On 8th April, forty five members of Catholic Women Speak met at the University of Roehampton in London on a glorious spring day to explore ways of developing the network, particularly through local and regional groups. The day included short talks by a number of women associated with the group, guest lectures by Ursula Halligan (Political Editor, TV3, Ireland), and Catherine Pepinster (former editor of The Tablet), and the launch of our new website by designer Kieran O’Brien.

This was a ‘soft launch’, intended to demonstrate to members of the group the structure and style of the website which seeks to engage the reader through the story of the network and its members. The scrolling format creates a sense of a narrative unfolding through the gradual discovery and exploration of our story. It gives visual expression to the central ethos of Catholic Women Speak, which is to provide a forum in which women’s stories are heard and our voices speak with conviction, passion, integrity and intelligence in the church and society. We seek to tell our stories to support and strengthen one another, and to promote women’s theological wisdom, pastoral insights and personal experiences as integral to the formation and development of Catholic life and thought, in a way that affirms and celebrates our diversity and difference. Once the site has been populated with more content, it will be made available to the public and promoted through various links and social networks.

For me, the day was in itself an unfolding discovery of women’s lives and experiences. People shared their stories with great generosity and humour and also at times with sadness and suffering. Every speaker communicated the same sense of being deeply committed to her Catholic faith and of holding on to a vision of a more inclusive and representative church, but every speaker also shared stories of exclusion, silencing and belittlement.

Some spoke about how often they are asked why they remain in the church, and several said it was because the church is home. One pointed out that the church is not the hierarchy and institutions but the people of God. Another who had left for several years said she came back because she was homesick. Two speakers said that, yes, the church is our home, but we sometimes feel like unwelcome guests in our own home. One speaker told how, with great sadness and after many years of seeking creative engagement, she has given up on parish life and now worships at different churches in her area. Another who had considered leaving the church said she was advised to bang the door behind her ‘to make sure they know you’ve left’! There were many such flashes of humour amidst the frustrations of women who have much to offer, but who are often seen as having little more to contribute than arranging the flowers and organising the children’s liturgy.

In the end, though, the day was more about women’s gifts, energies and abilities than about our frustrations and struggles. It bore witness to a shared love for the church that endures and sometimes grows stronger through the need to persist and resist. We spoke about the education of adolescent girls in Catholic schools and about the ongoing formation of priests, about the same-sex marriage referendum in Ireland and the struggle of feminists in Poland, about the gifts of music and dance that enable women to express their spirituality and deepen their relationship with God and with the Catholic community, and about the many ways in which we women live our faith and participate in the life of the church – not only because of but often in spite of its institutions and hierarchies.

One of the speakers recounted a story about how a Jewish student approached a rabbi and asked why the great Jewish prayer, the Shema, says: ‘These words which I command you this day shall be upon your heart.’ ‘Why’, asked the student, ‘should they be upon our hearts rather than in our hearts?’ The rabbi responded that it is not in our power to take God’s teachings directly into our hearts. All we can do is to place them on the surface, and when the heart breaks they will drop in. There were several stories of faith rediscovered or deepened through heartbreak, and of women who find in scripture the strength to keep going through many obstacles and difficulties.

As I reflected on that image of God’s word resting on the surface of the heart, it brought to mind another image – an image of water that runs off parched ground, until eventually it finds a way into the cracks and begins to soften the soil and bring life and growth to the seeds that are buried there. One of the speakers spoke of how, as a gay woman, she had come to a sudden recognition of what it means to speak of streams of living water, and of how her faith felt renewed and transformed when those words awakened her to God’s love for her.

The main colours of our website are lilac and purple. As I was buying lilac and purple tulips for the venue, it occurred to me that these are also the colours of buddleia. I now imagine Catholic Women Speak as buddleia rooting itself and beginning to grow in the Church. Buddleia is dangerous to structures. Its roots find their way into cracks and weaknesses, and as it grows it threatens to bring the building toppling down. Yet buddleia is also beautiful, with fragrant flowers that attract butterflies and bees, and it is very hard to eliminate!

None of the women at our gathering wants to bring the institutional church toppling down, but we all want a church that is more able to create spaces for women and girls to grow and flourish. Some of us feel parched and dry, waiting for the water of life to penetrate deeply into the cracks and fissures in our lives to enable us to grow. Yet we cling on, and there is no point in trying to weed us out, for like buddleia we spread our roots and we grow through and beyond the rigid structures that try to contain and control us.

Only when all are able to bring their gifts and to participate fully and equally as disciples of Christ, might we become a glorious tree of faith that roots itself in the soil of human hearts richly watered by God’s word to produce spreading branches and fragrant flowers where all God’s creatures might find beauty, shelter and nourishment.