A ‘Free Range’ Catholic

I am not a theologian, scholar, practitioner, activist, artist, woman in a leadership position in the Church. I am a grandmother, a mother, a wife, a pensioner, a singer, a pianist and an unpublished writer. I am a Free Range Catholic.

In adulthood, until the age of 56, I was a Catholic woman immersed in the ministry of teaching and completely committed to my point of connection with the Institution, my Parish, within the Diocese of Maitland Newcastle. I am no longer connected.

I was a member of WATAC in the halcyon days of its fledgling beginnings in the 1980s. I had the incredible gift of being part of a group that was chaired by Bernice Moore. I met and was astounded by Dorothy McMahon. I received the regular publication, edited by Bernice. A publication filled with her drawings comment and articles, wonderfully unique before fancy computer fonts and clip art! I remember devouring them. I was not yet 35 years of age.

On one occasion a friend and I attended one of the WATAC gatherings in Sydney. It was a day of wonder. Women only, were in attendance. Men were never excluded. My upbringing had been strictly Catholic. I knew no non-Catholics until the time I started at the Conservatorium at the age of 17. That’s not quite true because my father had become a Catholic before he married my Mum, so all my Paternal relatives were Presbyterian. I knew them and I loved them! I struggled with the thought of not being united in Heaven with them forever because they were headed for Limbo!

On this particular occasion I met Dorothy McMahon who had just recently become or was about to become the first female Uniting Church Minister in Sydney. It was at the height of the strength of the Movement for the Ordination of Women and I was in it up to my eyebrows! I was a Religious Studies Coordinator at the time and it was before then Archbishop Pell produced his “Why Women Can’t be Priests” paper.

On the way home, my friend and I were hungry. This was in the days before McDonalds! It was getting towards late afternoon. I think it was at Mount Colah that we found a little restaurant, not opened for food but open for Coffee. Parched, we sat down. All day we had been talking about community, Eucharist, the first witnesses to the Resurrection, Jesus, Mary Magdalene. We were brimming over with joy from the experience. The owner of the restaurant took pity on us and offered to bring us a snack. He told us he was from Lebanon. The extent of my international food experience had been a night out with my Dad at a Chinese Restaurant after a trip to the pictures with my sister! I loved the food. She struggled with it and wrapped her prawn cutlets up in the serviette to take home to Mum! The smell of the prawns lingered for some time after rendering her handbag useless!

He brought out the “snack”. Two little bowls – one with oil, one with a sauce of some kind. A finger bowl with two towelettes and a loaf of damper like bread. He told us how to eat it demonstrating while he spoke. “You take the bread and you break it. You dip it in the bowl and then you eat. The bread is to share.” Across the table we were crying! It was and remains one of the most powerful moments of my life. All the way home we talked about our experience. Road to Emmaus? They knew him in the breaking of the bread? Who could believe what we had seen? I am with you always? Where two or three are gathered, there am I in the midst of them?

I don’t know the NRSV reference for the words. I have often felt that by not knowing them I have made myself voiceless because of my lack of scholarship and theological qualification. In my early twenties I submitted a collection of writing to Graham English for his consideration. It was to be the start of my tome “Confessions of a Kitchen Sink Theologian!” At that stage I was a full time teacher, mother of three children under 8, my husband had lost his job and my “escape” was to write and be heavily involved in music ministry in my parish. He was encouraging in his critique. One comment that Graham challenged me with, written in red ink and capitals was “Stop apologizing for yourself”!  It’s taken a while!

It has taken me to arrive at this stage of my life to know that remaining voiceless can no longer be a choice for me.

I taught in junior secondary Catholic High Schools from 1978 to 2016. My roles over those years included teacher, coordinator – curriculum and student, assistant principal – curriculum and pastoral care, acting principal and finally ministry coordinator. Many times I would hear the catch cry,  “our children are our future”. The kids would voice it in many ways often with hope but more and more in my later years of teaching, with an increasing sense of hopelessness and powerlessness. My response to them developed into being “no one lives in the future. The only minute we are sure of is this minute. Anything can happen to any one of us at any time. There is no guarantee that we will all make it to tomorrow.” This was usually followed by a discussion about my pessimism!

The time is now! I truly believe that the first Christian communities did not have the slightest notion of or interest in anything, any time, any place BUT the things, times and places they were living in THEN. They weren’t interpreting the Gospel! They were living it! I wonder where that fits with the current interpretation of Gaudium et Spes #4! Having been in year 10 when those documents from Vatican II were hot off the press from Rome and studying them in Religion in senior school, I remember well the excitement of possibility!

Since retiring I have been involved in a number of efforts to contribute as a Volunteer. One of these experiences provided me with the opportunity to attend a Uniting Church Liturgy on the second Sunday of Lent, last year. The Church is a tiny little weatherboard building in a small community in Lake Macquarie. The Church Community is elderly. Regular services are no longer held there although there is an agreement with the organisation that uses it hall, that anytime a long-standing parishioner dies and wishes to be buried from the church, the building will be available.

The day I went to Church the collective age of the congregation would have been a 5 figured number! One of the women had already met me. Her name was Shirley and she is 96. She invited me to sit next to her. The celebrant was a woman. Her husband provided the music courtesy of the data projector and the computer and a pipe organ sound track. There are about 10 pews in the church – each providing for no more than 4, comfortably. Two things struck me powerfully. The section which I think is now called the universal prayer for the Church in our liturgy occurred after the reading. The magnificent homily was something else! Praying for the Church in the world included a commentary, from someone in the congregation about the latest communication from their former parishioner who is working in New Guinea. Prayers for the sick where embellished, again, by updates on the progress of radiation treatment, scan results, return to work and so on.

I counted the number of people present. Including me, there were 13 people. Thirteen people identified at the Last Supper. Never a mention of the other attendees! Demonstrated for me on that occasion was that those 13 present on the second Sunday of Lent were the Church at that moment in time – the only moment we have! At the end of the Liturgy we gathered out in the kitchen and had morning tea, laughs, told stories.

I have a good friend and mentor who tells me whenever I express my deep desire to reconnect to what I have lost, that it will not happen within the Institution as it exists and that it is time to be part of a new way of being. I think of the outrage expressed last year by the winner of the Gold Logie (!!!!) “Lighten the five star four letter word up!”  Somehow that is necessary! Joy! Welcome! Hope! Inclusion! Growth! True Companionship. Upon reflection, I don’t think I ever really, truly experienced those things in the many years I considered myself a Catholic. However, neither am I able to walk away completely. Paradox I guess!