“Sharing our Stories of Faith”
A DAY FOR CATHOLIC WOMEN
Saturday 23rd February 2019
St Joseph’s, Leicester, United Kingdom
“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!
“Background to the Day, the Day and Organisers’ Evaluation”
by Catherine Brady
Birth of an idea
On the second day of the Summit for the Protection of Minors in Rome, as in off-the-cuff remarks to a journalist, Pope Francis reflected on ‘the feminine genius that is mirrored in the Church who is woman’ (Zenit 24 February 2019) and 51 women met at St Joseph’s Church, Leicester, to share a conversation about what it means to be a Catholic woman in the Church today.
The day was the brainchild of Alison Concannon Kennedy and Catherine Brady who became friends as a result of CWS. Both of us attended CWS Symposium and launch of the book, Visions and Vocations, in Rome, designed to coincide with another meeting of senior clergy with the Pope – the October 2018 Synod entitled ‘Young People, Faith and Vocational Discernment’. Women had no voice at this gathering as some were invited but only as listeners. However, women’s voices were loudly expressed both in the book and during the first day of the symposium when 30 women theologians, religious sisters and lay women, from every continent except Antarctica, were brought together to present what “being women in the Church” meant to them. The symposium was long and intense, 100 women in a small chapel of the Antonianum Pontifical University. We started early and finished late, with little time for breaks. Despite this we were transfixed as we listened to the diverse and sometimes shocking experiences described by the women. This was at the start of the scandal of the abuse of religious sisters when an Italian theologian who works in seminaries told us it would be “the next big scandal to hit the Church . . . it will implode”.
Our attendance at the symposium gave us a wider perspective on the role of women across the global Catholic world, the problems they face and their hopes for the Catholic Church. In the global South women are having to contend with much greater inequalities between the sexes than women in the Western hemisphere. Some of the stories we heard at first hand were heart-breaking and profoundly depressing. Their difficulties are compounded by the teachings of the Church such as on birth control. We were asked by several speakers to re-imagine the Church, remember that we are all baptised and consider ourselves as ‘prophetic people’. I learned a great deal as a result of what we heard during the talks and informal conversations. We were privileged to be present and excited to take home the messages to others.
Day 2 the focus was on communication within CWS and its future role. Having spent the whole of the previous day listening we were looking for an opportunity to speak and share. We broke into small groups, but there were about 40 of us and we felt that people who had held the floor on day 1 were allowed too much time to expand their views. It was hard to be heard. We wanted to look at how we share what we had learned with our parishes, to women who hadn’t had the opportunity to hear what we heard, tell their own stories. The idea for Saturday 23rd February was born.
What we did
The day was designed around the sharing of stories. After a welcome from Father John, parish priest at St Joseph’s (who then left) and an introduction to the role and history of CWS (which included the introductory video on the main CWS website) four women spoke. We had invited three local women – a retired head teacher, a hospital chaplain and the director of ongoing formation for clergy within the Nottingham diocese; Alison herself, pastoral assistant (she wears many hats) also spoke. Two spoke freely and two were interviewed by me (this is a good idea for keeping to time and drawing out key messages). Women told different stories, personal and professional lives uncovered, each compelling in their own way. Then they formed a panel and answered questions from the floor.
After a soup lunch and a walk around the church garden, women regathered for the afternoon session on telling their own stories. They moved around the tables and regrouped according the numbers of their name labels. For a stimulus to the imagination, a move away from words and as a light-hearted slant, using paper and coloured pens, women were invited to draw their faith journey. I showed “one I had prepared earlier”, describing features of my own faith journey. The women then prepared their own, individually and in silence for about 15 minutes. The sharing followed, 9 tables of 5 or 6 women, each one being heard without interruption, until everyone had told her story. Coming back together each table shared, not their stories, but their insights.
For some women this was the first time they had told their stories. The atmosphere in the room was electric and we both had a strong sense that ‘the Spirit was moving in that place’. When the last spokeswoman gave her summary of insights from her table there was still but comfortable silence in the room. No need for anybody to summarise, draw out any more points, add to what had been said. The prayerful and poignant meditation that followed, written and guided by Alison and with her own music, followed on naturally. We ended with a session in which Father John returned to answer ‘any question from any woman’.
At the end of the day we asked for written responses to three questions: what went well? What could be better? What next? The responses were better than we could have hoped. Women talked of the joy of being heard, of companionship and frank discussions, realising how much we have in common, discovering the power of ordinary women, ordinary lives that are not ordinary at all.
What could be better? One request – more time.
What next? Local networks, meetings, discussion, retreats, groupings, support, follow up reading and study. (We gave a plug for CWS and Catherine of Siena courses).
Emails, texts, feedback has been pouring in. Before the day we wondered whether we might be sitting with a small group of women drinking much soup and eating a lot of cake! We considered that the day we had put together might work for ‘women like us’ but perhaps not for most Catholic women. In reality it worked better than our wildest dreams. So now we want to do more and to enable other parts of CWS to do similar.
Finally . . .
One woman wrote: “Thank you for the empowering day that we had on Saturday. I learned a lot about myself, other women and our needs to be accepted as we are now, whatever stage of life that may be. From our small group work it was very evident that there were many hurts to be healed, many troubles to be shared, but a common bedrock of faith that we mourned our children do not share… I find it impossible to attend such a day and not feel bound to reflect on its effect on me in my life at present.”
Catherine Brady – teacher, writer, facilitator, business owner
Co-organiser and host
Alison Concannon Kennedy
- Kate Howells – currently chair of governors at the local Catholic primary school. A retired former headteacher who spent most of her teaching career working supporting the educationally disenfranchised in very challenging environments – prisons, schools, etc.
- Alison Concannon Kennedy – pastoral assistant to a large multi-cultural city parish, composer of hymns and liturgical music, director of parish music, CEO of Watermead Publishing Apostolate.
- Christina Mottram – works as a lay Catholic Chaplain for Leicester Hospitals, serving Glenfield and Leicester General hospitals and part time for the Anglican diocese of Leicester, in social responsibility.
- Karen Foong – Director for the Office of Ongoing Formation and Support for the Clergy in the Diocese of Nottingham and Chair of the National Conference of Ongoing Formation Directors for Clergy in England and Wales – the first and only laywoman (that we know of) on either side of the Atlantic to hold the position.
Fr John Daley IC (Institute of Charity – nicknamed ‘Rosminians’)” is the priest serving St Joseph’s parish, Leicester, UK
Number of Attendees – 56 booked and 51 came.
Catherine Brady, Alison Concannon Kennedy, Anna (Ania) Cannon, Christina Mottram, (Nottingham Diocese), Sr Patricia Byrne (Westminster Diocese), Frances Bailess (St Joseph’s Parish), Carmen Fernandes (St Joseph’s Parish), Catherine Stringer (Liverpool Diocese), Ann Jackson (Nottingham Diocese), Margaret Watson (Hallam Diocese). An additional 3 CWS members from the Nottingham diocese – Susan Heggie, Marian Concannon Williamson, Diana Howarth.