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Vol 36 No 2


Sonia Wagner SGS

Richard Lennan

Bronwyn Dekker, Julie McCoy, Duke Badger, Cathie Stone, Damien Murtagh

Ruth Connelly

Graham Neist FMS

Terence Kennedy CSsR

Gerard Moore SM

Michael Trainor



Ecclesia in Oceania:
Liturgical perspectives


Perhaps it was my mistake to respond too readily to the editor’s suggestion! Some theological reflection on Ecclesia in Oceania seemed worthwhile. But the writing has proved more difficult. It is not entirely that the Apostolic Exhortation disappoints. In places it does. In other parts it doesn’t. There are also factors outside the document that have a bearing on any reading. The Special Assembly of the Synod of Bishops for Oceania is ‘long’ past. Held in December 1998, its impact has faded. During the three intervening years we have seen in the new millennium, celebrated the Year of Jubilee, and been challenged by the formidable Novo Millennio Ineunte.1 As well, Ecclesia in Oceania appears to have captured little of the excitement anecdotal evidence suggests was generated amongst the bishops at the Synod itself. Such energy was given little chance to work. On landing back from the clear skies with a renewed sense of purpose, most Australian bishops were immediately landed, out of the blue, with the ‘Statement of Conclusions’2 . In effect, the ‘Statement’ has overshadowed the Synod, and garnered more weight than normally ascribed to such a work.

In spite of this somewhat ominous opening, it must be said that Ecclesia in Oceania wants to deliver some messages, and these need explication, evaluation and expansion. The particular concern of this essay is with the liturgical and sacramental portions. These are found, in the main, in Chapter IV ‘Living the Life of Jesus Christ in Oceania.’ A set of seven paragraphs is devoted to the spiritual and sacramental life (§36-42) under a slightly jumbled set of topics: Come Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Interiority, Lectio Divina and the Scriptures, Liturgy, the Eucharist, the Sacrament of Penance, Anointing of the Sick. Spiritually and sacramentally, what can we draw from this?

Come Holy Spirit! (§36)

Our section opens with promise. There is a radicalness about the statement that the Church in Oceania has been endowed by the Holy Spirit with many gifts. The immediate reference here is unity. Across the diverse cultures and traditions, the pontiff writes of a unity in faith, hope and charity, in Catholic doctrine and discipline, and in the common life of the Trinity. The foremost concern is with the church universal. The ordering of these modes of unity is curious. Communion in the Trinity is the very stuff of Baptism and Eucharist. It is the grounds for all subsequent Christian and ecclesial unity. Should it not be the first to be listed3 ?

Unity in the threefold virtues follows. The love which unites the Church, and guides its witness and mission, is based in and give expression to trinitarian love. Unity in Catholic doctrine and unity in discipline each belong at different levels again. Unity in Catholic doctrine reflects what is known of our life in the Trinity. Yet it also teaches the inexhaustible mystery of the triune God. Consequent upon this is our need for renewing our theology and refining our teaching, as is the nature of the Catholic tradition. Unity in discipline is a further matter. The point itself raises questions unaddressed here: what in our current discipline is suited to the whole of the Catholic church? what is more particularly Roman or European? what disciplines need to be set in place from the churches in Oceania?

The paragraph makes an immediate connection between the many gifts the Holy Spirit has poured on Oceania and the unity of the church. This reflects the concern for communio between the local church and the universal church, already taken up in Chapter 2 (§10-17):

The Synod expressed the hope that the relationship between the particular churches and the universal Church, especially the Holy See, reflect and build up ‘communio’, and that these relationships develop with due regard to the Petrine ministry of unity and due respect for the local Churches. (§11).

Even in terms of the document as a whole, more could have been said here. Earlier the pope had written how God has been at work in pre-Christian Oceania. This is found in the very first paragraph of the Exhortation:

From the earliest times, the peoples of Oceania were moved by the divine presence in the riches of nature and culture.

The indigenous peoples are described as possessing, in pre-missionary times, an ancient and profound sense of the sacred (§7). It is also worth exploring, then, whether the Holy Spirit has produced fruits particular to the churches of Oceania which are our gifts for the rest of the church.

The Spirit of Interiority (§ 37)

Some of these riches are given scope in the section devoted to the interior life. Again it must be asked whether a European mindset is to the fore here. The central point is the need for the ongoing development in each of us of a life of prayer. Indigenous cultures are seen as having retained a sense of appreciation of silence and contemplation, along with a sense of mystery. Their importance grows in light of the frenetic activity of modern life, secularization and materialism. As a stimulus to further interiority the Synod Fathers are said to have encouraged visits to the Blessed Sacrament, the Stations of the Cross, rosary, family prayer and other devotional exercises.

As important as devotions are, it is not clear whether the paragraph has taken us beyond a nineteenth century mentality. The devotions themselves are mentioned without reference to the liturgy, and actually prior to the discussion of liturgy. Does this well enough reflect the key section in the Vatican II Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy which sets the liturgy, the Eucharist in particular, as the highpoint towards which the activity of the church is directed and the source from which all its power flows (SC § 10)? As well these particular forms are mentioned ahead of the word of God, though to be fair the scriptures are treated in the following number. Devotions such as visits to the Blessed Sacrament and the Stations of the Cross need to be treated within the context of Oceania itself. The weather does not provide well for European style reservation! More vitally, what role is being ascribed to adoration in light of the chronic shortage of priests? Perhaps the most important question is one implicit in the section but left unidentified. What devotional forms are best suited to build upon the appreciation of silence, contemplation and mystery identified as a characteristic of the indigenous peoples of Oceania? This is not to exclude European forms, but they themselves grew from cultural and theological strengths, and successfully met particular and local needs. Indigenous devotional paths may well be related to nature, seasonal variations, singing, costume, dancing, narrative and contemplation in ways markedly different from those taken by their European sisters and brothers.

Further we can ask how well does this section speak to contemporary Catholics in the midst of a secular and materialist world, beset as it is by environmental degradation, international violence, and various levels of discrimination?4 What devotions are capable of sustaining Christian hope and action? What ways of contemplative prayer avoid mere escapism and quietist piety? What prayer practices are successful between spouses and within families? It remains to be seen what can be retrieved from former practices. It also remains to be explored how indigenous spirituality and its values can offer heart and comfort to Catholics who share the same land and seas, yet live amidst a secular culture.

Lectio divina and Scripture (§ 38)

The number devoted to scripture shows a more open sensibility. It encourages the spiritual reading and study of the bible, along with communal celebrations of the word of God. Most appropriately there is a twofold call for the scriptures to be translated into the greatest number of vernacular languages, and for ongoing biblical formation. It would seem that here is an opportunity for fruitful ecumenical co-operation, though that is not specifically mentioned.

The ecumenical initiatives discussed mainly in Chapter II (§ 23) are worth bringing into the present discussion. They relate directly to reconciliation (discussed below), prayer, scripture and liturgical texts. The Post-Synodal Exhortation encourages ecumenical prayer that leads to a sharing of life and service. This is a welcome addition to the above discussion of the interior life and devotional practices. It calls us beyond the merely denominational and into prayer that is word-oriented and Christ-centred.

There is also a desire expressed for common ecumenical texts, both scriptural and liturgical:

The Synod Fathers saw it as very useful to have ecumenically accepted texts of the Scriptures and prayers for common use (§ 23).

This reflects positively on the efforts of the various Conferences of Bishops to build a lectionary upon the NRSV translation, allowing many denominations to share the same passages in the same translation on the same Sunday. The desire for common texts has been a long cherished aim of the English speaking churches.

However the words here of the Pope do not exactly square with the contents of the recently released Fifth Instruction on the Right Implementation of the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy Liturgiam authenticam (LA)5 . Produced by the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, LA does not look so favourably on common biblical translations. In the section dealing with norms pertaining to the translation of the scriptures (LA § 34-45), the Congregation has issued the following warning:

On the other hand, great caution is to be taken to avoid a wording or style that the Catholic faithful would confuse with the manner of speech of non-Catholic ecclesial communities or of other religions, so that such a factor will not cause them confusion or anxiety (LA § 40).6

With regard to the development of common texts, the International Commission on English in the Liturgy (ICEL), a commission of the English speaking Conferences of Bishops, has recently been forced to pull back from its long term involvement in the quest for shared ecumenical liturgical texts. It is to be hoped that these points in the pontiff’s Exhortation may have some impact on the Congregation’s recent policies.

Liturgy (§ 39)

A similar ambiguity is found in the paragraph on liturgy. In terms that are also found in the ‘Statement of Conclusions’, Ecclesia in Oceania recognizes the pivotal place of the renewal of the liturgy in the Vatican II inspired reform of the churches:

Christian life has been invigorated by a renewed understanding and appreciation of the liturgy, especially of the Eucharistic Sacrifice.7

The document acknowledges that the increased participation has led directly to a greater sense of mission. It encourages inculturation, albeit within the broad parameters of the Roman tradition:

…in this regard many local churches are involved in a theoretical reflection and practical actuation of a proper inculturation of the forms of worship, with due regard for the integrity of the Roman rite.

Consequently the pope writes of the necessity of adequate translation of liturgical texts and appropriate use of symbols.

Three sets of observations can be put forth. The first reflects the ambiguity noted above. As the Bishop of Rome writes in terms of translations adequate to the country, along with moderate inculturation, the Fifth Instruction Liturgiam authenticam seeks a more centralized approach to translation and a restriction on any adaptation of the liturgical books, far less inculturation.

A second observation is in a more optimistic vein. The acknowledgement of the need for inculturation is given solid pastoral and theological grounds. Pastorally, inculturation is said to work to avert cultural alienation when indigenous peoples approach Christian worship. Theologically, the Exhortation acknowledges that worship informs the deepest dimensions of our baptism: The words and signs of the liturgy will be the words and signs of their soul. This opens the way for the churches in Oceania to ask how the liturgy can be life giving to particular groups within a culture? We can fruitfully inquire how the liturgy can be more responsive to the culture of youth, especially as described in Ecclesia in Oceania:

[Today] youth live in a culture which is uniquely theirs. It is essential that Church leaders study the culture and language of youth, welcome them and incorporate the positive aspects of their culture into the Church’s life and mission (§ 44).
Along the same lines, we can pursue how the liturgy can respond to the pope’s straightforward statement about women in the church’s mission: ‘They [women] should never be made to feel alien’ (§ 46). This echoes a key point from the 1999 Report on the Participation of Women in the Catholic Church:
By contrast, the overall findings of the written submissions, public hearings and targeted groups revealed a strong sense of pain and alienation resulting from the Church’s stance on women8 .

In light of this it is worth re-examining the reluctance in the Exhortation to use inclusive language9 . Another case in point is the continued restriction to men, in the just released third edition of the Roman Missal, of the instituted ministries of lector and acolyte10 .

The third point is that, while encouraging inculturation, the document is somewhat timid. Given the concern about the radical encroachment of secularization and materialism on indigenous cultures, it appears that this is a most apt time for a penetrating and incisive liturgical inculturation so that the gospel may be written in word and sign into the very soul of the peoples. If this is delayed, those very values, themselves unique gifts of the Spirit, may not survive.

Eucharist (§ 40)

Our portion of the post-Synodal treatise is brought to a close with a paragraph each on three sacraments: eucharist, penance and anointing of the sick. Elsewhere there are treatments of marriage (§ 45) and orders, including the married diaconate (§ 48-50). Unfortunately, there is no real attention given to baptism (and confirmation).

The section on eucharist says little that is new. The centrality of the eucharist is stressed, along with concern for communities throughout Oceania which go without the celebration of the eucharist for long periods, and the need for more vocations. The sequence of points is not always to the best theological advantage. The reaffirmation of the Real Presence of Christ in the reserved Sacrament comes too early in the paragraph. Consequently it is not clear whether the reference to the eucharist as sacrament is actually directing the reader to the action of the eucharistic liturgy itself, properly the sacrament, or to the reserved Sacrament of the Body of Christ.

The expressed concern for communities deprived of regular Sunday eucharist is somewhat underwhelming. If, as the Exhortation reminds us, the eucharist both completes initiation and is the source and summit of Christian life, then this sad fact of our current ecclesial life is a most profound and disturbing challenge. Greater efforts have been made to awaken vocations, though their success is yet to be measured. More radically, how will the dioceses respond to the suggestion that priests be allocated throughout the region in a more equitable way? Certainly no encouragement is offered to the quasi-solution of importing priests from poor third world countries. Agreed that it is patently unfair to hope that all the issues could be addressed in a single paragraph! Yet how then can we build on the clear challenge that Ecclesia in Oceania contains: there is need for great wisdom and courage in addressing this most regrettable situation?

The Sacrament of Penance (§ 41)

The emphasis here appears to fall exclusively on encouraging recourse to the ‘first’ rite of reconciliation. As important as this is, the effect on the reader is that this ritual form appears to encompass the entire Catholic tradition of the forgiveness of sins. The tradition is much broader than this11 . Its breadth of scope opens the way for the development of culturally appropriate, devotional penitential forms, and allows the sacrament to find a proper place in the midst of a conversion-minded spiritual life. Further, such a scope may offer realistic ecclesial penitential moments for those communities deprived of regular Sunday eucharist.

In the paragraph there is a terminological shift from the sacrament of penance to the sacrament of reconciliation. The short reference to the Year of Jubilee gives a glimpse of a larger context for the sacrament. The sacrament of penance is central to the church’s role as a sacrament of reconciliation in and for the world. Indeed, John Paul II has called the churches in Oceania to be just that:

In reaching out and offering life in the name of Jesus, the Church in Oceania today will be a sacrament of divine justice and peace (§ 5).

Reconciliation is one of the greatest needs of the peoples of Oceania, whether between indigenous peoples, between ethnic migrant groups, or between indigenous peoples and colonists and their descendents. Across Oceania we have at our disposal the breadth of Catholic tradition, indigenous forms of reconciliation, the experience of immigrant groups that have come to these shores expressly to escape violence and war, and a reservoir of tolerance. In terms of reconciliation the churches have much to offer society.

Anointing of the Sick (§ 42)

Social compassion and outreach is uppermost in the paragraph given over to the sacrament of the anointing of the sick. Firmly in keeping with the reforms of Vatican II, it is the sick, rather than the dying, who are seen as the subjects of the rite. Support is offered for the ill and the elderly, and importantly for those who support the sick and dying. It would have been good to see this balanced with some reflection on the contribution the sick, as sick, make to the body of Christ. This would also have enabled a shift to occur, so that it did not appear that anointing was something the priest gives to the sick, but that it is a rite celebrated with the sick, inclusive of their participation and contribution to the building of the church.

Concluding Remarks

The Post-Synodal Exhortation certainly touches on many issues for our liturgical future. In that it captures something of the breadth and richness of the experience of the churches in Oceania, and hints at the excitement and energy that was generated at the Synod itself. If taken as a starting point for further discussion and action, then Ecclesia in Oceania provides us with grounds for developing the liturgical life of the church, mindful of the desire for unity, the necessity of inculturation, and the demands of the faithful who live, work and give witness in a secular world.



1 John Paul II, Novo Millennio Ineunte (Strathfield: St Pauls, 2001).
2 Interdicasterial Meeting with a Representation of the Australian Bishops, ‘Statement of Conclusions’, L’Osservatore Romano N.50 - 16 December, 1998. For a liturgical response, see the document from the National Liturgical Commission, Liturgy in Australia, (Brisbane: The Liturgical Commission 2001).
3 A sentence earlier in the document brings out the point:
So too the Synod Fathers declared that ‘the church is essentially a mystery of communion, a people made one with the unity of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. This sharing of the life of the Blessed Trinity is the source and inspiration of all Christian relationships and every form of Christian community’ (§10).
4 See the section entitled ‘Hope for Society’ § 26-31.
5 Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments. Liturgiam Authenticam: Fifth Instruction on the Vernacular Translation of the Roman Liturgy (Washington DC: United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, 2001).
6 A slightly more open approach is signaled later in the document. See LA § 91.
7 The Statement of Conclusions contains the following affirmation: ‘The work of renewal of the Church in Australia has made progress largely by mans of the renewal of the liturgy and the people’s fuller participation in liturgical celebration (§ 39).’
8 See the Executive Summary § 10 from Marie McDonald et alia, Woman and Man: One in Christ Jesus. Report on the participation of Women in the Catholic Church in Australia prepared by the Research Management Group (HarperCollinsReligious: 1999), viii. Also note § 9.4.4.
9 In the same report the clergy are described as recording that the reluctance to use inclusive language was experienced as a significant barrier. See § 7.3.3.
10 The 2002 third edition of the General Instruction of the Roman Missal (§ 98 and 99) leaves unchanged the canonical restriction to men of the ministries of acolyte and lector. See the 1983 Code of Canon Law, 230 § 1.
11 For a summary review see Gerard Moore ‘The Forgiveness of Sins: a ritual history,’ Australasian Catholic Record 77 (1/2000): 10-19.


Gerard Moore SM is the Co-ordinator of Liturgy at the Catholic Institute of Sydney. He is a member of the International Commission for English in the Liturgy.