2021 has the makings of a huge year in the Diocese of Maitland-Newcastle. There is the Synod, Lenten, and Advent programs, the return of parish sacramental programs, a Safeguarding audit and the list goes on. However, already one giant step for women has been achieved with Bishop Bill giving his blessing to the formation of the Council for Women.

You might be thinking hasn’t  there always been the Catholic Women’s’ League (CWL) and the Council Australian Catholic Women (CACW) contact group in the diocese? Correct but since Covid-19 struck we all had time to discern just what is the path of women in the church could be. However we acknowledge the legacy these groups and their members have contributed in paving the way to the new council.

Here’s a brief potted background to the former CACW (supplied by Helen Belcher).

The Council for Australian Catholic Women (CACW) provided advice to the Australian Bishops’ Commission for Church Ministry about women and their participation in the Catholic Church in Australia.  It was established in response to a ground-breaking report “Woman and Man: One in Christ Jesus”.

The Diocese of Maitland/Newcastle CACW Contact Group was a ‘grass roots’ body.  It liaised with the Bishop of Maitland/Newcastle concerning issues related to the CACW and provided feedback and advice to the CACW on matters relating to the participation of local women in decision-making, leadership, and ministry in the life of the Catholic Church.

Following a financial review in 2018 the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference (ACBC) abolished several advisory bodies including the CACW. 

In a letter to the Council for Mission the President of the ACBC, Archbishop Coleridge, advised that the Bishops Commission for Evangelisation, Laity and Ministry would “look to diocesan and other Catholic women’s organisations to establish a network that can advise the Commission and, in turn participate in implementing national priorities locally.” (thanks to Helen Belcher for supplying the information).

Archbishop Coleridge actually did women of this Diocese a favour. Whilst there was, and still is, resentment amongst many women at the decision of ACBC, really it was a call to action for women to forge their own path and be inclusive of all women regardless of faith background, age, or circumstances.

A small, dedicated group consisting of Moira Gordon, Helen Belcher, Yvonne Rohr and Helene O’Neill joined together to comprise Statutes and Protocols of the council’s operation. Director of Pastoral Ministries Terresa Brierley added her support and then it was handed over to Bishop Bill.

On February 11, the Diocese Maitland-Newcastle Women’s Council was conceived. All women in the Diocese were invited to attend the inaugural meeting and we were blessed with 18 attendees. The list of apologies amounted to the same number and included school principals, CSO personnel, members of the Council for Mission and parish representatives. This suggests that there is a real energy and a desire for women to further their involvement in Diocesan matters.

Helene O’Neill was elected unanimously as Chair, Helen Belcher is Deputy Chair and Yvonne Rohr rounds out the Executive as Secretary, There was a real buzz in the room and an expectation that the voices of women would be heard.

What is the aim of the Council you ask? Let me share with you a synopsis of the inaugural Council for Women’s meeting which outlines the proposed vision and role

  • Long term goal – total equality at all levels for women in the Church as mandated through Baptism to serve, teach, and witness Christ in our communities
  • To be a representative body to further education for women, to encourage participation and give support
  • To envisage a different hierarchy, one that supports equality and justice for women
  • Recognition that women comprise more than half the numbers involved in the church without the concomitant recognition of the gifts, capabilities, education, and rights of women, protected by church law
  • Words, ideas, rhetoric have been put forward for many years but what, can be done to further recognition of the full humanity of women?
  • Whilst ‘Hope’ & optimism expressed, some disappointment at the seemingly snail-paced progress in the lack of place for women in governance, decision-making at the table
  • It was agreed that we would keep ‘chipping away’ with the realisation that as a group & individually, positive influence can occur by seizing the opportunity to
    1. Outreach
    2. Make connections
    3. Be in communion with one another
    4. Be open to national & international influences

There was agreement that the Council would work within the Five Foundations of the Diocese – Identity and Community; Worship and Prayer; Mission and Outreach; Formation and Education and Leadership and Structure to ensure we are in step with all parts of the Diocese.

If you are reading this and thinking you have a contribution to make, we welcome you to join the council. Here is our plan :

  • To have bi-monthly meetings / forums 4pm to 5.30pm on Thursdays; to possibly seek input from women of other denominations
  • Use multimedia to enable participation to those further afield in the diocese, for education, formation and support eg via zoom
  • distribution of material of interest to a now enhanced database
  • Executive to meet monthly – plan details for more immediate and future happenings

Next Bi-monthly meeting | 4pm Thursday 15th April 2021, Diocesan offices, Hamilton

To Celebrate the Council and mark International Women’s Day you are warmly invited to join us at the Sacred Heart Cathedral on Sunday March 7 at 9.30am when Bishop Bill will celebrate mass. All are welcome.

‘She speaks with wisdom, and faithful instruction is on her tongue’
- Proverbs 31:26



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Helene O'Neill Image
Helene O'Neill

Helene O'Neill is the Parish-Family Liaison Officer for the Catholic Diocese of Maitland-Newcastle.