“CWS Facilitates A Day when Women Speak and Are Heard”
by Ania Cannon
Last Saturday, 23rd February 2019, I had the pleasure of taking part in a remarkable meeting of Catholic women, organised by two of our CWS members: Alison Concannon Kennedy and Catherine Brady. The event took place at St Joseph’s Catholic Church in Leicester and was generously hosted and sponsored by that parish and its pastor, Father John Daley.
This was a pioneering project, entitled “Sharing Our Stories of Faith – A Day for Catholic Women”. It was devised as an inclusive meeting, open to women of all backgrounds and all ages, not restricted by membership of CWS, or parish affiliations, or indeed any other categories other than being women and having our shared baptismal Catholic fellowship in common.
The turnout was excellent: About 50 women attended, the majority from the hosting parish and neighbouring or close parishes in Leicester and surrounding areas. Some travelled from further afield: in my own conversations, I identified London, Liverpool, South Yorkshire. I drove from Reading. One of our key speakers flew in from Rome. Together with Alison and Catherine, our CWS group was about 10-strong: a fifth of all the women present. As with other CWS events, one of the bonuses of the meeting was to meet a few more of fellow members in the flesh: friends with whom we had only spoken online before.
The event was divided into three parts: a morning session of four themed talks and interviews with our key speakers; then, after lunch, group sessions in smaller, more intimate circles of 4 to 5 women, where each guest was invited to prepare and tell her own story. Both these parts were followed by question and answer sessions. Then came a musical meditation led by Alison. After the main meeting was concluded, we heard a short inspirational talk given by our principal host, Father John (he only joined us then; otherwise the day was given over exclusively to women).
The structure of the day was well thought-out, since the morning part, when the first four speakers shared with us some very personal, sometimes poignant, stories and reflections, encouraged the rest of us to tell our own stories later – even some very intimate and occasionally painful ones – without diffidence or embarrassment.
That, in turn, worked very well with the meditation time that followed: It allowed us to unwind and calm our emotions after such deeply personal sharing with women who were mostly strangers to one another. Alison played for us her own beautiful music, stemming from her deepest personal experiences of both pain and loss, and also of the ultimate trust in God’s guiding care for us – motifs which kept coming up in our conversations throughout the day.
As set out in the day’s theme, the hope was that the women participants would be prepared to tell of their experiences as they try to walk with God in their lives, whether successfully or less so, with all the spectrum of triumphs, hopes, defeats, frustrations, searchings, disappointments, sorrows, setbacks, betrayals and joyful homecomings that our lives entail.
This expectation seems to have been amply fulfilled, in generous measure. And this, to my eyes, is the day’s outstanding success. The overall impression was that most, perhaps all, women there were more than ready and eager to talk – indeed, they were yearning to have their stories heard – often stories of their pain and frustration at being denied the chance to bring their talents to the table in their parishes and church structures.
The thread of women’s roles in the church, as reflected in our immediate personal experiences, surfaced spontaneously as one of the major themes of the day.
We could probably have done with another hour or more of such sharing, giving expression to our concerns, trusting, and bonding. This is living proof of how much Catholic Women Need To Speak, and how the meeting answered that need. I had several lunchtime conversations from which it was clear that a lot of women there were interested in the role of CWS as facilitators in similar dialogues.
I understand that the feedback received by Alison and Catherine already in the first 24 hours or so after the event was overwhelmingly supportive and positive, signalling an urgent need for more of such meetings in the future.
The final part of the event, Father John’s talk, was both entertaining and thoughtful. It was inspiring to see how quite a few women there did not hesitate to challenge him on a point they did not agree with, and how they were ready to explain to him their own reasoning.
The whole format of the day could be cited as a master class in good organisation. Both Alison and Catherine carried the agenda with professional panache, perfect timing, good grace, humour and warmth. They made everyone feel important and welcome.
Their big success was in making the business of the day run smoothly and effortlessly. But we all know how such successes are achieved: All good hostesses are like ducks swimming in a running stream: what you see is how they float on the water gracefully and effortlessly, shiny feathers all unruffled – while underneath the surface they are paddling furiously to keep afloat.
Alison and Catherine carried out the act perfectly, and my own and everyone’s thanks go out to them. And Catherine’s bright red shoes did not go unnoticed by us – the Rome-seasoned CWS brigade!