11 Oct 2021

Live-streamed from St. Mary’s Basilica, Sydney, 10 October 2021

The Hebrew word for wisdom חָכְמָה (chokmâh), the Greek word σοφια (sophia) and the Latin sapientia are all feminine nouns. So, naturally enough, the ancients personified Wisdom as a woman.    In the wisdom literature of Israel—the Books of Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs, Sirach and Wisdom—we’re told she deserves our admiration and discipleship. Indeed our first reading says she is ‘higher than sceptres and thrones… more precious than gold and gems’, to be valued ‘more than health or beauty’ (Wis 7:7-20).[1] Through her God grants mortals language, understanding, technology and safety.

So remarkable is true Wisdom that the Old Testament calls her γία Σοφία (Hagia Sophia), Sancta Sapientia, Holy Wisdom: she is from God, true God from true God.[2] Wisdom, our text continues, is “fashioner of all things… power of God… emanation of the Almighty… reflection of eternal light” (Wis 7:22-30). She sits by God’s throne, was present at creation, through her all things were made; she orders everything well, and understands all things (Wis 8:1; 9:4,9,11). She’s active in salvation history (Wis chs. 10-12 etc.) and still today, a great intelligence impressed upon the DNA of creation and teaching the righteous. More than a mere tool for understanding and controlling the world around us, hers is a vision of reality, a guide to the good life, the way for human flourishing.

Which sounds a little strange, given how severely monotheistic the Jews were. Unlike her neighbours, Israel’s God had no Mrs Yahweh. Come the New Testament we learn that the Word, reason or communication of God is not God’s wife but His Son.[3] Jesus Christ, the Word of God made flesh in Mary’s womb, is the very Wisdom of God, Truth Incarnate. That means divine wisdom, eternal and transcendent, is also present and imminent in Him. He walked among us and lives still, teaching, healing and redeeming. When our epistle says “The word of God is alive and active” it’s referring not only to the Scriptures but to Christ the λόγος. “No created thing can hide from Him; all is revealed to Him” (Heb 4:12-13).

A rich young man brings Jesus the big questions: “Who am I? What should I do? If there’s life after death, how am I to get it?” (Mk 10:17-30) Jesus responds teasingly: “Why ask me?” It’s a test, of course. The young man already has some inkling that Jesus is the Wisdom of God: that’s why he asks Him. And so Jesus responds: recall the commandments, for I am the new Moses. Hear my call to evangelical perfection, for I am the new Law. Throw yourself headlong into the adventure of missionary discipleship, for I am the Master and the Mission. Let nothing distract you.

Archbishops Mannix of Melbourne, Kelly of Sydney and Pànico (Papal Legate) at the Fourth Plenary Council of Australasia in 1937

 The journey to the Fifth Plenary Council began on 12 September 1937, when the fourth such council ended with a Pontifical High Mass in this very place.[4] 32 Catholic bishops of Australasia, assisted by leaders of religious congregations, clergy and observers, turned once more to prayer. They were conscious of three things. First, theirs was one in a long procession of church synods, all the way back to the first century Council of Jerusalem, all charged with proclaiming the apostolic faith that first came to this land a century and a half before. Secondly, they were part of something that stretched not just across time but also space: the universal Church represented by the presiding papal legate, by the then-newish Code of Canon Law they were applying locally, and by the fact Rome had to approve the Council’s 685 decrees. Thirdly, they invoked the help of the Holy Spirit, declaring their reliance upon Him alone, as they shaped pastoral responses to the issues of the day.[5]

Ecclesia semper reformanda. The Church always in need of renewal has the plenary councils as a means to that end. It’s not a parliament making decrees at will, as if everything were “on the table” or “up for grabs”. It’s a very particular pastoral strategy of gathering Church leaders and some others, for prayer and discernment, to increase faith, revitalise morals, promote discipline and plan common pastoral action (can. 445).[6]

Like the members of the Fourth Plenary Council, the members of the Fifth hear today what must guide all their deliberations. Depend on divine wisdom, not merely human thinking, our Scriptures tell us. Use your mind, of course, have a good look at what’s going on around you, the challenges and opportunities. Reflect on your experience. Reason things out. But bring the patrimony of the Church across time and space to that task. Read the signs of the times through the spectacles of faith and reason. Respond with holy rather than worldly wisdom, with perennial truth not the fashions of the age.

Even more importantly, those Scriptures tell us, Christ the Word must be at the centre of all prayer and discernment, of every intervention and small group discussion, of any proposal and vote. Otherwise this Council and any other is for nought. All sorts of things came up this week past: some imaginative and wise, some unhelpful even impossible. In the Parallel Plenary Council conducted in some parts of the media over recent months and days, God has rarely been mentioned, or prayer, sacraments, vocation, holiness, saints, communion with the Church. But if Jesus, the Word made flesh, is the Good Teacher to whom we bring all our questions, including the sixteen on the Plenary Council agenda; if His is the wisdom we seek to discern and apply, as the Bishops and their colleagues seek to discern among the many voices, then all will be well. If as a Church in Australia we can keep the commandments and repent when we fail, if we can let go of every possession or privilege, ideology or attachment, structure or aspiration that gets in the way of the adventure of the Gospel, then the hearts of the faithful and the Church in Australia may truly be renewed.

Rubens, St Ignatius Loyola (1620), Norton Simon Museum

This week past the Plenary Councillors were invited to use an Ignatian method of discernment and spiritual conversation, to ensure it was the Holy Spirit we were hearing, not some foul spirit, the Wisdom of God we were seeking, not merely human thinking. St Ignatius of Loyola was indeed a great spiritual guide. In his Rules for Thinking with the Church (Rules 352-370), he explained that today’s faithful have it over those who went before because we have the benefit of the Scriptures and the Fathers (as they did) but also the enlightening grace of the subsequent “decisions of the Councils and the decrees of holy Mother Church” (Rule 363). Indeed, he went on, in the language of the Spanish baroque: “If you wish to proceed securely in all things, hold fast to this principle: What seems to me white, I will believe black if the hierarchical Church so defines. For I must be convinced that in Christ our Lord, the bridegroom, and in His spouse the Church, only one Spirit holds sway, which governs and rules for the salvation of souls. For it is by the same Spirit and Lord who gave the Ten Commandments that our holy Mother Church is ruled and governed” (Rule 365). Follow Christ the Good Teacher and all will be well. Guided by divine rather than worldly wisdom the Fifth Plenary Council of Australia must now continue its work of prayerful and careful discernment towards the Second Assembly next year. God bless the Council Members and organisers in the meantime!

[1]        cf. 1Kings 3:1,28; 4:29-34 et par.; Job 28:18; Prov 1:20-33; 2:1-10; 3:13; 4:5-7; 7:4; 8:1-9:12; 16:16; 23:23; Eccles 7:11-12; Wis 6:12-9:18; Sir 1:4,6,14; 24:1…

[2]        Prov 9:10; 30:3; Wis 7:22; 9:17; 10:15; 11:1; Dan 5:11

[3]        The word ‘word’ is used in Mt 4:4; 7:24-6; 8:8,16; 10:14; 12:37; 13:19-23; 15:6; 19:22; 22:16; 24:35;  Mk 2:2; 4:14-20,33; 7:13; 8:38; 10:24; 13:31; Lk 1:2,20,29,38; 2:19,29; 3:2,4; 4:22; 5:1; 6:47; 7:7; 8:11-21; 9:26,44; 11:28; 21:15,33; 22:61; 24:8,19,44; Jn 1:1,14; 2:22; 3:34; 4:41,50; 5:24,38; 6:63,68; 7:40; 8:20,31-55; 10:19-21,35; 12:38,47-8; 14:10,23-24; 15:3,7,20,25; 17:1,6,8,14,17,20; 18:1,9. The word ‘wisdom’ is used in Mt 11:19; 12:42; 13:54; Mk 6:2; Lk 1:17; 2:40,52; 7:35; 11:31,49; 21:15. The words ‘light’ and ‘glory’ are used similarly in Mt 4:16; 5:14-16; 6:22-23; 10:27; 19:28; 24:30; 25:31; Mk 4:22; 8:38; 10:37; 13:26; Lk 1:79; 2:9,14,32; 2:32; 8:16-17; 9:26,31-2; 11:33-36; 16:8; 19:38; 21:27; 23:45; 24:26; Jn 1:4-9,14; 2:11; 3:19-21; 5:41-44; 7:18; 8:12,50,54; 9:5,24; 11:4,9-10,40; 12:35-46; 17:5,22,24.

[4]        Eris O’Brien, “Plenary Council: The Fourth in Australia,” Sydney Morning Herald 28 August 1937, p. 11; “Plenary Council. Roman Catholic Hierarchy. Sessions begin today,” SMH 4 September 1937, p. 11; “Plenary Council. Closing Session To-Morrow.” SMH 11 September 1937, p. 12; Nick Brodie, “A help to the world: The 1937 Plenary Council,” Eureka Street 28(18) (11 September 2018); Ian Waters, “The Fourth Plenary Council of Australia and New Zealand,” Annuarium Historiae Conciliorum 38(2) (2006) 451-66; Peter Wilkinson, “Fourth Plenary Council of Australia and New Zealand, 4-12 September 1937,” Parts 1 & 2, The Swag 28(2) (Autumn & Winter 2020).

[5]        Joint Pastoral Letter of the Archbishops and Bishops of the Fourth Plenary Council of Australia and New Zealand (September 1937) republished in The Advocate 30 September 1937, pp. 11 & 13.

[6]       A Plenary Council is initiated by a conference of bishops with the approval of the Apostolic See (can. 439 §1), regulated by church law (can. 94, 95, 439-446). To achieve its pastoral ends, a plenary council possesses local legislative power, without prejudice to the universal law of the Church (can. 445) and subject to the approval of the Apostolic See (can. 446).

A warm welcome to St Mary’s Basilica in Sydney, described at the Fourth Plenary council of Australia in 1937 as “the mother-church of Australia and cradle of the Catholic Faith in this continent”.[i] This week the Church has celebrated the First Assembly of the fifth such council of Australia and the closing Mass is being celebrated around this time today in Brisbane. It brings to a close an extraordinary week, as Council Members sought to discern the voice of the Holy Spirit in all the submissions and preparatory documents of the Council, in their spiritual conversations, small group discussions and plenary interventions, in their prayers and occasional silences.

I acknowledge the presence today of the local bishops, vicars and two lay members of the Plenary Council, who bring with them in their hearts all the other Sydney-based members of the Council still precluded by COVID regulations from attending. With the end of the First Assembly we begin the next phase of preparation for the second, which COVID-permitting will take place here in Sydney next July. We continue to listen to God speaking in the Word of Scripture, in the divine Liturgy and in the members of the Church, and implore His guidance in the months ahead. That we might hear the Spirit’s “still quiet voice” we repent of our sins…

[i]         Joint Pastoral Letter of the Archbishops and Bishops of the Fourth Plenary Council of Australia and New Zealand (September 1937) republished in The Advocate 30 September 1937, pp. 11 & 13.