VANESSA Comninos was changing her baby’s nappy when she first heard the call to Our Lady of the Southern Cross Parish, Springfield.
That was in the parish’s early days when the new suburb west of Brisbane was taking off, and the time was right for Vanessa to recharge her faith.
“In 2010, (the parish) had our first Mass in the little chapel up at St Monica’s, at St Augustine’s School,” Vanessa recalled.
“I live across the road from it, and I was actually changing my youngest’s nappy at the time when I heard singing coming from the chapel.
“And I thought, ‘Oh, my goodness, I’m so excited; there’s Mass across the road …’
“So, once her nappy was changed, I took her downstairs, gave her to my husband and quickly ran up (to the chapel), and found that Mass was being celebrated.
“And, as they say, the rest is history …
“It was just the beginning of being part of a beautiful community.”
Almost 10 years later, Vanessa is in the thick of things and the community is thriving.
She’s part of the parish’s leadership team and busy as evangelisation director.
From her early days growing up in South Africa in a Portuguese immigrant family, faith has been central in Vanessa’s life but there’ve been times when it’s been a struggle.
“I think I’ve always been passionate about God and being Catholic,” she said.
“I even remember, when I was a teenager, my father asking me if I wanted to become a religious sister.
“And I remember thinking, ‘He must be crazy; I want to have children …’
“But I think I’ve always felt very passionate about my Church and about God’s love, but, at the same time, I really wanted to be an optometrist.”
She worked hard at achieving that dream, and graduated about the same time she and her husband John, who is of Greek heritage, were married.
That was when they decided it was a good time to travel so they lived for a while in London, and then moved to New Zealand.
The short stay they had intended turned into seven years.
It was then that Vanessa’s faith wavered, and she said it was partly because she felt like an “outsider” in the parish community where they lived.
“For me, going to church was just going to Mass, and the community didn’t have that sense of belonging,” she said.
At the same time, John started to question his own faith and chose not to go to church then.
“So, for me, it was really tough because, I thought, ‘Gosh, I don’t have a community that really knows and loves me, and I don’t have a husband who’s wanting to go with me to church’,” Vanessa said.
“So it was a period when I really struggled.
“I still had my faith and I’d still pray but I really missed the community to worship in.”
Things could not be more different today.
Vanessa’s faith is fully charged, and John and their daughters – Catarina, 13, and Cristina, 11 – are fully involved in the parish of Our Lady of the Southern Cross.
“I’m so excited and passionate in my faith,” she said.
In Springfield, a big change came when Vanessa was introduced to Alpha, a popular program for exploring Christian faith at informal gatherings where there’s food, talks and “good conversation”.
“When we discovered Alpha, I thought, ‘My goodness, if only Alpha had been part of my experience in New Zealand, that incredible welcome and love would’ve given me that sense of belonging that I so needed, and would’ve brought me into community that I was craving, and also at the time when my husband was questioning his faith, maybe Alpha could’ve helped him answer those questions,” she said.
“So it was kind of an epiphany for me, even though it happened several years after my daughter’s birth.
“And when we were training for Alpha (in the parish) I knew that it was going to be something that would have a lot of impact on this community.”
Another important change came for Vanessa when she had time-out from optometry.
“I think God had plans for me when I didn’t realise I had plans for myself,” she said.
“Two years ago I’d been working for the same optometrist for seven years and the company got bought out, and I was happy to remain in the company, but I realised as I was working for the new owners that their values were not in line with my own, so I decided to leave.
“And my husband and I decided that I’d probably take a few months off and then find a new optometry position.
“At the same time I was already on the parish leadership team so, during my break, I did a lot of volunteering in the parish.
“I was running Alpha and learning a lot more about Divine Renovation (a successful program for creating vibrant, mission-focused parishes).
“So when it came to the end of my time off, Fr Mauro (Conte, who is Springfield parish priest) said to me, ‘Vanessa, maybe you don’t need to rush to find an optometry job. Maybe you could do a bit of work in the parish’.
“That’s when he offered me a few hours’ work in the parish and then it just went from one morning a week and now I’m sitting at about four days a week.
“It was completely unplanned but I know that it is written, and I would always say when I was an optometrist that ‘God wants me to bring sight to the blind’ but what I’ve realised is that, in this role as evangelisation director, I’m bringing sight to the blind in a different way – bringing them the sight of Jesus and a new vision of God.”
What influenced Vanessa to leave her chosen career and take up Fr Mauro’s invitation was “being able to see the fruits of Alpha, seeing the fruits of changed lives”.
“I always say that real people tell real stories of changed lives but it’s these changed lives that then change other people’s lives,” she said.
“And, having seen that myself and having journeyed with people through their transformations and, as they have encountered Jesus, they become disciples who then become on fire for God and then become missionary disciples – having been witness to that, that process, really made me quite passionate, because I could see that the fruits of Alpha were possible – that we could actually be like the early Church, that we could actually share the Good News and see that the new Creation that was created through Jesus in each and every one of us …”
Vanessa believes “God really found that right moment in my life and has really ignited the passion in my heart” in a way that has her excited to go to work every day.
She said the most exciting thing was being part of “bringing people to Jesus and seeing how He transforms their lives, and how their lives are changed by His radical love, and how they can’t help themselves but to bring others to Him”.