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Women pioneer new models of Church

Francine Crimmins  |  21 August 2018

dusty kilometresKilometres of vast, dry country stretch out across the horizon and the sun dances along the gum trees. Bumpy, unsealed bitumen weaves paths from scattered properties and far away townships. The diocese of Wilcannia-Forbes in North West New South Wales hardly sees any ordained religious drive these roads. Within the sparsity, the Christian community relies on the lay people and more accurately, the women, to run the show.

In this rural diocese, the Catholic Church is grappling not only with declining congregations, but a shortage of priests in the area, which geographically spans half of New South Wales. Religious orders of nuns were once responsible for the mission in the region (the sacraments, scripture for children and connection with the community) but since they moved away, parishes started to notice a major gap in pastoral work which needed to be filled.

Diocesan Director of Mission and Vice Chancellor Kate Englebrecht says these limitations have spurred the community to enforce a strong model of a lay and female-driven Church.

‘In the last 10 years, women are picking up gaps from the religious. They are the ones in church maintaining life and energy of those parishes which were once quite vibrant, healthy and energised’, says Kate.

Lay women in the Church have little to no recognition, receiving no payment or titles for their ministry. They often fall into the roles in order to keep religion alive in their communities.

Centacare in the diocese currently employs Mary Anne Gordon as a remote rural pastoral worker. Reporting to the bishop, Mary Anne drives hours across the country to bring the Church to people whether it’s in town or on remote properties.

‘This morning I’ll take communion to a lady in an aged care facility because she couldn’t make it to Mass last night’, says Mary Anne. ‘I do a similar thing for a woman who lives over the other side, about three or more hours away on a property. She has Parkinson’s so she’s isolated too.’

Mary Anne also organises the priest to go to Mass in different regions, operating as his driver along the unsealed roads. She also organises baptisms and leads funerals when people wish to be buried in the Catholic Church in the absence of a priest.

‘One town had Mass during holy week and haven’t had Mass since. We have other parts of the parish which haven’t seen a priest in roughly six years’, Mary Anne says.

The diocese is also facing hardships, with the threat of drought tugging on the shirts of every landowner. With the absence of rain, farmers in the region will have to start selling their stock in a matter of weeks. Mary Anne is someone who is able to go and be with these people, letting them have someone to talk to.

Recognising women

The Diocese of Wilcannia-Forbes has promoted women into faith leadership roles out of necessity. Mary Anne does the job of a deacon and more, yet she will never be officially recognised by the Church as doing so.

‘Not very long ago you could only be a church cleaner, be a receptionist, clean the priest’s house or you could teach the sacramental program. All those jobs still exist – but on top of those now you have all these executive positions – positions I don’t know if you would have in any other diocese’, Mary Anne says.

Kate Englebrecht says it would be a step forward to create more paid, official roles and opportunities for women to engage in ministry.

‘We are commissioned in our baptismal blessings to be the body of Christ for others. These women show us that. They don’t wait around to say, “Look, there’s a need”. They are right in the middle of it all the time.’

She also says it’s time women’s roles in the Church were formalised so they feel valued.

‘Women are already here – doing what they have been doing for a long time. Let’s acknowledge it and then ask “how we can support you?”’

Mary Anne of Wilcannia Forbes

A model for the Church

This is just one of many rural dioceses where women are integral to the functions of the Church. The broader Church – or rather the city Church – is slow to learn from models such as these, despite it setting a precedent for women in leadership and ministry.

In the meantime, the Catholic Church continues to rely on women, not the ordained Religious, to keep the doors open across a vast amount of rural and regional Australia. Mary Anne Gordon has experienced this dichotomy of recognition first hand.

‘In a way, you’re in a Church which doesn’t accept your equality. You don’t have equality in the Church with the men, but at the same time, all these women are keeping the doors open, keeping connections alive because they see the value of the message.’

For some reflections and activities related to this article, see Australian Catholics.

ABC's Compass program featured the story of Mary Anne and the Wilcannia-Forbes Diocese in July.

Images: Compass, ABC.


Topic tags: australianidentity, thecatholictradition

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