25th Annual TWEC Dinner
Sister Lauretta Baker gives an account of the recent TWEC (Tenison Woods Education Centre) Dinner held in the Therry Centre at East Maitland where Geraldine Doogue, was the guest speaker. Sr Lauretta reflects on the subject of her talk, “Living through the Holy Saturday of the Church in Australia” and considers the challenges her talk offers to Catholics in Australia today.
Monday evening was clear and crisp, a beautiful Autumn evening. People began arriving around 6.00pm so, when we arrived, the usual excited buzz of conversation, as friends greeted friends, could be heard from the carpark. The excitement was catching! In the foyer, we were warmly greeted, told our table number and given a drink. This year, canapés were served at table as hellos, and smiles and nods and hugs were exchanged. Geraldine Doogue, the evening’s Guest Speaker, was in animated conversation with a small group – Bishop Bill among them – when Ray O’Brien, the MC, well-practised in this role, welcomed everyone, paid tribute to the traditional owners of the land and reminded everyone that this year celebrated the Silver Anniversary of the TWEC dinner. The only person in the group who had attended all twenty-five dinners, 1993 – 2018, was Sister Jenny Riley. What a commitment! Ray reminded us that Sister Colleen Carney also had attended every TWEC dinner, until her death in 2016. I was glad to hear Colleen honoured, even if only briefly. The success of TWEC over the years owes so much to her. Sister Lynette Pearce prayed Grace with us and the evening proceeded heartily! Delicious food, stimulating table company, catching up with friends, much laughter – all hallmarks of TWEC dinners – followed.
Well into the evening, quiet came over the group, about two hundred of us, and Jane Dunn introduced Geraldine Doogue, prominent Catholic, eloquent speaker, provocative thinker and well known to many of us via her radio and television programs over the years. I was looking forward to listening to Geraldine and knew that she would offer us much material for reflection, so I hunted around for a biro and a clean serviette. Paper serviettes have multiple uses! Geraldine began by noting that she had changed the focus of her address from, “Beware the distractibles: the Art of Perseverance” to “Living through the Holy Saturday of the Church in Australia”. I immediately tuned in to the metaphor of Holy Saturday and began tossing that around in my mind.
Geraldine proceeded to ask, “Have things ever seemed worse for the Catholic Church in Australia?” You can imagine the conditions that led her to ask such a question. She shared something of the struggles she has faced, with what to say, think and feel when faced with the “black well’ in which the Church finds herself. I think that many of us can identify with similar struggles. Geraldine quoted from sources as widely varied as Professor Greg Craven, Vice Chancellor, Australian Catholic University; poet Dorothy Porter; Teresa of Avila; the Royal Commission; Dirk Kurbjeweit, German writer; some of her Jewish friends and shared a significant event in her own parish which set her thinking, and then asked herself, ‘where does all this Holy Saturday thinking take me? How does one put all the goodness that is undeniably brokered by the Church against some awful stories and statistics, where the Church, as Good Shepherd, so obviously abandoned its flock?’ The gathering was deep in silence. I wondered eagerly how Geraldine would respond to these searching questions.
Her solution to the current ‘Holy Saturday’ of the Catholic Church in Australia is an institution with much, much more collaboration, power and influence-sharing, mutual respect between clergy and laity; between the official and non-ordained people. A very different model of priesthood and Church! I looked over at Bishop Bill at this stage. He was really engaged and nodding his head! I suspected that there was more to come. Geraldine had just got started!
This means for her, a new laity, “a real stepping-up by lay people in a way [I’m] just not sure we’ve been prepared to… [with] leadership training, innovative thinking, planning, as well as kindness and generosity of spirit. And to match this … a humble readiness-to-adapt by clergy”. Geraldine wondered whether the Church ought to suspend all “non-essential activities and listen” to what society seeks of it, needs from it – for maybe twelve months: and “visibly do so for all the messages that sends, explicitly and implicitly”. I could see people at tables nodding, frowning, even grimacing – wondering, I guess, is she exaggerating? Does she mean it? I could hear some murmurs of assent too and maybe, a hint of applause.
Geraldine went on to quote Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sachs’s “wonderful phrase”, ‘the invitation to belong before believing’ and she shared with us some of the ways the Jewish people have worked, over the centuries, to recreate their whole belief and cultural structure. I immediately began to think of the importance for us of building and strengthening community, communities, of reaching out to others and inviting them to belong before believing. Perhaps, for our Church today, the response to every challenge rests in community? We are not defeated; new beginnings rely not on the “professionals” but on a new laity. Geraldine, quoting Pope Francis in Evangelii Gaudium, encouraged us not to be like “Christians whose lives seem like Lent without Easter” and concluded with Oscar Romero’s words, so familiar to us, ‘We cannot do everything and there is a sense of liberation in realising that….etc’, what she called ‘the perfect Holy Saturday prayer.’ Loud prolonged applause and questions followed. My thinking had been provoked and my heart had been mightily stirred. So, a week later, I’m reading over my notes and comparing my thoughts with others’ recollections.
The evening continued. Over dessert, people were inspired to talk and wonder about Geraldine’s challenges to us. And I’m still doing just that!
Lauretta Baker rsj
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