Very broadly a Plenary Council is a meeting of all of the Bishops of a particular area to consider matters that in their view need to be attended to.
What follows below are excerpts from an article by Peter Wilkinson. He notes the scant history of Synods and Councils (Plenary OR Diocesan) in Australia. He goes on to identify and number all the groups of participants for this Plenary Council. In doing so he also introduces a term used by Pope Francis – a Synodal Church. (See more about this under Some Context and Discussion)
Peter Wilkinson notes:
If Pope Francis approves, around 260 -300 Catholic men and women, but mainly bishops and other clerics, will gather in a cathedral some day in 2020 to begin the 5th Plenary Council of the Catholic Church in Australia.
They chose a plenary (national) council because this is the traditional forum for Church leaders to wrestle with contemporary issues in the light of the Gospel and respond in terms of faith, morals, governance, discipline and worship.
Australia’s bishops have largely eschewed synods and councils, especially since the 2nd Vatican Council, which insisted on laypersons being included as members. Although they can convene a plenary council whenever they believe one is necessary or useful (so long as the Pope approves), the last one was 80 years ago in 1937. Moreover, since 1965 only 5 bishops have held a diocesan synod. Given that a plenary council can be called 'whenever necessary', it is to their shame that the Australian bishops’ record for synodality and sharing responsibility with Christ’s faithful is such a poor one.
Plenary Council members.
The 260 -300 members of the 2020 Council will consist of two groups: a larger one (two thirds of members) composed of those who “must be called”; and a smaller one (one third) composed of those who “can be called”.
The “must be called”, predominantly clerics, will include all active bishops (currently 43), all vicars general ( 34), all Episcopal vicars (33), some major superiors of religious institutes and some rectors of major seminaries (numbers to be decided), all rectors of Catholic universities (4), and all deans of faculties of theology and canon law (14).
The “can be called” will include titular and retired bishops living in Australia (currently 28), other priests, and other female and male religious and lay persons (numbers to be decided). Since numbers in the second group cannot exceed half the total number in the first group (a strategy designed to prevent pressure groups from taking over the council) lay members will likely make up around 20 per cent of total membership.
Of all council members, only the bishops, active and retired, (possibly 70) will have a deliberative vote; all others will have a consultative vote only. Together they will enact laws which, subject to approval by the Holy See, will bind Catholics throughout Australia.
However, when the members meet for the first time, they will have an agenda before them decided on by the Bishops Commission overseeing the Council’s preparations. How that agenda is drawn up, and what is on it, will be key to the Council’s relevance and success.
Listening to all the voices
Since becoming Pope in 2013, Francis has constantly called for synodality, more participatory processes, and better forms of pastoral dialogue to listen to everyone. In response, Australia’s bishops have determined that for the 2020 Council “the scope of the consultation and discernment processes will be inclusive of the whole Catholic community in its breadth and diversity” and its agenda “generated by genuine consultation with the whole Church”.
Peter Wilkinson goes on to make many relevant comments on and suggestions for doing grassroots consultation. Read his full article here.