Addresses and Statements

Catholic Women’s Network Launch

16 Sep 2022

St Mary’s Cathedral House, 13 September 2022 

Welcome to my place for tonight’s official launch of the Catholic Women’s Network, a ministry to acknowledge all that Catholic women bring to our Church and city, and connect and support them better. I welcome distinguished guests, friends and colleagues.

This initiative would not have been possible without the tireless efforts of its faith-filled organisers. Here I want especially to recognise and thank the CWN team: Hazel Lim, Sally Hood, Jessica Doherty and Christine Pace, together with the Advisory Committee, the Sydney Centre for Evangelization, and the many women’s groups as well as individual women of faith already active in spreading the Gospel in our Archdiocese and beyond.

It is surely providential that we launch this organisation just when the nation, Commonwealth and world are mourning the death of the greatest woman leader of modern times. Elizabeth II was head of state of the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, Papua New Guinea, New Zealand and a good many other realms and territories.[i] She was queen of most of these countries for seven decades, and of some others that become republics. Inspired to some extent by her own example, she had at the time of her death women Prime Ministers in the United Kingdom and New Zealand, a woman First Minister in Scotland, and women leading in many of her beloved Commonwealth countries or former British territories, including Bangladesh, Barbados, Namibia, Samoa, Singapore, Tanzania, Togo and Uganda.[ii] Though her great-great grandmother Queen Victoria could give her a run for her money, there was probably no woman in history with more influence over more people, no woman more admired for her sense of duty, generosity and charm in carrying out those duties, and no woman to exercise such authority so effectively amidst such relentless public scrutiny and such precarious world security.

Queen Elizabeth was a woman of faith. She worshipped Christ as the true King of kings and prayed to Him; she understood her accession to the throne as God’s will for her and for her people, and her coronation oath and ritual as consecration to a life-long Christian vocation; she preached Christ as Saviour, Inspiration, Consolation and Prince of Peace in her annual Christmas messages; and said she took from him the sense of being there to serve, not to be served.[iii] This type of Christ-centred service lay at the heart of her approach to leadership and endures as a powerful witness to all those in positions of authority.

It was on the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin that our earthly queen passed into the care of the heavenly one. Chapter one of Luke’s Gospel reads like an Accession Ceremony for the Virgin Mary. The Archangel hails her as the kekaritōmenē κεχαριτωμένη, Grace-Favoured or Gracious Queen; she is mother-to-be of the Son of the Most High and inheritor of Israel’s throne (Lk 1:26-38). Cousin Elizabeth adds the accolades hē mētēr tou Kyriou ἡ μήτηρ τοῦ Κυρίου, Queen Mother, as well as Most Blessed Woman and Blessed Believer (Lk 1:39-45). Filled with the Holy Spirit, Mary then prophesies that all generations will recognise this Blessedness and that from her humble state she will be raised up to a throne (Lk 1:46-56). As the first woman to demonstrate that “feminine genius” Christians reverenced long before they had a name for it, she demonstrated qualities of sensitivity, receptivity, nurture and generosity. Like Queen Elizabeth she was thrust into a position of immense responsibility at a young age, and she was called to protect, nurture and teach the prince Jesus, called to support Him in His adult years and be at His side as He breathed His last. Now we call her Queen of heaven, but her intercession for those of us still on earth continues as at Cana of old.

Not all women are called to be queens like the Virgin Mary or the late Elizabeth II, even if many dress as Princesses at least on their wedding day. But all are called by virtue of their baptismal vocation to be priest, prophet and king, to give a lead in our Church and society more broadly. In 1995, St John Paul II penned a letter to the women of the world, thanking them for all that they represent in the life of humanity.[iv] He thanked mothers for sheltering, nurturing and guiding their children through life. He thanked wives for playing their part in God’s plan of mutual giving, living in love and service, and encouraging their husbands in pursuit of holiness. He thanked daughters, sisters and friends for using their gifts of sensitivity, intuitiveness and generosity to enrich society. He thanked women workers for applying their talents in every sphere of economic, political and cultural life. He thanked women, also, who are spiritual guides, dedicated in obedience and fidelity to God as consecrated religious, or serving in God’s Church in prayer, leadership and ministry of so many kinds. In summing up his thanks, John Paul II said “Thank you for the simple fact of being a woman!”

Sadly, the vast and generous contributions of women in our Church can at times be overlooked. At the recent Fifth Plenary Council of Australia, there was not a little controversy over some motions regarding the role of women in the Church. In particular, a push for women clergy divided Council members as it does the wider Church. Whatever of that argument,[v] if I may be a little controversial: the fact is that permanent deacons make up fewer than 0.03% of men in the Church; if women deacons were ever possible—and there are some very serious doubts about that—we can expect them to make up only 0.03% of women. What is the relevance of this for the 99.97% of women who would never want to be deacons? Putting such energy into the question of women deacons, while neglecting to say anything at all about the millions of women serving Christ in families, parishes, chanceries, pre-schools, schools, universities, hospitals, nursing homes, welfare services, ecclesial movements and lay organisations seems bizarre to me. How much the Church needs and could better form and support women in those roles is a huge ‘elephant in the room’ in the post-plenary Church of Australia. Often, I fear, worldly conceptions of authority cloud the perception of women’s real impact in our lives and communities.

Some complain that women are still given too few opportunities to lead in our very masculine-looking Church. Maybe. But we should not underestimate the power women have always exercised in our Church. Above all, through making up the bulk of our worshippers, authentic disciples, and ultimate saints (canonised or not). Women also determine the future of the Church by deciding whether we will have another generation—of children of men, of course, but also of children of God—hugely influence the transmission of faith across the generations. Families are the domestic church and there women teach faith and values, train in prayer and virtue, and give the example of their own lives.

When people engage with ‘the capital-C Church’, it is most often with a parish or a school. In a parish they will find a man in charge—if they can get past the parish secretary! In the school they will most often find a woman in charge. So, it’s roughly 50-50 in our people-facing leadership roles. In this Archdiocese there are also women on the curia and pretty well every governing body, advisory council and tribunal; women head up Aboriginal Ministry, Ecumenism and Interfaith, our Legal department, Public Engagement, Consecrated Life, Professional Standards, the Catholic Institute of Sydney, the Ephpheta Centre for the Deaf, the Cathedral Precinct Office, Major Properties, the Archdiocesan Events Office, Parish Renewal, and our Immigration Office. As one observed: if the Archdiocese introduced quotas, we’d have to sack women in order to raise men in leadership up to 50%. Across the nation women now head up Education, Safeguarding, St Vincent de Paul and, until recently, Health and Social Services. They lead the majority of religious orders and many of lay organisations and ecclesial movements. In the Church universal, women now have a place in canonical tribunals, Roman dicasteries, at synods, in the revamped ministries of acolyte, lector and catechist. Women make up the majority of the leaders and workforce in Church preschools, schools, universities, hospitals, aged care, catechetics, chaplaincies, parish groups, youth ministry and welfare services. Many of you, I know, are leading one or other of these ministries and I want to thank you most sincerely for that!

If women still feel undervalued in the Church, or lack sufficient formation or other opportunities, as some suggested at the Plenary Council, that is a problem we must address. But no-one should underestimate the enormous role women already play. And we must always remember that, as Vatican II taught, the lay vocation is not principally to build up the Church from within but to extend the kingdom of God into the world. Like the late Elizabeth II and the many she enthused, like our Heavenly Queen and the many more she has inspired through the ages, Christian women today stand ready to serve in faith, hope and love as wives and mothers, grandmothers and extended family, as politicians or professionals, workers or carers, and as friends. Their work is no less important if it is not a Church job!

Faith and human experience tell us that we are our better selves when encouraged to be so by others, and achieve so much more when our talents are combined. A healthy body needs all its members functioning well, making up for each other’s deficiencies, strengthening each other’s endowments. And so, in bringing faithful women together in a community, in fostering a real sense of companionship and solidarity, in providing inspiration and formation and offering retreats and opportunities to recharge spiritual batteries, the Catholic Women’s Network will, I trust, be a great support for the women of Catholic Sydney. I look forward to many fruits from this wonderful initiative. I officially announce the Catholic Women’s Network launched!

[i] The United Kingdom, Antingua and Barbuda, Australia, Bahamas, Barbados, Belize, Canada, Grenada, Jamaica, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, St Kitts and Nevis, St Lucia, St Vincent and the Grenadines, the Solomon Islands and Tuvalu.

[ii] The United Kingdom: Prime Minister Liz Truss. Scotland: First Minister Nicola Sturgeon. New Zealand: : Prime Minister Jacinta Adern. Bangladesh: : Prime Minister Sheikh Masina. Barbados: President Sandra Mason and Prime Minister Mia Mottlet. Namibia: Prime Minister Saara Kuugongelwa-Amadhila. Samoa: Prime Minister Fiamē Naomi Mataʻafa. Singapore: President Halimah Yacob. Tanzania: President Samia Suluhu Hassan. Togo: Prime Minister Victoire Tomegah Dogbé. Ugand: Prime Minister Robinah Nabbanja.



[v] Here three distinct theological conundrums intersect. First, the question in fundamental theology of the role of Scripture and tradition, e.g. what is the relevance of Christ honouring women so highly yet appointing no women apostles, or of the apostles also relying upon women in so many ways yet appointing no women deacons, or the Church for two thousand years never having women even as in the ‘minor’ clerical orders? Secondly, the question in theological anthropology of the differences between men and women and their relevance, if any, for particular roles in Church and society, e.g. whether in God’s plan men and women might offer some similar and some different kinds of spiritual leadership and service? Thirdly, there’s the question in ecclesiology and sacramental theology of the nature of the sacrament of orders, e.g. is it one sacrament and what is its relationship to governance in the Church? Rarely in history have we been less ready to resolve such questions with fidelity and confidence and so less able authoritatively and credibly to resolve the controversy laid before the Plenary Council. That some brave women, who did not join the protest against the bishops, were demonised is disgraceful. As it turned out, the failed first vote on the women’s motions led to better motions being proposed and ultimately overwhelmingly endorsed. There was a grace in the debate over women, even if the secular media and those church people who take their inspiration from secular models of power and governance lapped it up as confrontation.