therefore I am predisposed to look upon synodal processes with distrust.
My own encounter with a group in the listening phase for the Plenary Council was disheartening. Instead of following the group process (writing down individually what we thought the Holy Spirit was asking of the church in Australia, gathering those responses, finding a topic that was shared by the majority, and then discussing this topic in detail), my group leader spent most of the meeting time giving suggestions to us about what we could put on individual submissions, and the vast majority of those suggestions were not in line with church teaching. That's why when the online submission process said, 'Have you been part of a group session?', I couldn't say yes or no, and had to click 'not sure'.
Up until the information on applying for the Discernment and Writing Groups was released, I had decided to give the whole thing a wide berth. But I had a sudden change of heart when reading the application forms, and prepared an application. Apart from a 'yes we have received it' I have heard nothing about the success or failure of that application.
I have perused the final document from the Listening Phase:
https://plenarycouncil.catholic.org.au/wp-content/uploads/2019/07/FINAL-BOOK-v5-LISTEN-TO-WHAT-THE-SPIRIT-IS-SAYING.pdf (67.5 MB)
I read the first part closely, especially the methodology and statistics, and the first few of the 14 topics closely and then skimmed through the rest, stopping at places with personal interest to me.
Through a family member in another diocese I have read reports from parish and deanery level from the Listening phase, and together with my own group experience and reading the weekly postings from some parishes in my own deanery, I can say that the Final Document is an accurate reflection of what I had been exposed to. For anyone who knows and loves the teachings of the Church, it is extremely distressing.
However we must remind ourselves that the vast majority of people who submitted responses to the Listening phase were actually answering the question, 'What do I want to ask of the Church in Australia at this time?' or even a more basic 'Take this opportunity to tell the Church leadership what you think'.
The good news is that it should be very easy to spot which group submissions conformed to the guidelines and gave a detailed response to a single topic. Those I would very much like to see.
I know that many people, including Bernard Gaynor, see this final document of the Listening phase as bad news. I see it as an accurate snapshot of where we are, something that we didn't have before, and that is a good thing. Before we had a nebulous understanding that things were bad, but now we know exactly how bad it is, and without an accurate diagnosis there is no hope of prescribing an accurate remedy.
The task then of the next stages of the Plenary Council is to engage with our people where we now know that they are at, assure them that they have been heard and listened to, and gently and lovingly invite them on a communal journey to rediscover God's plan. There is an opportunity for us through the Plenary Council process to have a Nehemiah experience (Some exiles returned to Jerusalem under Nehemiah's leadership, and in the rebuilding of the city they found a copy of the Mosaic Law, the people gathered to hear the Word of God from the Mosaic Law, with the priests and scribes explaining the text as they went. During the process the people discovered how far they were from living as God had asked them, and why they had been exiled, and they wept in repentance and then committed themselves to joyfully living according to God's plan. See Nehemiah Chapter 8 and surrounding chapters).
Yes, the final document of the Listening phase shows that we are in systems failure (think the dreaded blue screen on a computer). When such a systems failure happens, a re-boot rarely solves the problem. Usually what is needed is a complete overhaul, a re-set, where we go back to scratch, to basics, and reinstall the original operating software and drivers. It isn't a pleasant process, but it is the only thing that will get the computer working again.
The task isn't as simple as throwing a lot of good catechesis at people, tempting as that is. People rarely respond well to someone shouting at them that they are wrong and misguided. A sensitive dialogue process is needed, that recognises and acknowledges the good in the desires of our people, and helps them work through and take hold of the good and loosen the grip on the not so good, and invite them to consider alternative ways of going forward with those good desires that are in accordance with the ancient pathways of the good, the true and the beautiful.
The Plenary Council process has the potential to do this, if it is done well, and that can only happen if there is lots of prayer together with lots of people of goodwill. Without the prayer, the goodwill, and the vision for what is possible with the power of the Holy Spirit, then a scandalous disaster will unfold, and I certainly share that concern of Bernard Gaynor's.
But I have hope that what has the potential to be a monumental disaster can instead be the gateway to the greatest spiritual renewal our country has ever seen; that it can be the catalyst for the greatest revival, renewal, awakening of the church, and the greatest outpouring of the Holy Spirit that we have ever seen.
But it won't be easy. To return to God's operating system will require us to proclaim truths that are very unpalatable to modern ears. It will require outstanding courage to proclaim these truths in love, and may unleash a storm of anger and persecution. We wouldn't collectively be in this systems failure without our own compromises when it has been our turn to proclaim the truth in love. So instead of berating each other, let us pray to God that we and our bishops be given this outstanding courage, and the loving hearts to go with it.
Our Lady, Help of Christians, pray for us.