Saturday 6th July 2019

A Reflection on our second day for Catholic Women

“We cannot live in a world that is not our own, in a world that is interpreted for us by others.  An interpreted world is not a home. Part of the terror is to take back our own listening, to use our own voice, to see our own light.”

Hildegard of Bingen (1098 – 1179)

On Saturday 6th July, 2019 we gathered at St Joseph’s Parish Centre, Leicester, for our second Catholic Women Speak ‘Day for Catholic Women’ in the East Midlands. There were 41 participants, a little less than our previous meeting, although, if the apologies we received were taken into consideration, there would have been a much larger number than at the first gathering in February earlier this year.

The day was presented by Catherine Brady and Alison Concannon Kennedy with a format similar to February: the opening prayer; an introduction to the day; a little background to the presenters’ involvement in CWS (along with a playing of Tina Beattie’s introductory video on the CWS website); interviews; question time; lunch; music meditation; group discussions and a closing prayer – all tweaked a little, based on the experience of that last meeting and the feedback received. One common request had been that the women would like to hear from women who had left practice of their faith, along with a unanimous request for more small group discussion time. These two requests became the focus in planning the follow-up day – ‘Another Day for Catholic Women : Different Perspectives’ and an invitation to women willing to speak about why they no longer practice their faith.

We are realising that one of the appeals of our days is that they are offered freely, only asking a donation towards the expense of providing lunch and the refreshments through the day, thus making them available to all and especially to any woman restricted by income. But this means we cannot finance professional speakers and, for those who do speak, this may be the first time they have shared their experiences in a public setting. So, rather than they stand at the front presenting their story, we felt they would be more comfortable seated and being interviewed – a method that worked well at the previous gathering. This is definitely Catherine’s forte, her natural northern warmth and obvious interest in what each woman has to say seems to put the interviewees at ease and draw some very personal and inspiring revelations, yet always with the security of the pre-agreement she will not ask beyond what they are willing to share.

The two lapsed interviewees came from different backgrounds, one being a “cradle” Catholic and one having chosen Catholicism whilst at university. What became obvious during their interviews was the different considerations the two women had when deciding to leave practice of faith – one having to consider the disappointment of her Catholic mother and family, therefore delaying her decision, whilst the other encountered previously unconsidered obstacles, particularly her later marriage to a divorcee (although this was not what had triggered her departure).  For the former it was needing to be true to what she actually believed for herself; for the latter it was a series of rejections over many years, culminating in an upsetting discussion with her parish priest regarding liturgy and the final hopeless realisation that clergy can override and cancel any lay initiative or activity. Both stories were full of emotion, courage and integrity and representative of experiences some others later brought up in their group discussions. It seemed that the institution of the Church had failed both women and was the shared obstacle to their very different decisions to leave – justifiable given the situations they had found themselves in.

Those interviews were extremely thought-provoking, especially to those who go through the motions of practice of faith without really examining the “why?”.  Our student convert has since resorted back to the innocence of her first experience of God when entering a church as a young girl and finding her “direct line (to God)” – and for both interviewees the Spirit (of God) was still very much present to them, guiding their lives. They were united in their wonder at Creation and their awareness of God being everywhere and available to them when and wherever they wanted to pray.

The interview that followed was also very thought-provoking.  A woman indoctrinated into a very strict religious tradition and first attracted to Catholicism as a young girl when entering a Catholic church (a near duplicate experience with our lapsed convert interviewee). Her childhood Christian journey had been one of control and abuse which she finally put behind her when becoming a Catholic in her mid-forties, although sadly at the expense of alienation from her birth family who were very actively involved in her former religion. There was so much for listeners to take in, but one thing that stood out was her joy at practising her Catholicism, particularly in the receiving of Holy Communion which she observed some seem to do out of habit, with little reverence for the privilege of the sacrament.

Catherine and Alison then interviewed each other sharing their experience and thoughts as cradle Catholics and recognising that, although the gift of the faith has been rejected by their own children, its Christian values and compassion are very evident in the jobs they now do and the caring empathetic adults they have become.  There was also the comparison that whilst Catherine’s husband later became a Catholic and now unites with her in faith, for Alison practice of faith had created marital division and eventual divorce. They shared their experience of the sacraments, their own and their children’s, and Alison revealed that she felt her sacramental journey had been tarnished when she discovered the priest who had baptised her had later been convicted of the sexual abuse of several children. But despite the ups and downs of their individual Catholic journeys they were still committed to practice of faith and being part of the Church.

Between each of the morning interviews the gathered women were given 5-10 minutes to talk at their tables, introduce each other and reflect together on what they had just heard. The morning session ended with the opportunity to ask questions of the interviewees (who returned to form a panel) and to share their own observations on what they had heard by means of the roving microphone.

Lunchtime provided more opportunity to share and chat, as a team from our host parish waited on all offering soup, rolls and cakes. This communal eating seems to enhance the gathering and the feedback from February and July has shown this pampering hospitality to be a much-appreciated part of the day’s proceedings. The parish facilities – church, chapel, garden, shops – were also available and taken advantage of during this time.

The afternoon sessions began with a reflective music session from Alison using one of her ‘Music as Prayer’ presentations. The focus was “women of God” and sought to introduce those women (finally) recognised as doctors of the Church, beginning with an introduction to the life and music of the 12th century Abbess, (St) Hildegard of Bingen. This was followed by a video with images illustrating the themes of one of Alison’s own compositions, the wording shared through the prepared prayer leaflet. Through that piece, and other of her hymns, she drew the women prayerfully into the challenging issues we can face as women of faith – abortion, parenting, gender.

We then divided into small discussion groups and, keeping with the musical theme, women were given hymns books asking them to reflect on the wordings and memories from their chosen hymns. For some this discussion aid worked by drawing on the precious family moments that certain hymns invoked and a recognition of similar shared experiences.  For others it was the meaning of the wording and the phraseology used, the titles given to God and to Mary, with deeper theological discussions ensuing.  At the request of one of the participants a list of favourite hymns was compiled to be shared this with those who came.

Respecting the requests from the February day’s participants much of the afternoon was given over to these group discussions, changing the groupings a couple of times in a bid to encourage those present to meet and share with women they had not yet so far engaged with. Catherine then asked for feedback on those discussions, thoughts on the day and what the women expected from their local Catholic Women Speak group. The roving microphone again allowed several to give their observations and comments, and these were very much reflective of the feedback since received, which will help with the planning of future days and initiatives.

We concluded the day by uniting with our global Catholic Women Speak group in a singing of Alison’s hymn ‘Women of God’, first sung in Rome to open the mass at the CWS launch of ‘Visions and Vocations’ in October 2018.

“Women of God, I sing to you,
tell you of love we’re called to share.
Love comes from God, the earth is blessed:
God dwells with us, and we with God.”

(Watermead Music : Collection 7)

Our subject for the day had been difficult and challenging and the resulting hurts, disappointments and frustrations that were given voice were to be expected and, seemingly, negative. But those revelations, and the discussions they promoted, highlighted the realisation that amongst that “mystical body” of gathered women there is a bond that is growing and becoming constructive. We are holding together a wealth of talent, experience, enthusiasm and longing that is just waiting to be recognised and utilised more fully (as intended) within the institution of the Catholic Church.  We are still here. We are no longer silent.

 “I loved all of it. I turned up not knowing what to expect, was thinking it would be boring. Very pleasantly surprised. Very interesting and informative. Enjoyed listening and sharing faith stories. Everyone has been incredibly friendly and welcoming. Nothing could be better!”

“It was wonderful to come to a space in the Catholic Church that felt safe and welcoming, I am just about clinging on to staying in the Catholic Church and that helped.”

(Quotations from two participant’s feedback forms)


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