Australia’s most important Catholic meeting since 1937 is on right now.

It’s called the Plenary Council and important issues, like women’s role in the Church, and how to heal after the sexual abuse crisis, have been on the table. 

Chris Lee never expected he’d be one of the 280 members attending.

Despite being raised in a practising household, the 27-year old says he didn’t have much to do with Catholicism when he was a teen.

“Like most young people, I went through the stage where I was away from the faith,” he says.

That all changed, eight years ago, after Chris and his friends were involved in a fight in Sydney’s Kings Cross.

“I got to the hospital the next day and the ophthalmologist said, ‘We think one of the guys was carrying a knife because you’ve been cut through the eye,'” he recalls.

Chris had three metal plates put in the right side of his face. He’s permanently blind in his left eye.

The incident left him in recovery for six months and it was during that time he received a visit from a Catholic sister. She told Chris about a men’s group at her university and encouraged him to attend.

“It was the first time I’d been in a group of Catholic men, where we were doing this thing called Lectio Divina – we were reflecting on a piece of scripture,” Chris says.

It was the “crack in the door” that led Chris towards his faith and into a new career path.

He started working with youth in the Archdiocese of Sydney and the Diocese of Parramatta talking about issues that hit close to home – safe partying, decision making and men’s health. Now, he’s in a support role for clergy in the Diocese of Broken Bay.

As a young Catholic man, Chris knows he’s a minority.

Nearly 1.3 million Australians aged 15 to 34 are Catholic, but according to the latest Census data, young people are more likely to report not having a religion than any other adult age group.

But Chris sees the statistic as an opportunity, rather than an obstacle.

“A lot of people my age say they might not believe in the organised religion, but they see themselves as spiritual and they believe in God,” he points out.

“That means we have space to be able to connect with these people and show them all the things that we know to be true and good and beautiful … because they’re searching for it as well.”

The Catholic sisterhood

Medical student Natalie Gordon has her own interesting history with the Catholic Church. 

As a young woman, she felt called to be a religious sister. 

“I was really romantic in my notion of religious life,” recalls the 40-year-old. 

“I kind of wanted the whole package – I wanted the habit and the strict prayer regimen and, I guess, the romanticised 1950s version.” 

Young man wearing beanie, and woman, standing in front of creek.
Natalie Gordon was drawn to become a religious sister, but it didn’t go to plan. (Supplied: Natalie Gordon)

Natalie moved to the United States and joined an order which observed these traditions, but the culture and political leanings of the convent were ultimately at odds with her own beliefs.

“Conservative Americans genuinely argue against abortion if they’re Catholic, but they don’t want to have any conversation about the death penalty… I think that was one thing that really got to me,” she says.

Natalie left the American order after seven months and once settled back in Australia, she undertook a Master’s of Theology.

But despite her knowledge and experience, Natalie says it has still been difficult to find her place in the Church as a woman.

While this week’s Council Plenary of Australia is the first to welcome women, only around one quarter of delegates are female.

“[The Church] says it wants women to be at the helm. It says it wants women to have pride of place,” Natalie says.

“[But] even at this Council, from my very own diocese, for example, Canberra and Goulburn, they’ve got five delegates, one of them is a woman.”

Natalie points out that elderly women are some of the most prolific givers to church life, yet their perspectives are often under-represented.

“I kind of feel it’s a bit hopeless for women.”

‘Legitimacy crisis’

Proportional representation isn’t the only issue on the table.

Seminarian Bill Lowry says there are many topics that matter to young people of faith.

“I’d like to see the Council address … things like ecological conversion or climate justice … and engaging with diverse cultural groups within the church,” he says.

The 27-year old is studying for Catholic priesthood in the Diocese of Ballarat.

Young seminarian wearing white robe and mask, standing on red carpet in a church.
Bill Lowry is well on his way to becoming a Catholic priest.(Supplied: Bill Lowry)

It’s a seven-year commitment, combining the study of theology – to a Master’s level – with community placements in hospitals, nursing homes, schools and parishes.

Bill believes the declining level of religiosity among young Australians is a “great tragedy”.

But he understands why some people are leaving – or choosing not to enter – the Church.

“I think there’s a real legitimacy crisis within organised religion,” Bill says.

“Particularly, we’ve seen the Royal Commission and the issue with child sex abuse … I think people are really questioning whether these institutions can speak authoritatively on these issues when they can’t get their own house in order.

“I think young people really dislike the hypocrisy.”

Challenge accepted

Melbourne-based parish administrator, Father Justel Callos, realised the Catholic community was an ageing one in his first few months of priesthood.

“I remember seeing a lot of – with all due respect – lots of white hair, which was not something that I was used to seeing,” says the 31-year-old.

“And [it wasn’t] as full as the mass attendance I grew up with.”

Father Justel crouches down, surrounded by kids.
Father Justel has been a priest for six years and says he’s “loving it”.(ABC News: Jane Cowan)

Father Justel was born in the Philippines, a country where more than 80 per cent of the population identifies as Catholic – compared with 22.6 per cent in Australia.

He’s been living in Australia since 2008 and, at the time of his ordination in 2015, Father Justel was the youngest priest in Australia.

He finds the declining rates of participation in the Catholic Church bewildering.

“The Catholic schools seem to be full, there seems to be no shortage of baptisms, in my experience, and yet, somehow, we don’t get our young people to go to church or turn up on a Sunday for our masses,” he says.

“That’s something that has really puzzled me.”

While Father Justel was initially discouraged by this fact, he’s now motivated to reverse the trend.

“How do we make our message much more relevant in today’s world?”

He believes the Plenary Council could be a stepping stone.

Like Natalie and Bill, Father Justel hopes the role of women is re-assessed.

He also believes it’s important for the Church to consider how it treats and interacts with divorcees, and with same sex-attracted people, particularly those who are Catholic.

Conversations around Catholicism and the LGBTQIA+ community remain controversial, dividing left- and right-leaning factions in the Church.

Earlier this month, a plenary session held by the German Catholic Church ended abruptly after a majority of bishops, laypeople and church representatives voted in favour of a text endorsing same-sex blessings.

Despite the differing positions among Australian Catholics, Father Justel believes the Church can no longer hide from this “very real” issue.

“We don’t want to isolate them, we want to make a church that is welcoming,” he says.

“If we can present the Church’s teachings in a more positive way, in terms of dealing with people, I think that will be awesome.”

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