I am the eldest of five children from a traditional Goan Catholic family. Though a large part of our lives was spent in the UK, my parents had Eastern values with the eldest girl helping out with cooking and cleaning. My brothers were excused from such chores ‘because they were boys’. I was mostly compliant, apart from arguing with my father on one memorable occasion when he forbade me to attend my Protestant friend’s confirmation service. I questioned his reasoning, he could not answer but I did not go.
Fast forward to my university days, I was studying Psychology, and Chris, my future husband, was doing a Masters of Engineering. I recall the strident argument we had on our first date. Despite this fiery start, we found enough common ground to decide to spend our lives together. We have three children: Benjamin, Joseph and Sophie.
We were both Catholic and shared a commitment to social justice issues: from being members of Amnesty International while at university and writing letters to people in power, including in the Church, that never got answered; to more recently, advocating for asylum seekers.
Soon after the Tampa crisis in 2001, Chris joined a small group of brave nuns holding placards in the Newcastle CBD. More recently, I added my support to a small but dedicated group from the local Uniting Church, holding placards on a busy intersection in Toronto, as friends of 'Grandmothers Against the Detention of Refugee Children'.
Looking back, I think I found my voice at university through watching fellow students question lecturers (authority figures) and realising that it was OK! By the second year, I was querying accepted assumptions, with the best of my peers!
Over the years I have grown in confidence to be upfront and honest, especially when I perceive insensitivity or discrimination in communities and organisations in which I am involved. However, I often still doubt myself: Am I being too intrusive in drawing attention to what I believe is wrong, or could be done better? Do people want to hear my opinions? What if they don’t like what I have to say or worse still, what if they end up not liking me?
In the early years of our marriage, I concentrated on raising the children, while Chris worked hard to establish his career. That was the pattern back then. We left the UK and lived overseas, following Chris’ engineering work: Iraq, Indonesia and then Australia. We were in Indonesia for seven years, and I taught at Internationals Schools, attended by expatriate children, including our own.
The main religion in Indonesia is Islam. Catholics are one of the largest Christian denominations, with Mass said in Bahasa, the national language. As a result, we became involved in services in English, led by ministers (married men, as well as women) of the Anglican, Baptist and Pentecostal Churches.
As we participated in these services, we were exposed to direct readings of the Scriptures, from both the Old and New Testaments. We began to discover books of the Old Testament, and passages of the New Testament, that were outside the regular readings at Mass, and that we were unfamiliar with. We also attended regular Bible Studies.
A special treat for me was attending Women's Retreats, where gifted women preached, participants sang with uplifted arms, and prayed with enthusiasm and joy.
It was the first time I had seen Handel’s Alleluia Chorus sung as a form of praise! This faith was alive and I felt so blessed to be there, as did other Indonesian Catholic attendees, who went to their local Priest and asked if they could have similar services and prayer meetings.
They were chastised for attending such services and told that these services were misguided and could lead them away from their faith.
When Chris and I reflected on what we had learned along the way, we realised that we had gone to Indonesia for work, but God had a different agenda for us: we were involved with Ecumenical worshippers who lived out their Christian faith, with many core beliefs and prayers, similar to our Catholic tradition. Instead of a ‘threat’ to our faith, as many Catholics feared, they were PLUs = People Like Us!
Coming back to Australia in the mid-80s, our family moved around NSW, again following Chris’s work projects. Over 30 years, we lived in many beautiful places, including Cooma, Goulburn, Bathurst, Nambucca Heads, Newcastle and Maitland/Rutherford. Finally, we retired to Fassifern in Lake Macquarie. Due to our itinerant lifestyle, we experienced different Catholic parishes and noticed that many parishes seemed to lack a sense of community, with most people taking off straight after Mass.
Our experience in Cooma was an exception, thanks to the friendliness of one couple. They noticed a new family, welcomed us after Mass and invited us round for a cuppa. This experience encouraged us to be conscious of new people at our Kilaben Bay Church, which we have attended since 2013.
We were very pleased to be involved in the Parish as it took active steps to increase a sense of community. We are welcomed when we first arrived, we are encouraged to wear name badges, and to regularly change our favourite sitting spot in the pews, towards getting to know different people; and we are reminded to greet people before and after services. There is a friendly buzz in the Church before Mass!
COVID-willing, we will soon be able to offer a cuppa again.
Often in my life, I have felt it necessary to speak out over things that seem unfair, or could be done better, particularly in our Church. When in Goulburn, we had a visiting priest who kick-started Family Groups in the Parish. He encouraged parishioners to focus on their own Catholic faith, and not be ‘swayed’ by involvement in other traditions.
After his presentation, I shared my spiritual journey in Indonesia, and the fact that my experience of worship and community with non-Catholic Christians had contributed to me being more committed to my faith, “It is because of them that I am here today.” He did not apologise, but I did not hear him repeat those ideas that weekend.
However, his comments made me reflect on where my loyalty lay: with the Catholic Church or with Christ? I concluded that my commitment to Christ came first.
On a more recent occasion, I shared my frustrations with my Parish about the prayers of the faithful. To my ears, whilst the intentions were undoubtedly worthy, the wording of the regular prayers seemed so predictable and unrelated to ‘real’, everyday concerns. I was concerned that many just tune out. How could we have a general prayer for peace in the world, with no mention of the crisis in Ukraine, which is on our daily TV screens and could impact on all our lives if the conflict blows up?
Like all of us, I have had my trials of faith: the major milestone for me was when our daughter told us that she was converting to the Islamic faith. Both Chris and I were dismayed, but I was devastated and struggled greatly. I could not understand why she had ‘rejected’ Jesus’ way. Where did we go wrong as Catholic Christian parents? I felt helpless, guilty & drained: where was God?
I was sharing my desolation with a friend from the Uniting Church one day. He asked if I had considered Spiritual Direction and said that there were some excellent Spiritual Directors at the Convent in Lochinvar, just up the road from Rutherford, where we were living at the time.
And so began my journey into Spiritual Direction over many months, with a sensitive, gifted and deeply spiritual woman, Sr. Lynette Pearce. Through her guidance, I began to find inner peace and recognised a loving God of all times, both joyful and tragic, and a God of many faith traditions. God was there all along, just in a different shade, and I was colour blind, with dismay & fear!
My daughter continues to be a devout Muslim, and I have accepted that her chosen path to worship God is different from mine. These days, we regularly share a prayer of intercession, in our different ways.
In early 2016, Chris lost his battle with cancer, and it took me a while to ‘bounce back’ without the companionship of my life partner of 44 years. Our children, close friends, local Church community, weekly Mass and regular activities, all contributed to me achieving, over time, a sense of normality.
Some of my other struggles are more difficult to address: I often despair at how stuck we Catholics are in our ways and change seems so hard. My greatest wish is that we could become a more inclusive, loving and dynamic Church, genuinely open to the many varied and individual gifts of all God’s people.
As a laywoman, I feel so frustrated when we pray for vocations, and I see the wisdom and spiritual gifts of so many in the Church, especially women, ignored. I want to yell: they are here! Please can we open our eyes!
Despite my frustrations, I continue to worship in the Catholic Church, because there is much that I love about our faith traditions and especially the many people in my worshipping community, whom I care for and who care for me. But I will continue to strive for us Catholics to be more accepting and relevant to the needs of the community in the 2020s, both inside and outside the Church, as well as the needs of the wider world, that we are part of.
Pope Francis is one of my heroes! He upholds the Catholic faith whilst at the same time, embracing those of many faiths who love God, and those on the fringes: the poor, the abused, the refugees, our struggling environment - all of Creation.
It seems to me that his ideas are not always welcomed by some in the more traditional and established corners of the Catholic Church, but he speaks the truth as he sees it.
I believe that we all have a role to play in shining a light on things in our Church that could be done differently, and perhaps even for the better. We all share a part of the Truth, we need to speak our own and listen attentively to that of the other.