By Paul Dobbyn
HANDING parents of a stillborn child in a Melbourne hospital a prayer shawl with religious medals and two red felt hearts attached was a simple gesture.
But as Clara Geoghegan, founder of the Called and Gifted program in Australia, said, the blessings to flow from this act of charity have been immense.
“It’s a story Leonie Rastas, a friend and co-presenter on the course with me in Melbourne, tells to great effect,” she said.
“Not so long ago, Leonie set up a pastoral nursing network after doing Called and Gifted – at first she thought she just wanted to teach the course then decided: ‘No. I’m being called to do something extra’.
“That ‘something extra’ was to set up a pastoral nursing network.
“Among the things people in the network did was to knit prayer shawls for those who were sick or had been bereaved.”
Clara said the shawls were knitted prayerfully and handed over with an accompanying prayer. Sewn on to the shawls were religious medals and two small felt hearts.
“Leonie had a situation where she was asked to visit a woman in hospital who had just given birth to a stillborn child,” she said.
“On meeting the parents, she offered them a prayer shawl.
“Leonie said: ‘I don’t know what faith tradition you are but would you accept this prayer shawl … it has religious medals sewn on, but if that’s not where you’re at, I’m happy to take them off’.”
Clara said the parents, though not Catholics, were quite happy to not only accept the shawl but also to leave the medals on.
“Leonie then left the room for a while,” she said.
“When she returned, the parents had wrapped the baby up and put a red felt heart in each of the baby’s hands.
“The mother said: ‘Our baby is holding our hearts now’.”
Several weeks ago, Leonie did a follow-up call to the bereaved parents.
“She saw the prayer shawl was now draped over the end of the parents’ bed,” Clara said.
“The mother also told my friend she always carries one of the felt hearts in her bra and her husband always has one in his pocket.
“The amazing thing is this woman now does outreach to other mothers who have lost babies.
“It’s all so hugely powerful and came about just through the action of Leonie giving a prayer shawl.”
Clara said such stories, “and there are many”, inspired her passion for the Called and Gifted program she’s been running on behalf of the Catherine of Siena Institute for the past decade.
She’s also a lecturer in Church History at Catholic Theological College, Melbourne, and is a doctoral candidate in Australian Church history.
She credits Brisbane Archbishop Mark Coleridge for starting her on the path to running the Called and Gifted program.
“About the very first time I ever surfed the Internet back in 1998, I came across the Catherine of Siena Institute in the US,” Clara said.
“So I rang them and got some books and in doing so made contact with the founder there, Sherry Weddell.”
Clara got to meet her six months later when Sherry dropped in to Australia enroute to a Eucharistic Conference in New Zealand.
While in Australia, Sherry held two Called and Gifted workshops in Broken Bay and Newcastle.
“I started to feel this was a field I wanted to continue working in,” Clara said.
“Then, irony of ironies, in 1999 I ended up in Melbourne about the same time as a certain Mark Coleridge came back as an auxiliary bishop.
“He was also in charge of Catholic adult education programs.
“We had a conversation and he encouraged me to bring the program to Australia and to bring Sherry out to train some presenters.
“So in some ways without your Archbishop Mark the program might not have ever started in Australia.”
When she spoke with The Catholic Leader, Clara was having a brief break from running the program as part of the bishop’s in-service days around Rockhampton diocese.
She’d been out as far as Barcaldine and Emerald and was already starting to plan workshops back in Melbourne and in Sydney’s Parramatta diocese.
“Called and Gifted examines what’s happening in our Church communities and how we can help people achieve their potential as followers of Christ,” she said.
“It helps Christians identify gifts given them by the Holy Spirit … gifts largely that St Paul talks about in 1 Corinthians 12, that is gifts given to us for the sake of others.
“The idea is that by discerning your gifts you are able more effectively to bring God’s gift of salvation to others.
“The program is about giving affirmation, confidence and awareness – for example, if people end up at your kitchen table pouring out their life story, probably it’s because you have a gift of encouragement.
“Or if people are always in your house socialising then you might have a gift of hospitality – making people feel welcome.
“Other gifts include teaching, healing and so on.”
Clara said the program fitted in with the challenge of the New Evangelisation.
“If we look at our own Church Life Survey, we notice about 13 per cent of Catholics actually turn up at Mass on any given week,” she said. “Sherry Weddell would argue only three per cent of those would have the sort of faith where they are close to Jesus and want to pass the message on.
“It seems to me that what the New Evangelisation is challenging us to do is to re-evangelise those people who are already baptised so they come to know Jesus and go on to spread the Gospel message.
“As the story of the bereaved parents who received the prayer shawl shows, the impact of such testimonies can be truly powerful and life-changing.”