IT’S been a while since I have availed myself of the Sacrament of Confession.
Perhaps that in itself is not something I should confess, considering I work for an agency that is charged with supporting mission around the world, and across Australia.
I share it though because, if I was to walk through the door of a confessional booth, I would probably begin by acknowledging that I have always felt more comfortable in the company of women.
Perhaps this is why I found myself, one of four men, in a room of more than 100 women, on the night of International Women’s Day.
I could attribute my presence to something noble, like “My wife was a guest speaker …”
Or I could simply explain it as, having offered some support and mentoring to the woman who organised the evening and who owned the venue, she invited me to attend.
All of those reasons are sound and valid and appropriate. But while I was in that room, I found myself drawing upon an energy that I hadn’t felt in a long time.
It wasn’t Church, but it certainly felt akin to Communion.
Part of it was the sense of feeling disarmed.
Women don’t do posturing in the same way we men do.
Women have an amazing capacity to empathise and I think it was that quality – that feeling of empathy – that permeated the room and touched me in a way that left me feeling inspired, and humbled and uplifted, all at once.
One of the guest speakers who shared her story was a Muslim lady by the name of Nora.
In her speech, she mentioned how, when she and her husband were looking to settle in Capalaba, they became engaged in a conversation with their soon-to-be neighbours.
During the dialogue, the men were busy concentrating on mechanical issues to do with the construction of their homes – retaining walls and the like.
At the same time, the women, all of whom had been observing that their children were running from property to property, with no consideration to individual boundary lines, reached a significant consenus.
“What if we didn’t have fences?”
You could hear a pin drop as she recounted this reflection from an era well before a fateful day in September 2001.
The silence continued as she shared about how, even after the attacks on the World Trade Towers and the ensuing War on Terror, and even after she realised her son had been given the same name as the most wanted man on the planet (Osama), Nora and her neighbours continued to live, side by side – peacefully, harmoniously.
Women have an amazing capacity for empathy.
It was reflected time and time again as each of the five speakers stood up, behind a solitary microphone and shared something of their story.
There were tales of abuse and domestic violence; of failed business ventures and broken hearts caused by the loss of children; of depression and disease, medical challenges and estrangement from parents or other family members. And yet, through it all, something else shone through.
Call it hope. Claim it as “faith”, or “strength” or “resilience” – whatever name we give it, this night was a celebration of the joy of being a woman, in all its guises, its messiness and its beauty.
Mission is like that as well.
Put Sr Alma, a Josephite nun serving the people of Halls Creek, in outback Western Australia, in that same room and I am sure you would hear tales that were similarly confronting but also equally uplifting and captivating.
Like the women in that wine and tapas bar, Sr Alma has given her life in the hope that she can leave a legacy among those entrusted into her care – the women last night went home to spouses and children and careers; Sr Alma, like her fellow Josephites have done for the past 150 years, traverses remote parts of Australia to share her faith, extend love and bring life.
And while I haven’t been to that part of Australia, to see Sr Alma’s area of ministry in action, I suspect there would be a noticeable lack of fences.
In a statement put out to mark our organisation’s own recognition of International Women’s Day, our Catholic Mission national director Fr Brian Lucas bore out the significance of those women who serve as missionaries, like Sr Alma.
He said women were often the unsung heroes of the Church, even though Catholic Mission had highlighted their incredible work in recent campaigns.
“Over the past five years, Catholic Mission has shown in many of our campaigns and appeals the dedication of women missionaries all around the world,” he said.
“Even in the most difficult circumstances – from Sr Maureen in Ethiopia and Sr Bridget in the Philippines, to Sr Clara in India and Sr Anne in Jamaica – the courage of these women, and the local women they work with, is unquestionable and their faith unwavering.
Our organisation was founded by a lay missionary woman, Pauline Jaricot, and we’ve supported inspirational women ever since, from Mother Teresa in Kolkata to, more recently, Sr Alma Cabassi in Broome.”
When we highlight the work of such women, and when the Josephites mark their 150th anniversary on Saturday, March 19, we are paying tribute to those who give of themselves in a cause greater than any one individual, but also deeply dedicated to each and every individual. Or as one of the speakers put it: “To the One!”
That was what was being celebrated in that restaurant in Wynnum and it is what is at the heart of our Christian call to mission.
We give of ourselves – financially, practically, spiritually – so that others might live.
We respond with empathy, to those in need or those who go without. And we reach out, in the hope that the hands we touch, will not be fists clenched, but palms, open and waiting.
But I am still wondering what it would be like “if none of us ever built fences”?
By David McGovern
David McGovern is a Catholic Mission director in Brisbane.