TUESDAYS WITH TERESA: Because of her, we can - and have, and will!

There are weeks when this message gradually unfolds and last week was one of those occasions. One of the big topics emerging for the Australian Plenary Council of 2020/21 is around the role of women in the Catholic Church. For most of us this does not come as a surprise - and yet I sense a degree of resistance, particularly from those in leadership.

I am conscious that next week we will celebrate NAIDOC Week with the theme Because of her, We Can. To acknowledge the significance of this week, there will be a gathering at Christ Church Cathedral on Sunday 8 July inviting us to remember the past and present stories of the First Nation’s people and their innate connection to the land. I recognise the important role that women have played, and continue to play, in our own Aboriginal Catholic Ministry. We have been asked to provide Richard Campbell’s image of our diocesan patronal saint – Our Lady of Perpetual Help. Please consider either joining us or attending a NAIDOC week event in your own location. Some of you would have been aware that we celebrated the feast day of Our Lady of Perpetual Help on Thursday 27 June.

Then, while preparing for the weekend’s Mass, I came across the Gospel reading about the 12-year-old girl – Jairus’ daughter - and about the woman who touched Jesus, even though she had been haemorrhaging for 12 years.

By Friday, I was conscious that the emerging theme for the message may have been about women when I came across the sound cloud on Eureka Street called Chatter Square. The following words accompanied this sound cloud, drawing me to it even further: Women are critical to the future of the church:

Although women have been sidelined from power structures within the Catholic Church, history is replete with their examples of service and leadership. So why aren't these women as familiar to us as other workers in the early church and since? And what standards do they set?

This sound cloud was recorded at a pub in inner-city Melbourne and features Fatima Measham who talks to members of a Catholic community about why women are critical to the future of the Church.

And finally, I had registered for the women’s reflection day, held at Lochinvar on Saturday and facilitated by Sr Lauretta Baker rsj. The title for the day was The Valiant Woman (Proverbs 31. Who is she in today’s Church? A day of challenge for all women!

This thought-provoking day provided those who gathered with an opportunity to reflect, pray, to both share and enjoy companionship and inspiration, to see the light within, to experience the light within others and together, to light up the world.

There are elements that are woven from my own week as a woman of family and faith. I seem to have had many significant conversations with other women in the workplace and from our parishes. I am also aware of the heartfelt conversations I had with my own daughter on Friday as she recalled the death of her daughter, Ada, and our struggles since that tragic day in December 2015. I then took some time out over the weekend to view a couple of episodes from series two of The Crown which covers the life and times of Queen Elizabeth.

I hope I am able to do justice to weaving the fabric of the theme that has emerged over the past week, for your own reflection and contemplation.

When Fatima was speaking, and as I listened to Lauretta, I was reminded of my own studies of the scriptures and history.  I recognised some of the terms they used in relationship to the writing of texts and history, particularly in relationship to women. Women have been:

  • Minimized
  • Erased or written out of the text
  • Obscured
  • Overlooked
  • Tamed in the telling
  • Silenced

The consequence of this is that many of their stories have not been told. Now their voices are being restored and their place, particularly in the life of Jesus and the early Church, is being remembered in a different context. Our sources of truth in the Catholic Church come from:

  1. The Scriptures
  2. Tradition
  3. Reflection on lived experience

Both Lauretta and Fatima named the women or stories which survived the writing and times, because of the particular cultural and social bias of that time – Mary (all three of them), Susanna, Joanna, Martha, the Samaritan woman, Anna, the widow of Nain, the haemorrhaging woman, the woman caught in adultery, the woman who anointed Jesus’ feet…….(from the Gospels) and then, Phoebe, Priscilla, Junia, Euodia, Syntyche and Lydia who were co-workers with the early disciples. They also named some of the other women who have emerged in our story-telling and acclaim over the past thousand years – Teresa of Avila, Catherine of Siena, Hildegard of Bingen, Joan of Arc, Clare of Assisi, Therese of Lisieux, Julian of Norwich, Brigid of Ireland, Dorothy Day, Mary MacKillop…..

In the main, these voices have been minimised - and yet many have been at the forefront of change in our institutional church and wider social change. Their stories must be recaptured and honoured, along with the many women whose names I have not acknowledged, because the imbalance, if allowed to continue, will skew the dignity and justice which needs to be afforded to all people. Lauretta stated powerfully that “Jesus vigorously upheld the dignity of women.”

An exclusionary culture has emerged, some refer to this as clericalism, which now requires all of us, both males and females, to take part in fruitful dialogue. This to shift the conversation and language from being adversarial to inclusive and co-operative. You have heard me say previously that to demonise the other is a violence. Yet that is how the conversation can be perceived, as ‘having a go’ at the other, so as to win some imaginary battle. I recall some writers referred to Mary MacKillop as ‘that troublesome woman’.

I sense that many women in our diocese, who are attempting to have these difficult conversations, are thought of as troublesome, difficult, feminists, activists etc. Yet we are living at a time in which we need to be disturbed, because we are being asked for renewal. I know these women to be women of faith and action. I don’t know if they will be silenced, tamed, overlooked, minimised, obscured or erased. I sat with them on Saturday and they are women who care deeply about God’s mission and their call to be Jesus’ disciples.

The invitation at the end of the day was to be bold and daring, like St Joan of Arc or the Valiant Woman from Proverbs 31 – a proverb close to my own heart because this is how we have chosen to remember our mum.

How do we hold hands, journey with each other and open doors, daring to give birth to a new way of being Catholic/catholic? I wonder what will emerge out of the listening conversations that are taking place in preparation for the Australian Plenary Council. 

Lauretta provided us with these words which give a picture of the woman in Proverbs 31:

She is a VALIANT woman;
her roots are firmly planted.
The kingdom is within: her heart, treasure filled.

She is a JOYFUL woman
for whom laughter is no stranger;
a song to sing, a smile to give, a hand to clasp in embrace.

She is a STRONG woman
whose heart and arms
withstand the pressures and worries that each day unfolds.

She is a PATIENT woman
waiting through storm and night
for new life, new growth, rich harvest.

She is a LOVING woman
ever giving and forgiving, ever caring and concerned.

She is a SHARING woman
who, with arms outstretched
gives her gifts to those both near and far.

May we all be valiant, joyful, strong, patient, loving and sharing as we dialogue and listen, so as to hear the voice of the Spirit which is inviting us to a new narrative.

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Teresa Brierley Image
Teresa Brierley

Teresa Brierley is the Vice Chancellor Pastoral Ministries of the Catholic Diocese of Maitland-Newcastle.