Lay Women in Ministry

There is no doubt that Pope Francis is having a huge effect on how we think about Church in our times. With his lead; love, mercy and bold pragmatism define our attitude in these times and we are drawn to engage with all people and seek encounter again. We are to open ourselves to truly be with people, to see as they see, hear what they hear and offer a gentle loving experience of true accompaniment.  The emphasis is on ‘church in the field’ again, the priority is for us to be alongside those in need, we are to go out to the fringes and start where people are at, wait with their questions and offer ourselves as beacons of hope.

These times are also greatly influenced by the findings of the Royal Commission into Child Sexual Abuse in Australia. We, as Church, have been challenged to think again about our culture and ‘the way we do things around here’. The recognition that we need more lay leaders – especially women –  in our communities who are not only skilled, confident, dedicated and capable but also formed in a new spirituality of commitment and faith that reflects their lived experience and gifts. The times are ripe for a new model of lay leadership among women which engages them in serious ministerial leadership across parishes and Dioceses. Lay women in particular need to be supported to grow in confidence that their competencies to lead are real and that they are called to serve the Church in a new way.

These times are also poignant because of the possibilities that may open for the Church in this country in light of the 2020 Plenary Council conversations that have already begun to open the doors for us to think about new ways of being Church in the future. Lay women will need to play a huge part in that conversation if it is to nurture new possibilities for our communities going forward.

In this current context of Church, the Diocese of Wilcannia – Forbes seeks to try something new. We are perfectly suited and prepared to signal a new way for women in lay ministry and lay leadership.

For many years, this extraordinary and huge outback Diocese has nurtured women of faith who have pioneered new ways to bring Christ to people in remote and isolated places. They have done this often without the support of Parish priests, and even without the presence of a Bishop. What they have had is the undying support of so many Religious Sisters from so many strong and influential congregations around the country. It has always been the presence of a number of Sisters dotted across the remote countryside and scattered within isolated towns that has supported communities of faith to stay strong and survive. So often it has been women of faith supported by the Sisters, who have led communities and individuals to Christ and brought comfort and healing to those in need. It was the Sisters who trained lay women to be Scripture teachers and counselors and celebrants and sacramental bearers of Holy Communion to people who would otherwise have felt abandoned by the Church. The Sisters have, but for a small number, now left our Diocese.

Lay women in the Diocese of Wilcannia – Forbes need your help now. They need it not only for their own Diocese, they need it to be able to model to the wider Church a new way to be lay women in ministerial leadership in our Church. They know the Sisters won’t be returning. They know that the days of those few remaining Sisters able to be a presence in communities are numbered. They need a different kind of help now. They need the Church to make it possible to put down some foundations so that they can lead in outback NSW.

We need both your financial support and a commitment from you to help nurture a new spirituality and movement for lay women in leadership. This new spirituality isn’t one that ‘associates’ lay women with existing charisms. It is a truly lay spirituality that builds on the rich foundations of all the great women who have founded communities in the Church and flavours it with peculiarly Australian country pragmatism.

We want to connect this new model of lay ministry for women with what we are calling: ‘Long Paddock’ spirituality. This spirituality is best outlined through an understanding of life out in The Long Paddock. The Long Paddock is the name given to the corridor through which Australian cattlemen and women – drovers – move stock from one place to another.  Travelling Stock Routes (TSR) are the fenced, grassy verges along the side of some major roads across the country. Often these corridors follow river systems and many of the early stock routes became roads in the early years of white Australian history. Through a lack of knowledge and awareness some of those early tracks were carved by early white settlers, over ancient Songlines and places of sacred significance. Long Paddocks make connections, lead from one place to another, initiate movement, save lives and provide hope.

The Long Paddock might be considered a suitable metaphor for aspects of life/spirituality in the outback. Learnings from The Long Paddock are born of unique experiences in the outback but are of universal support to many other people around the country. Lay women of The Long Paddock  literally link times, places and people and respond to pragmatic needs associated with thirst and hunger both literal and spiritual. The metaphor is clearly rich and of relevance to people from a range of other places who thirst and seek renewal, life and energy. There is a discernible spirituality – a world-view – which might be said to have its origins in ‘Long Paddock  thinking’. The lay women of the Diocese of Wilcannia- Forbes offer this spirituality for the wider Church at a time when the Church in Australia, and beyond, is in need of a ‘corridor’ from places tried and exhausted to new pastures and ways of seeing.  They seek to connect with others around the country who are forging new paths in challenging times and offer a new way of supporting and thinking about lay women in leadership.

Lay women of faith in Wilcannia- Forbes dare to ask: What’s happening in Church experience today, what really matters and how has our unique experience prepared us to lead? What can we share with others in terms of the great spiritual themes that underpin our tradition? What do the people here have to offer to a conversation about what is essential for our spiritual lives now?

People of the outback, people ‘out west’, know that often in times of emptiness there is nowhere to turn but within. An inner strength and spiritual awareness has been born of the isolation and apparent emptiness of the Diocese over many years. People ‘out west’ know that we meet God in a real, experiential engagement with the land and the people within it. While we may know of God in the transcendent beyond us, we meet God most obviously perhaps in the raw and stark beauty of the vast brown land around us. We see God in the faces of those around us and meet Christ in the cattleyards just as often as we catch glimpses of the Divine in our sacred spaces. The experiences of the people in Wilcannia – Forbes, urge contemporary Catholics and Christians generally to face the stark reality of Christian life today as it is. It sometimes feels barren, it is often disconnected, it is always challenging.

The founding Fathers/Mothers of our rich Catholic tradition sought God in the desert. They knew that when we face the void, the silence, the emptiness, and the aloneness of our lives we discover the paradox at the heart of our faith. God is to be found in the no-thing, in the absence, in the solitude, in the dislocation, in the same emptiness we do all we can to avoid. In western NSW, such moments and experiences are part of the everyday. Experiences like these are set in the DNA of the people and can rarely be avoided for long. Disciples in the outback have had to meet God in the emptiness. They know what it means to engage with where we are and what is happening for us. They are sometimes brutal realists with resilience beyond the average and with a capacity for life which is unable to be extinguished despite serious hardships. The early Church was born in a land of desert wilderness. A land in which drought and thirst was real and isolation deadly. Jesus spoke to a people who understood parables and found meaning in storytelling. He engaged his people in stories of life which resonated with their surroundings and pointed to deep spiritual truths. Our founding Church Fathers and Mothers went back to the desert, back to the wildness – to the outback – when they needed to rethink the things that truly mattered from the things that didn’t.

For lay women of faith – both Aboriginal and White – in the outback, the idea that God is an integral part of the human experience and alive in the landscape has never been in doubt. Church here has never been measured by ‘bums on seats’. The fact that life in that landscape is often so totally hard and heartbreaking is a fact of life. There is no room for denial out west, no time for platitudes. Things are what they are and one has to deal with it.

For Christ’s faithful in the outback, faith is usually more experiential than instructional. Few people are game enough or silly enough to tell their ‘Grandmother how to suck eggs’ out west. There is little time for the moralistic, the self-righteous, and the pious. The concern is for engagement, experience, relationship, and the pragmatic. The land, the climate, the heat, the drought, the floods….the flies dominate. The emphasis is always on what is happening and what matters most.

Few people have much time for theories or idealistic notions, it’s “all hands on deck” to get through the next battle with the elements or “all hands to the wheel” to steer through another wave of hardships. The lay women of Wilcannia- Forbes don’t have time for whingers or naysayers; they have relied on their faith in times of emptiness and abandonment and have great wisdom to offer.

The spirit of the outback ‘modifies’, ‘alters’, ‘updates’, ‘makes do’, ‘changes’, ‘transforms’ and just when it seems to have been beaten, it bounces back full of life and promise again.

The spirituality of the outback knows to be cautious, skeptical. But it still thrives. It knows about sacrifice and is used to suffering. The faith people hold is utilitarian and the hope that sustains them is everywhere and within at the same time. The faithful of the outback know the paradox of change and constancy. For these people, any talk of a God who is watching from far away in the heavens is not helpful. They live with the reality of what is and adjust, change, manage as they have to.

And this outback spirituality loves to laugh. It laughs at itself, at its own inadequacies and limitations and it laughs at futile attempts to alter the course of happenings and of time. It laughs at flies, at snakes coiled up in outback dunnies, cunning old cattle dogs and buggered up utes. It hits itself with a wet fish when it needs to get serious and it is always sharp even though it might seem to be slow. The lay women of Church of Wilcannia – Forbes long to lead a renewal of the Spirit for the people of their Diocese which may have ramifications for the wider Church community. The down-to-earth spirituality of the place, the ‘can do’ approach founded on experiences of drought, isolation and abandonment, have created a Long Paddock corridor of wisdom which is ready to be shared.

‘Long Paddock’ women need your help to launch themselves into a new wave of energy drawing lay women into deeper and more formal commitment to Church leadership. We cannot begin this effort to establish a new way to model leadership for lay women in our Diocese without your support.

Please allow us to present our proposal for this ministry to you.

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21 August, 2018