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Gerard O’ConnellNovember 04, 2022
Pope Francis greets Australian Archbishop Timothy Costelloe of Perth at the Vatican June 24, 2019. Australian bishops elected Archbishop Costelloe as the new head of the bishops' conference, effective in July. (CNS photo/Vatican Media)

In their first private one-on-one conversation, the president of the Australian Bishops’ Conference, Archbishop Timothy Costelloe, S.D.B., told Pope Francis, “The church in Australia is alive!”

The archbishop revealed this in an exclusive interview with America, which was conducted over Zoom from his residence in Perth, Western Australia, and will be published in two parts. In Part I, the archbishop talks about his audience with the pope and also his takeaways from Australia’s Plenary Council, over which he presided, and that many now view as a trial run for the global Synod on Synodality. He also shares his reflections on the Frascati meeting, in which he participated, which recently released its report in preparation for the continental assemblies of the second phase of the Synod on Synodality.

In Part II, the archbishop goes deeper into Australia’s Plenary Council, which has spent the last four years consulting with Catholics in Australia about the most important issues of the church today, and the top three priorities that have emerged from their deliberations: Indigenous people, the abuse crisis and the role of women in the church.


The audience with Pope Francis

The Salesian archbishop, 68, was received in a private audience by the pope in the papal library of the Vatican’s Apostolic Palace on Oct. 6.

Recalling the audience, he said: “Pope Francis was very kind to me. He strikes me as a very gentle man. When you’re talking to him, he’s engaged with you.”

Recalling the audience, he said: “Pope Francis was very kind to me. He strikes me as a very gentle man. When you’re talking to him, he’s engaged with you.”

“He probably listened more than he spoke. He asked me about the Plenary Council and about the life of the church in Australia. We talked primarily about that council and the Synod on Synodality,” the archbishop said.

When I asked if Francis was concerned about the situation of the church in Australia given all  that’s  happened  there  in  recent years, including some 60 members of the Plenary Council staging a protest during its proceedings, he responded:

I wouldn’t say he was concerned about the church in Australia, but he was interested to know. I talked about the reality that we had struck some difficult moments but that—and I believe this very strongly—the prayerful atmosphere we created, an atmosphere which generated a real sense of respect for each other, enabled us to navigate all of those difficulties…. I said that at the end of the council assembly there was a real sense of energy and enthusiasm, and I finished up by saying in Italian, “La Chiesa in Australia é viva!” It’s alive. And he said, “I am so pleased to hear you say that, I like that word ‘viva.’”

The archbishop continued:

I meant it. I don’t for a minute pretend that we don’t have issues and challenges, but the church is alive in Australia. And I was struck by his enthusiasm, his sense of satisfaction in hearing, at least my assessment, that despite the challenges we face, we are a living and vibrant church. He was, I think, clearly pleased that the Plenary Council had gone well.”

He was particularly struck by the pope’s commitment to synodality. “His commitment to this synodal journey is absolutely rock solid. He’s deeply, deeply committed to this and really does see it as the way forward for the church, the way that the Holy Spirit wants to lead.”

The archbishop concluded, “I went away feeling very grateful. I went away feeling as if I’d met someone who really was interested in me and was concerned not just for me, but for the things I was talking to him about.”

Four Takeaways from the Plenary Council

I asked the archbishop if he could share a few major takeaways from the Plenary Council.

First of all, he said, “This is probably the first time in the history of the church in Australia that we have been through anything like this, both in the breadth and the depth of the engagement of the bishops with everybody else in the church. It’s not that the bishops have somehow been isolated from the rest of the church, but rather that there was such a concentrated effort on genuinely engaging with our people and listening to our people. That was a remarkable thing which, I think, has been something of a game changer for the church in Australia moving forward.”

Second, he said, he was struck by “the number of people who over the course of the four years said to me that ‘for the first time, I’ve really had the opportunity to speak and know that I was being listened to.’

“There’s a universal feeling across the church in Australia that we have begun a way of being the church in Australia that we cannot now go back on. So we have launched ourselves into this journey. When we started, the notion of a synodal church hadn’t yet emerged so clearly in the thinking of the pope, but that is in fact what we were doing. And this has proved to be such a deeply appreciated aspect of the whole journey of the Plenary Council by all of us: bishops, clergy, laity, everybody.”

“There’s a universal feeling across the church in Australia that we have begun a way of being the church in Australia that we cannot now go back on.”

A third significant aspect of the council, says the archbishop, was “the fact that right from the beginning of the whole process we realized that it had to be a deeply spiritual process, not just a parliamentary process or something like that, but something deeply grounded in prayer. Before we decided on the Plenary Council, the bishops had already decided that we needed to do something for the church in Australia. We weren’t quite sure what that something was but, gradually, through our discussions and discernment, we came to the decision to have what we called a year of grace, which took place in 2012. Basically, it was an invitation from the bishops to the whole church in the country to go on a retreat.”

The bishops decided on this “year of grace,” he said, “because we knew there were big issues, big challenges. The horrors of the sexual abuse crisis had really become very obvious to us, but there were many other challenges as well. We came to the view that the challenges were so many and so grave that we needed to step back from them for a little while to focus on the essentials, and then move forward.” They were inspired by a phrase from Pope John Paul II in his apostolic letter “Novo Millennio Ineunte”: “Our witness would be hopelessly inadequate if we ourselves had not first contemplated [Christ’s] face.”

“This almost became the motto for our year of grace,” the archbishop explained. “We invited the church to do exactly that. It was quite successful, I think, across the country.”

“Having concluded the Plenary Council there is a sense that this now has to bring change in the church in Australia.”

And it set up a spiritual foundation that would well serve the Plenary Council, he said. “One of the things that marked the two assemblies was the spirit of prayer. We started each day with prayer, half an hour each morning. I believe this is what enabled us to manage and deal with some very tense moments, particularly in the second assembly.”

A fourth notable take away, he said, is the fact that “there is now a sense of hope, but also of expectation. Having concluded the Plenary Council there is a sense that this now has to bring change in the church in Australia.” He explained that “because we held a Plenary Council, which is governed by church law, all of the council’s final documentation will be submitted to the bishops to be formally accepted by them in our next plenary meeting of the Bishops’ Conference, after which the Acts and Decrees of the Council will then be forwarded to Rome because they need the ‘recognitio’ of the Holy Father before we can formally promulgate the decrees.”

The Frascati meeting

Archbishop Costelloe was the only bishop outside the synod organizers to participate in the Frascati meeting, which saw religious, clergy and lay people gathered in Frascati, Italy, in late September to synthesize synodal reports from dioceses around the world. He believes that Cardinal Mario Grech, the general secretary of the synod, invited him to participate in the Frascati meeting because of his experience as president of the Plenary Council which, he said, was “a kind of a first go at a synodal process.” Having served as president of the Plenary Council enabled the archbishop to offer “some positive guidelines” as well as “some challenges for the synodal process.”

At that meeting, he recalled, the group discussed the reports from bishops’ conferences on the first phase of the synodal process. He learned that the experiences of some of the churches “are very different to ours in Australia,” such as situations where the Catholic Church is “a tiny minority” in “a very big non-Christian environment.” (In Australia, Catholics count for over 20 percent of the population.) Nevertheless, he said, “I don’t think there was anything that I encountered in Frascati that surprised me, or that hadn’t been in one way or another present in our plenary council.”

Having served as president of the Plenary Council enabled the archbishop to offer “some positive guidelines” as well as “some challenges for the synodal process.”

Archbishop Costelloe noted that “one of the most common themes” to emerge from the reports at Frascati “was a deep hunger for a welcoming church, a welcoming community. People want to feel that they belong, that they are welcome, that they are accepted. That was a very strong thing right across the board.” Other common themes related to “the role of women in the life of the church and society,” and “the wish for healthier or more engaging relationships between our people and their leaders (meaning the clergy).” He said a theme that emerged “pretty much everywhere, in both secular and traditional societies” is “the urgent need for the church to engage better with young people.”

He was particularly struck by the Frascati meeting and the way it was conducted. “It really was a wonderful experience of being with committed people, the vast majority of whom were lay, from all around the world, who were there with a great sense of commitment to the church and great hope for the kind of future that Pope Francis’ vision is opening up for us.” The process used, he said, was itself “a real experience of synodality. We listened carefully to each other. Much of the time we were in groups, but the groups kept changing. So on one occasion we might be in our continental groups; on another, we might have only men in the group or only women in the group. On yet another occasion, we might have clerics in one group, religious in another and so on. So we were hearing everybody’s voices in different ways. That was both a very impressive and a very challenging process.”

“Our task was to faithfully reflect back to the continental phase of the synod the voice with which the whole church had spoken.”

“The most powerful impression I came away with,” he said, “was the unshakable commitment, particularly of Cardinal Grech, but also of Cardinal Hollerich and the rest of the facilitation team, to make sure that the document we produced faithfully represented the voice of the universal church. We weren’t asked to propose a theological analysis of what we were reading or a discernment which would determine what could be included and what must be excluded. Our task was to faithfully reflect back to the continental phase of the synod the voice with which the whole church had spoken. The facilitators were very insistent on this. I am hoping and expecting that the document will be recognized as having been faithful to this.”

What do Australians think of Pope Francis?

I concluded the first part of the interview by asking the archbishop how Pope Francis is perceived in Australia.

His answer: “I would say that the vast majority of Catholics regard Pope Francis as a breath of fresh air for the church. This is the way many, many Catholics would see him. There is an energy around people when they talk about him: a sense that he is opening up new possibilities for the church. The general feeling about him is, I believe, a very positive one in the Catholic community.”

“Having said that,” he added, “there are some in the Catholic community who are uncomfortable with some of the directions the pope is taking. Those, for example, who have been affected by “Traditiones Custodes” would be struggling very much with the decisions he has made in that area.”

Moreover, he said, “as in other parts of the world, there are those in the Catholic community in Australia who worry that some of the things he is doing are putting what they have always understood to be the solidity and unchanging nature of the church at risk, especially when he opens up questions which they would believe should not be asked.”

Australians’ positive feelings toward the pope extend beyond the Catholic community as well, he said. “In the two other large Christian denominations in Australia—the Anglicans and the Uniting Church (a coming together of the Methodist, Presbyterian and Congregationalist churches in Australia), but also among numerically smaller Christian churches, I have often had conversations in which admiration and respect for the pope as a significant Christian leader are often mentioned. It is also the case, I would say, that in our wider society many people who may not be particularly interested in religious matters respect him.”

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