About 12 years ago, Canberra priest Fr Ken Barker MGL consulted a few women after Mass and asked: “What would women like to see for them? Can you find out?”
Bronnie Schlager, together with Anne Woods and Diane Fulop, organised an opportunity for women to express their views. One need that emerged was the desire to meet with other women, to pray, to share and enjoy some small group hospitality. Within a very short time, and as a response to this request, the “Call to Connect” initiative was born. What started with two groups has now grown to 13 groups across the Archdiocese of Canberra and Goulburn and beyond.
Integral to the success of Call to Connect has been the support of the Missionaries of God’s Love Canberra community. They have assisted with retreats, saying Masses and giving talks. The Carmelite Sisters also offer ongoing prayer support for the initiative. Call to Connect operates as a fairly low-key independent group with a leadership team comprising women from different parishes and walks of life.
To support the prayer and sharing activities of each group, a small supply of resources was developed. As each group formed, the women could use these resources and supplement them with activities of interest, such as a book review. There were no hard and fast rules, but attention to prayer, confidential sharing and offering a meeting schedule that matched the needs of the participants were crucial to the success of the gatherings. With the restrictions caused by COVID-19, the groups faced not being able to meet in person. However, once members realised the ease of videoconferencing, they quickly moved to a new way of gathering in the virtual space. There were also other blessings that came as a result of the coronavirus.
Bronnie, a former foreign languages teacher, lives on a farming property near Braidwood, NSW. Prior to the pandemic, her family had experienced the devastation of the NSW bushfires. Led by the Holy Spirit, she reached out to family and friends across the state and tentatively asked if they would like to gather virtually for prayer during this tough time. Although she knew the Call to Connect formula was effective, she thought they would politely decline the offer. But they didn’t. And even as the pandemic started to ease, they wanted to continue as a virtual prayer group.
Bronnie also realised that the resources that had been developed over the years needed to be updated so time-poor participants didn’t have to scramble each time they met for something that was enriching. The resource offerings also needed to be matched more carefully to the allotted time of the prayer session. COVID-19 spurred her on to lead a small team to develop a carefully curated collection of 35 prayer segments and inspirational ideas for gatherings accompanied by a leader’s guide in a free starter kit.
Selina Stanford, an accountant, lives in Queanbeyan, NSW. Her parish currently has one Call to Connect group which started in 2017. Selina has found the updated resources to be particularly helpful. Selina says: “Women are very busy, often juggling caring roles and work. However, they also need to be spiritually nourished and have an outlet for where they can share life’s ups and downs.”
Maureen Hilton, who has many years of parish pastoral experience, lives in the far north of Canberra. Holy Spirit Parish in Gungahlin has two groups that meet physically and one group meeting virtually. In 2012, when Maureen was invited to a Call to Connect information session, she had no intention of joining because she had so much on her plate. Now, she would struggle to leave the ongoing support that her female friends offer, as well as the nourishment of rich prayer that comes with each gathering.
The three women also shared that many groups have non-Catholic and non-practising Catholic participants. However, this does not prevent the group from having a strong Catholic flavour. For example, some groups will pray the Rosary and other Catholic prayers. For some women, their Call to Connect group has been a way of welcome back to the Church. For others, who no longer feel at home in the Church, they have found a spiritual community that nourishes them. And for many, and maybe all, the gatherings fill a spiritual hunger that does not get fed elsewhere.
The Call to Connect leadership team is now ready to expand. Bronnie senses that the Holy Spirit is calling them to share this initiative beyond the diocesan boundaries. As noted, she has already experienced firsthand that online prayer groups can connect people from across the country. She also knows women living in remote and rural areas of Australia do not have the luxury of meeting physically with others. Bronnie and her team now have the resources and know-how and are ready to share the Call to Connect concept with others.
In late June, Bronnie, Selina and Maureen will present an information session via Zoom. They plan to outline how easily a group can be established and then demonstrate how the resources can be used. They will then offer support to help groups with their initial planning. There is no cost, no contracts and no hidden clauses!
For more information: https://womenstaskforceacg.wordpress.com/womens-prayer-groups/
Facebook: Call to Connect Women's Ministry
Phone: 0432 257 622
*This article was updated on August 2, 2021, at the request of Bronnie Schlager.
Words: Sharon Brewer