Last November, when most of us were revving up for Christmas and end-of-year festivities, the Australian Catholic Bishops had a meeting. High on the agenda was finance. By the time the meeting came to an end and the bishops all went back home they had made decisions that would cut jobs in research and journalism, reduce funding to many offices and commissions and decided to abolish the Council for Australian Catholic Women and the Office for the Participation of Women.
Twenty years ago these last two Offices were concrete signs that the bishops of Australia recognised the changing role of women with a national body of women who would provide them with advice and recommendations. They seemed to be genuinely committed to change. Forward twenty years to the eve of the 2020 Australian Plenary Council, and it’s hard to believe that the bishops’ commitment remains.
These same bishops, well, with a few exceptions, talk the talk when they publicly affirm the equality of women and occasionally invite women’s involvement in decision-making, but on a day-by-day level, the level that’s important to most catholics, nothing changes very much.
If I want to hear the Sunday Scriptures preached from the perception and lived experience of a woman I would have to attend a non-catholic church. Female hospital chaplains are not free to extend God’s forgiveness to a dying person who has just entrusted her with their sinfulness. Women enthusiastically and creatively prepare young parents for the baptism of their precious baby, then feel the need to apologise for a baptism liturgy distinguished by speed and a celebrant whose zest has slid off into familiarity and tiredness.
My life as a catholic woman has involved me in many different facets of church life teacher – missionary, pastoral associate, catechist, liturgist, spiritual director and now writer. At the same time it’s been hemmed in by a long list of “no-go” areas – restrictions, rules and unchallenged and out-of-date traditions.
When I think back over the role of women in the church over the 20 years of this millennium the word diminished comes to mind. So many possibilities, so many dreams of how it might be, gradually fading away. That diminishment has deepened since the one recognizable avenue which gave a voice to Australian catholic women, was closed.
Now, more than ever, women need to trust their own peculiarly feminine experience of God and how they live out that relationship. When community and spiritual nurturing are hard to find in the local church, then there are many other groups where women and men are able to talk calmly, and sometimes passionately, about the things in Church that disturb and challenge them.
Such groups are part of our catholic history. The early Irish newcomers to Sydney gathered in their homes to pray and support each other during the years when there was no priest in Australia. Maybe the future of the church in Australia doesn’t lie solely in a plenary Council where attendance is strictly limited, but in small groups.
Ongoing support can be found in small faith-sharing groups, in spirituality centres that offer prayer groups, retreats and opportunities to grow in knowledge and adult faith, in Australian spirituality writers and in websites like the one you are reading now. My readership would double if every one of you emailed this post to another woman who, like you and I, sits on the edge, knowing what it is like to feel diminished.