The Pope and his Bishops walking with us on the journey
As Australian Catholics continue their journey towards the Plenary Council, the concept of a journey of faith is uppermost on the mind of the Pope and of his Bishops.
The Bishops have just returned from their journey to Rome, and while there, met with the Holy Father who emphasised the importance of journeying with the faithful.
“The Pope continually used the word “avvicinarsi”, which is about being close to people and walking with them and showing tenderness… to draw Christ from them,” Archbishop Christopher Prowse said upon his return from his visit to Rome.
“He calls it the Synodial journey… Synod meaning `to walk with.’
“He made it quite clear to us as Bishops that he wanted us to be close on four levels: to be close to God, to be close to our brother bishops, to be close to our clergy and to be close to our people.
“That’s the context in which he used the word avvicinarsi, these four closenesses… walking with people in the long journey of life and listening very carefully as he indeed listened to us.
“That’s a similar synodial journey that we took in our weeks there overseas, and it’s the synodial journey that we take now with the Plenary Council.
“Indeed, he was modelling very carefully what he was asking us to do. So I thought that was a great Master Class of Pastoral accompaniment coming from the successor of St Peter. A Master Class from the Master.”
Gathering with the Bishops
The Australian Bishops visited Rome in June for the Ad Limina Apostolorum (literally “to the threshold of the Apostles) – a semi-regular event which occurs every five or six years for each country as their Bishops gather to strengthen their own responsibility as successors of the apostles and to deepen their solidarity with the successor of St Peter, Pope Francis.
Archbishop Christopher said the opportunity to gather with his brother bishops, to revisit the Basilicas of the Apostles and to meet with the Holy Father was of great benefit.
“Using a corporate language, you could refer to it as taking stock,” Archbishop Christopher said.
“Using the language of pastoral life, it’s an opportunity to come back to the genesis of everything, and that’s the Lord’s call to us to be successors of the Apostles, which is what a Bishop is, gathered around the successor of St Peter, who is the Pope and also the Bishop of Rome.
As part of the visit to Rome, the Bishops participated in a retreat in the Hills outside of Rome. Australia’s Bishops typically come together as a group twice a year – in May and November – but Archbishop Christopher said this retreat was the longest period they’d ever spent together, in prayer, providing a magnificent opportunity to share in faith with each other and learn from one another.
“We spent a whole week together on retreat,” Archbishop Christopher recounted.
“I’ve been a Bishop 15 years, I’m not aware of such an extended retreat – it’s certainly the longest I’ve been involved with, with fellow Bishops. And it was very pleasing and enriching.”
“We went outside Rome to a Retreat Centre, in a beautiful part of the Hills outside of Rome and I think we were all quite refreshed when that concluded, then we went down to Rome for the week which we spent with the Holy Father and the offices, or dicastries as they call them of the Holy See.”
Engaging with the Pope
The meeting with the Pope was also unrushed. Not just a brief handshake and short chat, the Holy Father met with Australia’s Bishops for two and a half hours, during which the Pope was very engaged and interested in what is happening in the Church in Australia.
“He made it quite clear he wasn’t going to give any prepared speeches, nor did he want us to give prepared speeches,” Archbishop Christopher said.
“He was well prepared for our visit, and seemed quite knowledgeable about the issues of Australia. He just wanted us to talk together as brothers in the Lord and for us to raise any topic we wanted to and sure enough, we did that for two and a half hours.
“He showed a great humility in the way he went about things. I was also impressed with his stamina. After two and a half hours we were quite tired but he was still quite energetic.
“So we have a very mentally fit Pope who is extraordinarily knowledgeable.”
Returning to Rome
The visit wasn’t Archbishop Christopher’s first trip to Rome. Far from it. He has lived there for five years all up, during which times he completed his Masters and Doctorate. He said that Rome hasn’t changed much in that time, although his relationship with the City has.
“When I first went there many years ago I was struggling with Italian and I was quite fearful to go there because I felt I wouldn’t understand anything,” he recalls.
“But to go back now and to have no trouble with understanding the language and understanding the culture a lot more is an opportunity for me to give thanks to God for his many blessings that he’s given to me personally over the years. Also to give thanks to the wider church for giving me the extraordinary opportunities to pursue studies overseas and to trust me to the point of asking me to teach theology for many years before I became a bishop. I’m very grateful.”
The Archbishop said that visiting Rome, visiting other countries in general, serves as a reminder that the Catholic Church is not only local but universal, and that while some issues may be common across the Church, some have different significance in different countries.
“Our Issues in the Western World are largely to do with meaning and purpose, when in other parts of the Catholic World it’s to do with survival,” he pointed out.
“Food, and clothing, basic survival in the hungry world, are the issues in the majority of places where Catholics are. These are problems that we also have here, but which are worse elsewhere. For example, hunger isn’t as big an issue in Australia as some other countries, but I am very aware of spiritual hunger and spiritual thirst here in our country.”
“So we learn from each other, the global Church and the local Church.”
Plenary Council preparation
The visit to Rome was a timely opportunity for the Bishops to prepare for and continue discerning about the Plenary Council.
The Pope was well aware of the preparations for Australia’s Plenary Council and has experienced Plenary Councils and other similar gatherings with other countries before.
“There’s a whole host of different types of gatherings that local Churches hold. Some decide to have Plenary Councils, some of them have synods, some have assemblies… and each one has a different canonical status,” Archbishop Christopher explained.
“The Pope is just happy for us to gather together, as long as it’s done in a prayerful way and that we don’t try to reinvent the Church.
“There are certain things that will not be changed because they’ve been given to us by Christ and they’re a part of our Tradition and expressed in our Creedal statements. On the other hand, the way that these eternal truths are expressed in a particular area is another thing. It’s imperative that we continue to make sure that the face of Christ is known and loved and is presented in a complex Australian world in a way that is energetic, persuasive and fragrant – that attracts people to Jesus.
“Ultimately it becomes an exercise of evangelisation and that’s where the Mission of the Church is most suitably placed – drawing people to Christ and expressing our Baptism by involving ourselves as members of our Church, the Body of Christ in the world.”