“Often, we can look at the big picture of the Catholic Church in Australia and be disappointed about what does not seem to happen, yet so much is happening in the local communities of faith around the Church in Australia.”
These words from Bishop Michael Morrissey, Bishop Delegate for Women, were at the heart of the online national Consultation for Women held on March 27, 2021.
There are many challenges for the Church and wider Australian society to address in striving for inclusion and respect of women. Some of these issues have been raised for consideration in the upcoming Plenary Council and in reports such as The Light from the Southern Cross: Co-Responsible Governance in the Catholic Church in Australia. Reponses to these need time to be considered appropriately. However, while we cannot pre-empt the outcomes of the Plenary Council, we must do what is possible now to support and empower women to realise their baptismal call to be disciples in their families and in their work, social and faith communities.
While almost 400 people registered for the event, 200 participants joined on the day from parishes, schools, diocesan agencies, religious orders, lay organisations, cultural communities and ecclesial communities. Each person was invited to meet in small groups with other women from around the country to identify strategies and strengths of the local Church as they pertain to women’s involvement in ministry.
Although it became clear there wasn’t enough time to make the most of this unique opportunity, these interactions were identified as a highlight for many participants. For some, it was the first time joining a national dialogue. The open and inclusive online format allowed a greater diversity of women, especially those from remote locations, to share and listen to one another.
A multitude of experiences, organisations and strategies were shared during the consultation. This showcased the existing ways in which women support each other, advocate for their ministries and roles, and contribute as missionary disciples. From decades-old women’s groups and religious congregations to young women looking to build creative ways of sisterhood, mothers, professionals and retirees all shared and learned from each other.
The consultation highlighted the diversity in women’s experience of the Church. Some women spoke of their struggles to find a place in the Church that acknowledged their qualifications, their leadership skills and their passion to improve the vitality of their faith communities. Other women felt very integrated into the life of the Church, barely recognising the experiences of the other group. This diversity of the experiences, opinions and generations are a tension which must be held while moving forward.
Two other themes also emerged from the consultation. One was the need for ongoing formation of women. With many professional women in attendance, it was expressed how they were underutilised in Church life, particularly in local communities. Many other women expressed a desire for formation that focused on accompaniment and spiritual growth that would help them in their leadership roles as mothers and in local outreach ministries. Also noted was that the need for formation opportunities should not be limited to women, but also for men, whether they be lay or clerical.
The second theme was on the development of collaborative and co-responsible leadership. There was a sense that people can get caught up in “Church”, focusing too much on structures and governance rather than their baptismal responsibility for the “mission of Jesus”. This is not to say that structures and governance are unimportant in the life of the Church; they are. A critical question emerges: how do we all work towards a way of being co-responsible for the mission of Jesus?
These and many other issues were highlighted during the consultation. The National Centre for Evangelisation will reflect on this feedback into the future as it builds its new website, including a hub for Catholic women, its social media profile “Catholic Women Australia”, and the new national initiative in September, Catholic Women Gather, which builds off the legacy of the National Women’s Colloquium that has been held several times.
Let us continue to pray that the Holy Spirit will give us the wisdom, guidance and patience to know how to gently hold in tension the frustrations, joys and aspirations of all Catholic women.
Words: NCE Team