The Archdiocese of Cardiff was the host for the National Conference of ACTA [A Call to Action] on Saturday 20th October 2018. It was held at St David’s RC Sixth Form College. The theme for the Conference, “It will always be Pentecost in the Church”, refers to a sermon of St. Oscar Romero in which he called for a process of continuous spiritual renewal. The Church needs to be open to the Spirit, to read the signs of the times and respond to the new challenges of the age.
Archbishop George Stack was unable to attend as he was returning from Washington and the ICEL Conference. He had written a Letter of Welcome to delegates and this was read out by Fr Joseph O’Hanlon, Spiritual Director to the National Leadership Team.
ACTA exists to promote respectful dialogue between clergy, religious and laity. There are groups in all the dioceses of England and Wales. For the last few years the ACTA National Conferences has concentrated on aspects of Church renewal. The writings of Pope Francis have provided a rich seam of material for reviewing the way we perceive Church and how we are encouraged to contribute to its development. His support of a synodal process for exploring issues of Catholic thought and practice demonstrates a confidence in the People of God to grow the Church as an expression of the mind of Christ.
Delegates from some seventeen of the dioceses of England and Wales congregated in Cardiff to hear presentations from Dr Anna Abram and Dr Gemma Simmonds and representatives of young people.
Dr Gemma Simmonds is a sister of the Congregation of Jesus, and was a senior lecturer in pastoral theology at Heythrop College, University of London, where she was director of the Religious Life Institute. She moved to the Margaret Beaufort Institute, Cambridge, in summer 2018. For a number of years she was the chaplain to Holloway Prison before spending time in South America supporting women and children on the streets of Brazil. She is a broadcaster and commentator.
Her presentation examined the nature and purpose of our call through Baptism. She reminded delegates that we are all called to be Priest, Prophet and King. This was not a simple formula but a challenge that was underscored in all the writings of Pope Francis. She examined in turn the specific qualities of the priesthood of the people, our prophetic role and our duty to contribute to the building of the Kingdom. The Church had suffered a devastating loss of credibility because of the sex abuse scandals and the solution could only come from a Church that embraced the poor and the marginalised. Her presentation was supported by a number of the art works of Fr Sieger Köder.
Dr Anna Abram is Principal of the Margaret Beaufort Institute of Theology in Cambridge. Until April 2017, Anna had been at Heythrop College, University of London, in various roles including Head of Pastoral and Social Studies Department, Senior Lecturer in Ethics and Convenor of the MA in Contemporary Ethics. She has been involved in the training of people for the Permanent Diaconate in London. She spoke to Conference on the need for a commitment to ecclesial ethics to mirror the professional ethical standards that are an essential part of the secular world. There was a need to review some aspects of the training of priests, religious and Permanent Deacons to ensure that they understood the expectations of wider society in terms of transparency and accountability, for example. Many of the crises currently facing the Catholic Church had been the result of a lack of such transparency and accountability in the past. The Church could be strengthened by embracing such ethical proposals.
The Conference took place during the Synod on The Faith, Young People and Vocational Discernment in Rome and ACTA were keen to hear about the experience of young people in the Catholic Church. One part of the morning and afternoon sessions was devoted to this critical area with representatives from several dioceses invited to participate.
We heard from Lucy Byrne, a primary school teacher from Liverpool, who spoke of the growing disparity of the Church’s social teaching on equality and its failure to recognise the place of women in the structures of the Church. Lucy Wright is a final year student at Manchester University studying Comparative Religion and Social Anthropology. Her presentation, too, referred to the challenge of being a woman in a Church where there was not the natural recognition of equality that was reflected the same growing social pressure in the secular world.
The third speaker in this section was Adam O’Boyle - a postgraduate student of Durham University who spoke of their expectations of the Synod on Young People, the Faith and Vocational Discernment. He felt that the synodal process was creating the expectation of progress in making the Church more responsive to the aspirations of young people.
Throughout the day, delegates were supported by a small group of student ambassadors from the College. They were able to provide their own insights at key parts of the day and delegates appreciated their positive and purposeful contribution.
In the afternoon, delegates discussed a range of issues linked to the morning’s presentations. These included the role of laity in the structures of the Church, the need for a set of principles to underpin a commitment to ecclesial ethics and ways to support intergenerational dialogue about the Faith. Delegates noted that the outcome of the Synod would pose new challenges for the ways in which it engages with young people in the future and the Catholic Church needed to respond to the challenges that Pope Francis had set from the start of his papacy.