Leadership for Mission is an initiative of the Council for Australian Catholic Women with the support of the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference, Catholic Mission, Australian Catholic University (ACU) and Catholic Church Insurance.
Both young women have been involved in World Youth Days and Australian Catholic Youth Festivals. Leah Wilson is teaching Year 6 at St Catherine’s and grew up in the Diocese of Lismore. “I feel the diocese invested in me, financially and spiritually, and this is an opportunity to give back to the church, through parish and school, by developing skills in leadership.”
Sophie initially explored the program because it was an innovative approach to gaining a Graduate Certificate in Religious Education. The English Co-ordinator (Acting) at St Peter’s Campus says that already, “I can feel the impact on my classroom, my work as a subject co-ordinator and as a staff member.”
They found the first residential at Mount St Benedict, Pennant Hills, encouraging and eye-opening. “By the end of our first immersion experience at Cana Farm (Orchard Hills) we were all fast friends.”
Cana Farm provides the opportunity for people who have lived on the margins to learn from each other and to recreate themselves. It’s the setting for one of a number of immersions the students of the program undergo in order to broaden their horizons through ‘hands on’ service.
Leah recalls that one of the girls working there said simply, “Cana Farm loved me back to life.”
Andrea Dean, Director of the ACBC’s Office for the Participation of Women, said the new program grew from the successful Young Catholic Women’s Interfaith Fellowship (YCWIF) which was offered five times from 2006 to 2016.
“The YCWIF educated for leadership within and beyond the Catholic Church,” she said. “The graduates work within organisations such as Catholic health, Catholic education and in a variety of professions, including law, chaplaincy and social work.”
In February 2017, the Council for Australian Catholic Women discerned that a revision of the program was necessary in order to create a more fiscally sustainable model with a focus on leadership, rather than interfaith engagement.
“Leadership for Mission is an initiative that has been specifically developed by women for women who are inspired by the Gospel vision of justice, freedom and the dignity of the human person,” Andrea said.
“Amid renewed calls within the Catholic Church for the participation and diversity of women’s voices in decision-making, leadership and ministry, this graduate program seeks to embrace, enhance and theologically ground the leadership capabilities, skills and aspirations of women in the Church and the broader community.”
It’s clear that mutual support in terms of the academic demands is a hallmark of the program. Online posts, video conferences and face-to-face learning are all utilised in forming the young women to ‘do theology’ ‒ and ‘empower’ is a word that recurs in their conversation.
Sophie says, “It’s about feeling empowered to know, as a woman, that your experience of faith is valid and valuable and important to the church…that the things you’ve experienced matter in a bigger context. There are so many women living their faith wherever they are. If you can empower all these different pockets of women to trust their experiences, their knowledge and their faith, change can grow.
“You can be the person in the parish who fosters and builds community just by your way of being. I’ve been reflecting on those who are leaders in the church without hats or badges or titles ‒ the people leading schools, parishes, pastoral offices.”
Leah adds, “I feel the women taking up this leadership opportunity are already leaders within their communities. I have so much more to learn, especially establishing myself in a new place and it’s great that there so many women already contributing. Simply living out your faith confidently empowers others to do the same.”
Issues such as those arising from the Plenary Council taking place in Brisbane in 2020 and Pope Francis’ consideration of the possibility of admitting women to the permanent diaconate are in the minds of the cohort of young women. They are encouraged by the appointment of Dr Anne Therese Gallagher as the President of the Council of the International Catholic Migration Commission. Dr Gallagher is an Australian-born lawyer, practitioner and scholar. An expert on migration, human rights and the administration of criminal justice, her experience spans more than 25 years and over 40 countries of Africa, the Americas, Europe, the Middle East and Asia.
ACU Executive Dean of the Faculty of Theology and Philosophy, Professor Dermot Nestor, said the Faculty has developed a purposefully designed curriculum.
“This program, and the learning design that anchors it, is thus a direct contribution to the pastoral practice of a Church for the third millennium,” Professor Nestor said.
Sophie reflects, “This feels like a grown up version of what I‘ve already done – Australian Catholic Youth Festivals and World Youth Days – and I feel empowered!”