AUSTRALIA’S most successful female theology export credits her flourishing career to a Mercy Sister who threatened to haunt her beyond the grave.
Professor Tracey Rowland, dean and permanent fellow at Australia’s own pontifical institute in Melbourne, received her tutelage under the Mercy Sisters in Ipswich and Rockhampton.
Despite being “so often in trouble” with the sisters at St Mary’s College, Ipswich, the Rockhampton-born academic’s Mercy education paved her way to a stunning career as a theology professor.
Speaking at the Assembly of Catholic Professionals luncheon in Brisbane on October 29, Prof Rowland said the Mercy Sisters were “deadly serious” about academic work.
Prof Rowland, who was born Anglican, chose to become Catholic during her primary school years, and entered into full communion with the Catholic Church “surrounded by all my classmates” in Ipswich.
During secondary schooling at the Range Convent, Rockhampton, Prof Rowland was hand-picked by several Mercy Sisters to excel academically.
“Their desire to get the best out of us took root in theology, stemming from the passage, ‘To whom much has been given, much is expected’,” Prof Rowland said.
One sister in particular expected great things from the then-teenager, both academically and spiritually.
“She told my grandmother that if I ever lost my faith, she would come back from the dead and haunt me,” Prof Rowland said.
The same insistent sister who threatened to haunt Prof Rowland came to mind when the Rockhampton girl landed at Cambridge University.
One atheist academic from the faculty of Political and Social Sciences stood in the way of her dream of pursuing a Doctorate in Philosophy.
“The scariest battle I’ve encountered was when I was a doctoral student in Cambridge,” Prof Rowland said.
“Professor John Dunn said he didn’t believe in God, and thought God was just a sociological phenomenon found in the United States and Poland.
“I said a prayer to the Mercy Sister who told me never to lose my faith, and a day later the professor had a massive heart attack.
“He didn’t die but he had a massive heart attack, and so I transferred into the Divinity School.”
After receiving her doctorate at Cambridge University, Prof Rowland became the inaugural dean for Melbourne’s John Paul II Institute for Marriage and Family, but not without more academic stress.
She was required to write a 40,000-word licentiate in sacred theology dissertation and this year completed her 80,000-word doctoral dissertation.
Today, Prof Rowland is a member of Pope Francis’ International Theological Commission and was awarded the Officer’s Cross of the Order of Merit of the Republic in Poland.
She met Pope Francis soon after being named a member of the International Theological Commission, speaking to him in German.
“Cardinal (George) Pell warned me the Pope has very little English, and I should try to converse with him in Italian or German,” Prof Rowland said.
“I took the German option, and when he came to meet me, I said four sentences in perfect German.
“Cardinal (Ludwig) Muller (who is ITC president) asked if I had two sons.
“I said, ‘No, I have none’.
“‘No, I have no children’.
“‘You are a consecrated virgin?’
“‘No, I am married but I have no children’.
“Next to me was Sr Prudence Allen, a Mercy Sister with a long habit and even longer veil, who was married and had two sons before entering religious life.
“So I said, ‘It is Sr Prudence Allen who has the two sons’.
“And Cardinal Muller and Pope Francis just looked at me as though I was mad.
“I had the syntax perfectly, but the context didn’t quite fit.”
By Emilie Ng