“We need to weep”. This was the cry of one participant at a consultation for Catholic women in Canberra last year. She pleaded, “Women know how to weep, but I don’t see or experience any of our church leaders weeping for the tragedy of child sexual abuse and its cover-up in our church. All of us need to weep and acknowledge the pain we are experiencing.”
This was her reflection after a sharing of John’s gospel account of the women coming to the tomb of Jesus. The women came to the tomb weeping in grief and sorrow. It was to them, in their pain and lamentation, that the Risen Jesus first appeared. The question is, how do women who weep for the tragedy of abuse within the church find the Risen One and their rightful place in the church today?
The role of women within the Australian Catholic Church has been a constant and fraught issue for well over 20 years. In 1999, the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference commissioned a comprehensive research project, Woman and Man: One in Christ Jesus. The report issued a number of recommendations, few of which have been taken seriously or implemented over these many years.
However, the implementation of one recommendation has provided hope to many women. That is the Council for Australian Catholic Women and the Office for the Participation of Women. Over many years they have provided leadership formation for younger women. This programme is now accredited by Australian Catholic University. But very few dioceses follow suit by creating local Councils or Commissions for Women or employ women in key pastoral leadership roles involving decision-making. Women now realise that they need to find their own voice and create their own spaces within the church.
In 2018, inspired by the forthcoming National 2020 Plenary Council and with the encouragement of Archbishop Christopher Prowse, a small group of women in the Archdiocese of Canberra-Goulburn decided to act. They had two main objectives – set up a process to consult women directly and to submit a proposal to the 2020 Plenary Council process. The other objective was to create a network or forum of women to respond to the needs and aspirations of women within the archdiocese.
The first full day of consultation attracted more than 120 women from across the region. They prepared a draft proposal for a second gathering in late 2018. This final proposal was submitted to the 2020 Plenary focusing specifically on women’s spirituality, giftedness, justice and desires for involvement in decision-making within parish and diocesan life.
What also emerged was the strong desire for women to continue to gather together and take responsibility for their own faith journeys, responding positively to each other’s needs and aspirations, whatever their particular situations.
The Canberra-Goulburn Archdiocese covers a vast area from Lake Cargelligo in the west to Bombala in the south-east, across the Australian Capital Territory and parts of New South Wales. The group decided that it was time to reach out to the rural women and listen to their voices and hear from them. They made a very small start. Over six weeks they spent Saturdays visiting each of the rural Deaneries at Batemans Bay, Bega, Young, Nimmitabel, Goulburn and Braidwood.
These rural women shared their stories and the pain experienced within their church at this time. They spoke of their dispiritedness because their children and their grandchildren no longer practice their faith in the way they do. Some grieve that their giftedness is ignored or not welcome at the local church, and some despair at the growing dominance of clericalism in so many subtle ways. These women wept and called for change.
But by weeping and naming their grief, they were able to hope; to hope for a better future. So in recent weeks some 60 women gathered again to work out the role of a Catholic Women’s Forum for their archdiocese.
The Forum determined goals which include facilitating and sharing faith and culture by women in supportive and welcoming environments. They will connect and communicate with women across the whole of the archdiocese, especially rural communities, to energise each other in their faith, spiritual journey and gospel living. The women hope to connect using technology to disseminate information and resources for faith formation, education in scripture, theology and spirituality. As the group matures, they hope to provide forums for women to meet and grow in their Christian faith and so discern their call to mission within and beyond the church. Women’s voices will be heard and will engage in various decision-making forums across the archdiocese. They wish to engage with the Archbishop in setting positive directions for all God’s people in a spirit of collaboration.
Twenty-five women accepted nomination to form a co-ordinating group. Recently they held an information and discernment session and chose 12 women to begin in earnest forging new ways for women to bring to birth ways for them to gather, to strengthen their faith, their hope and their love within their local church.
Out of their weeping by the tomb, they recognise the Risen One within their own lives and relationships. Their journey of renewed faith and energy has begun afresh and in earnest.
Sister Clare Condon is a former Congregational Leader of the Sisters of the Good Samaritan. She served as leader from September 2005 until September 2017.