Exclusive interview: Australian Archbishop Costelloe tells Pope Francis ‘The church in Australia is alive.’

10 Nov 2022

By Contributor

Archbishop Costelloe Shakes Pope Francis' hand
In their first private one-on-one conversation, Perth Archbishop and President of the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference, the Most Reverend Timothy Costelloe SDB, told Pope Francis, “The church in Australia is alive!” Photo: Vatican Media/CNS.

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

Recalling his recent audience with Pope Francis, Archbishop Costelloe “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.” Photo: Photo: Thierry Bonaventura/Synod 2024.

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.”

“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.”

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.”

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.”

In a special interview with America Magazine, Perth Archbishop Timothy Costelloe recalled that the Frascati meeting the group discussed the reports from bishops’ conferences on the first phase of the synodal process. Photo: Thierry Bonaventura/Synod 2024.

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.”

“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.”

Members of the working group who came together in Rome in September to draft a working document for the continental stage of the Synod process. Photo: Thierry Bonaventura/Synod 2024

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.”

PART II: Australia’s Archbishop Costelloe: Women’s ordination and church governance are ‘big theological questions’

Members of the working group who came together in Rome in September to draft a working document for the continental stage of the Synod process. Among them is Perth Archbishop Timothy Costelloe SDB, fifth from left, Fr Ormond Rush, third from left, and Susan Pascoe, centre. Photo: Thierry Bonaventura/Synod 2024.

He explains that, unlike the German synodal way, the Australian Plenary Council did not have its origins in the abuse crisis.

He goes on to identify the top three priority conclusions that emerged from that historic event: care for Indigenous people, the abuse crisis and the role of women in the church.

The archbishop recalled that a few months after Benedict XVI appointed him as the ninth archbishop in Perth in 2012, the Australian government announced the setting up of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse.

“This was, therefore, a major factor. But even prior to that, we had already decided that we had to do something to address the challenges facing the church. The sexual abuse crisis was there, we were all painfully conscious of it, but it wasn’t as if it was the only factor which prompted us to act,” the Archbishop said.

“In fact, the announcement of the Royal Commission convinced us that we had, in a sense, to put our plans for the Plenary Council on hold because of the urgency of responding as well as we possibly could to the Royal Commission and the crisis that we were facing.” He recalled that the Australian bishops postponed the Plenary Council’s second assembly twice, first to respond to the Royal Commission’s report and again because of the coronavirus pandemic.

“The reality of the sexual abuse crisis and the growing realization of the extent of it was very much a part of our recognition that we could not just continue business as usual. It was therefore a very significant factor. But we did not initially call the Plenary Council in response to the Royal Commission.”

Archbishop Costelloe was the only bishop outside the synod organisers 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. Photo: Thierry Bonaventura/Synod 2024.

Care for Aboriginal Peoples

When the plenary commission finally met again, the archbishop said, three priorities emerged.

Archbishop Costelloe identified the first priority as “the way the Plenary Council, all through the whole journey, and very strongly in the second assembly, focused on the whole question of the Indigenous people in Australia, the Aboriginal people and the need for the church to make our response to their situation a major priority.”

Elaborating on this, the archbishop said: “The problems of the Aboriginal people, like Indigenous people everywhere, I suspect, include the dreadful degradation really of the way in which many of them are forced to live. It is part of Australia’s shame that here we are, probably one of the wealthiest countries in the world, and yet so many of our Indigenous people live in deplorable conditions.”

He recalled that care for Australia’s Indigenous peoples “has been a priority for the church for a long time. But in the Plenary Council, there was a strong recognition of it as a major priority for the church moving forward.” This priority, he said, was reflected in the council’s final documents and was highlighted by the inclusion of Indigenous people as members of the council. It also stood out, the archbishop said, in “the presence of and respect for their spirituality and the incorporation of their spirituality into [the Plenary Council’s] liturgies.”

The 2019 Synod on the Amazon proposed a special liturgical rite for Amazonian Indigenous peoples. Asked if the Australian church had discussed a similar possibility for its Indigenous people, Archbishop Costelloe said they had but up to now have only agreed “that the celebration of the Eucharist can be influenced by and incorporate Indigenous culture and spirituality. A special rite does already exist but is not widespread in Australia. It was authorized and is celebrated particularly in the diocese most north of Perth, Broome, which is largely a mission (diocese) to the Aboriginal people, a gigantic area but with very few people.”

He said there are ongoing attempts to integrate various elements of the Aboriginal culture into the liturgy, “but how far it will go, I don’t know.”

Archbishop Costelloe said that at the Frascati meeting, 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.” Photo: Thierry Bonaventura/Synod 2024.

The sexual abuse crisis

Although the council was not a direct response to the abuse crisis, “there was a very strong recognition that our response to this dreadful reality in the church in Australia is very much an issue for us, and the ongoing business of the church probably for as long as any of us will be around,” the archbishop said. “The council wanted to underline the absolute need for an ongoing commitment to this.”

He added that the council recognized “that this is not simply something in the past. The damage which sexual abuse causes in people’s lives is ongoing. The council sought to express our need to care for [survivors of abuse], to respond to them, and, equally, our need to do everything we possibly can to make the present and the future a very different story for people than the past.”

He raised as specific concerns how to welcome survivors who wanted to return to church but struggled with trauma responses in those spaces and the “extraordinary loss of credibility” of the church in Australian society.

“All of this helps us to understand why people speak, rightly I think, of an unhealed wound. For so many people the sexual abuse of the young has been and continues to be very damaging, primarily for the victims and survivors, for their families and their friends, but also for many other people whose faith in the church has been so damaged. I worry that there are some who may never be able to find a way through this tragedy.”

The archbishop added that “we dealt with the abuse crisis in the second assembly very differently to the other issues. We dealt with it very much within the context of, I would almost say, a liturgical experience of lament, of sorrow, of apology and of a determination to continue and deepen our commitment to the dignity, safety and security of all who engage with the church.”

The role of women in the church

In a special interview with America Magazine, Perth Archbishop Timothy Costelloe recalled that the Frascati meeting the group discussed the reports from bishops’ conferences on the first phase of the synodal process. Photo: Thierry Bonaventura/Synod 2024.

Archbishop Costelloe said the third major priority to emerge from the Plenary Council is “the role of women in the life of the church,” the debate over which led to a “moment of crisis.” The archbishop recounted that a series of propositions concerning women’s role in the life of the church were all gathered into one complex motion. The motion passed the first, consultative vote of the entire assembly with just over a two-thirds majority, but when it came time for the bishops-only “deliberative vote,” the motion “just fell under” the two-thirds majority.

The result “prompted a moment of real distress and concern amongst many people, not just many of the women, but many people,” Archbishop Costelloe said. He was sick that morning and was not present for the votes but, he recalled, “I was called out of my sick bed to come and see what we could do. There was real distress amongst the bishops about all this as well.”

Over lunch, the bishops met and “realized that the motion was too complex, and so we broke it up into individual parts so that each section could be voted on independently. We changed the process and allowed for further debate on the floor about these motions.” After some reorganizing of the motions and changes in wording, he said, “people felt that they were heard and that they could say what was in their mind and heart: It changed the mood completely.” In the next two votes—the deliberative and the consultative—all of the motions relating to women passed.

“Since then, so many people have spoken about the disruption as something like a Pentecost experience: There was the raging fire and the roaring wind, and we were able to move forward,” the archbishop said. It was “one of the clearest indications that it wasn’t just members who were active at the Plenary Council: The Holy Spirit was at work as well.”

Asked to describe what the disagreement was over, Archbishop Costelloe said, “I think it probably comes down to the question of the governance issue in the life of the church.” He explained that “the idea of women taking on roles of great significance and leadership in the church has been a reality in the church of Australia, ever since I’ve been a bishop, indeed, longer than that.

“There was never any question about the commitment of everybody,” he said, adding, “It was more a matter of what that might look like in practice.”

The Salesian archbishop explained: “What I think is at issue is the relationship between the role of women and the role of the ordained ministry. Even if you leave the ordination question aside for a moment, there is still a great need to explore ways of engaging women in all other levels of the life of the church in significant roles. There is still a lot of work to be done.”

“In my own reflections,” he continued, “it seems to me that the fact that in the church ultimate governance is invested in the ordained ministry, and women are not part of the ordained ministry, is a significant element of what is a very challenging question.” Archbishop Costelloe said that as a researcher of the theology of ordination, he believes that this question is, at its heart, theological.

“There are some big theological questions around this whole idea of tying governance to sacramental orders, in the way that we have understood it,” he said. “I am not saying that this will change or can change, or should or shouldn’t change, but I believe there is a theological issue here. It is not just a sociological issue.”

Responding to Pope Francis’ separation of the power of Holy Orders from the power of governance in his reform of the Roman Curia, the archbishop remarked, “This seems to be a very new development, and I think it is going to be very interesting to see how it plays out.”

“At this time there is an invitation to the church to revisit the theology of ordained ministry and ask ourselves again, particularly in relation to Pope Francis’ vision of a synodal church, what we can identify as the unique and irreplaceable role of the ordained ministry—in other words, what is essential and what is not?” the archbishop said.

“This is an important question: one, I think, which will still be there after the conclusion of the forthcoming synod.”

This article was first published in America Magazine

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Gerard O’Connell is America’s Vatican correspondent and author of The Election of Pope Francis: An Inside Story of the Conclave That Changed History. He has been covering the Vatican since 1985.