In recent months, the Australian Catholic Church has been in the spotlight, primarily due to news that the former Archbishop of Sydney and the pope’s current finance minister, Cardinal George Pell, will stand trial for “historical sexual offenses” amid continuing fallout from the Church’s clerical abuse crisis.

As the Church attempts to change the narrative about its role in public life, Archbishop Mark Coleridge of Brisbane has been elected as the new head of the Australian Catholic Bishops’ Conference. Serving as his vice-president will be Archbishop Anthony Fisher of Sydney.

Soon after their election, Bishop Richard Umbers, an auxiliary bishop of Sydney, tweeted that with the election of Coleridge and Fisher, the Australian bishops had “put forward the two most articulate bishops in the conference.”

In an interview with Crux, Coleridge describes how he intends to navigate the tensions between the Church and various political and ecclesial battles in Australia — and in a way that puts Jesus Christ at the center of his work.

Among other points, Coleridge said it’s critical to pursue dialogue with the Australian government about recent calls to eliminate the seal of the confessional in the wake of the abuse crisis, because the Church has to explain that while cover-ups undeniably happened, the Sacrament of Penance is not “the linchpin of a whole culture of secrecy.”

Crux: Do you think your election as head of the Australian bishops indicates a shift in the focus of the country’s Catholic life away from the south of the country?

Coleridge: I don’t see myself as head of the Australian bishops, but more as a coordinator or facilitator.  The Catholic Church in Australia has never had a primate, and has tended to resist the idea.  Each bishop is the head of his own diocese, and the conference can’t change that.  But the conference and its president can help each bishop work more effectively both within his diocese and within the universal Church.

In the past, the Archbishop of Sydney, who was usually a cardinal, was always the president of the conference.  That changed when there was an interregnum in Sydney and the then-Archbishop of Brisbane was elected.  After him, the presidency returned to Sydney, but then we had presidents from Canberra, Adelaide and Melbourne.  Now we go back to Brisbane.

It probably means that ‘the center’ is not what it used to be, and it may be a sign of what Pope Francis has called ‘a healthy decentralization,’ but I wouldn’t read too much into it.

As you set out to lead your fellow bishops, what would you identify to be the major challenges facing the Church in Australia aand what are your top goals?

The Church in this country is on a journey from the Royal Commission to the Plenary Council, and that’s the key to my understanding of what I can contribute.

The journey began long before the Royal Commission, as the Church here began to grapple seriously with sexual abuse in the 1990s, and it will continue long after the Plenary Council as we implement its decisions. But the move from Commission to Council frames my understanding of what I’m called to do.

That means first responding to the recommendations of the Royal Commission in a way that ensures justice for survivors and a safer Church for all.  It will also mean addressing seriously the questions of culture and governance that the Royal Commission has posed, and that will mean continuing the dialogue we’ve already begun with the Holy See. Allied to that, we’ll have to prepare well for the Plenary Council, which may have been the bishops’ decision but is the work of the Holy Spirit.

That will mean listening to as many voices as possible – above all to the Spirit but also to the many voices in the Church and elsewhere. Our listening is framed by questions drawn from Evangelii Gaudium: What might it mean for us now to be a humble Church, a poor Church, a prayerful Church, an inclusive Church, a missionary Church, a joyful Church?

These lead to the key question we’ve adopted in the consultation process, which is about to begin nation-wide: What do you think God is asking of us in Australia at this time?  The major challenge we face is to answer that question powerfully enough to prepare a new future for the Church in this country.

Pope Francis recently approved a Plenary Council for the Australian Church in 2020.  This will be a major event for Catholics in the country.  What are your hopes, and what themes do you anticipate being explored?

My prime hope is that we will be united in entering upon a process of discernment; open to whatever the Holy Spirit may have in mind. It’s crucial to see the Plenary Council as not merely administrative or political, but essentially spiritual and ecclesial.

The decision to move to a Plenary Council was a long time in the making; over a period of more than ten years the bishops had pondered something like this.  But the decision was, I firmly believe, made under the influence of the Holy Spirit, and the Holy Spirit will have to guide us on the journey ahead.  I speak of a journey, because we’ve moved from a sense of the Council as event to a sense of the Council as process.

The Council has three phases: preparation, celebration and implementation. We’ve already begun the preparation phase, and in that sense the Council has already begun. It’s not something that is “out there”; we’re on the road already. The journey will have its moments of uncertainty, because discernment can be messy; and there’s always a danger of losing our nerve in the face of the mess. But we’ll need to hold our nerve and have an ear to recognize what the Spirit is saying, even if it’s something we don’t expect or even want.

We’ll have to review all our structures and strategies, asking if they’re what the mission requires now, however effective they may have been in the past. We’ll have to make sure that we don’t just think and speak about the Church in some introverted way, but have an eye to the mission and what it requires of us now in Australia.

Holding our nerve and keeping our eye on the mission will both be challenges; both will require a holy patience, a kind of waiting on God. My hope is that this process will lead to a divinely inspired plan for the future of the Church in Australia, which will have Jesus at its heart.  Because in the end Jesus is all we have. That will have to be our lodestar on the journey of the Plenary Council.

You were a delegate to the 2015 Synod on the Family in Rome. What do you believe to have been the fruits of it? And do you believe there are legitimate questions of doctrine at stake (as raised by the so-called “dubia cardinals”), or are these debates an unhelpful distraction?

One fruit of that Synod was the decision of the Australian bishops to move to a Plenary Council.  For me, the Synod was the most powerful experience of discernment I have ever known. It was on Oct. 17, 2015, during the pope’s memorable address on the synodality of the Church that it came to me almost as a flash of inspiration that now was the time, finally, for the Australian bishops to decide for a Plenary Council.

Halfway through that synod, it seemed impossible that we’d produce anything worthwhile by the synod’s end.  It was all over the place and seemed to be going nowhere. But by the end we did produce something worthwhile, and that led to Amoris Laetitia. Neither the final document of the synod nor the apostolic exhortation was the last word, but both were milestones on the journey that had begun once the Holy Father announced two synods on marriage and the family.

Pope Francis moved from synod as event to synod as process, which continues still.   That process is essentially pastoral in the way that Vatican II was pastoral, on which Jesuit Father John O’Malley is most helpful.  The synod, like the council, was not at odds with doctrine, but it sought to speak to people in ways they understood and to address the often-messy reality of their lives, in the thick of which they’re searching for God who’s searching for them.

That meant moving from a static view to a more dynamic view typical of the Bible, and to a different understanding of the relationship between objective and subjective, act and person. Questions of the relationship between the doctrinal and the pastoral, static and dynamic, objective and subjective, act and person have been with us at least since Vatican II. The synod and, I hope, the Plenary Council in Australia will help us get the balance right in new and creative ways.

The pending trial of Cardinal George Pell continues to dominate the news.  How does the Church in Australia navigate this in a way that is both respectful of the judicial process, but where it does not become the only thing the Church is known for?

We certainly have to respect the judicial process, whatever we may think of the charges against Cardinal Pell or the process that led to them being laid. We have to trust that truth will have its way and that justice will be done to all.

In the meantime, we have to get on with our real task – which is to respond to the recommendations of the Royal Commission in the light of the Gospel and to take the path of the Plenary Council under the influence of the Holy Spirit. That’s how we’ll stand up for truth and justice in a way that respects the judicial process and focuses on Jesus Christ.

The Royal Commission called for an end to the seal of the confessional and the New South Wales premier has called for a national discussion on this.  Do you believe there are any negotiations that can be had on this matter between the Church and the state?

Those discussions have to happen — first, to explain what the seal (or priest-penitent privilege) is all about and why it matters as it does in the Catholic Church, and second, what its abolition might mean for religious freedom and the rights of conscience.

The Royal Commission seemed to regard the seal as the linchpin of a whole culture of secrecy and cover-up, and therefore as something that had to go. That there were cover-ups and that there can be a culture of secrecy in the Church is certain; but to regard the seal as the linchpin of that is a failure to understand what the Sacrament of Penance is all about.

A blunt instrument like a Royal Commission can’t be expected to understand that, but in shaping legislation governments have to make some attempt, and the Church has to help in that, defending the faith without raising our voice or stamping our foot.  For the Church, the seal is non-negotiable, which is why negotiations with government are important.