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And the Dance goes on, an anthology of Australian Catholic women’s stories, Cathy Oliver (editor), compiled by The Commission for Australian Catholic Women, John Garratt Publishing, 2005

Reviewed by Ann Nugent

And the Dance goes on is a kaleidoscope of women’s stories – so many colours, so many shapes. The idea of a book celebrating Australian Catholic women was first mooted by the Commission for Australian Catholic Women in late 2002. The project got under way early 2003 and the book was launched in Sydney earlier this month.  I admit And the Dance goes on has confounded my fears of a stereotypical, celebratory tome. We have been spared the celebration and invited into an energetic dance.

There’s something very compelling about first person narratives, spiced with piquant dashes of personal experience. Most of the 58 stories in this book are told by the subject; a few are told by one woman and written by another; while a couple are about women, for example Tracey Edstein’s delightful report of Bishop Brigid’s ordination – “She was ahead of her time! She was out there! She was Bishop Brigid!” (p 8).

Just as every face, every soul, every DNA is different so are these stories. Yet there is a common thread: it’s not Church (certainly not the institutional church rejected by many and championed by few), nor is it a theoretical feminism. The common thread is being woman. Many of the writers are ambivalent about the Church, “… my relationship with the Church is full of contradiction,” writes Susannah Davis, “but not my relationship with God.” (p 222); some have left in bitter disappointment: “How sad that they have to [walk away] in order for their soul to survive,” comments Noelene Bangel (p 71); for others the Church has been a sustaining force: “I would not have been able to survive, let alone thrive, without the bedrock of the Catholic spiritual tradition in which I grew up…”( Carmen Xuereb p 78)

Vivid metaphors spring from the writers’ varied cultural and ethnic backgrounds. In a humorous, ocker-ish vignette Carolyn Doherty describes how she locked old man god away in a cupboard. Years later she opened the cupboard only to find herself confronted by a companionable bloke sporting a grey ponytail (p 6). Such transformations abound in this book.

Many stories catch faith and human experience in the one net and so are deeply incarnational. Blessed Sacrament religious Maureen Flood describes the shift: “we began to think of the Eucharist as the food of the hungry rather than as a static host enclosed in a golden monstrance” (p 140). Individual stories of deaths, loss and illness, the decision to move away from the Church, rough handling by some clerics, become for some women the threshold of a new and more mature relationship with Christ. Trish Bogan’s powerfully told account of her horrific road accident and spirit-guided recovery is a moving testament (p 20).

The stories reveal the fragility of women’s institutional ministries subject, as they are, to the whim of clerical power. Josie O’Donnell records the dismissal of a parish council (p 160); Janiene Wilson relates her dismissal from the staff of St Patrick’s Seminary after ten years there, by “the new Rector, Bishop Julian Porteous in consultation with (then) Archbishop George Pell” (p 218). Janiene, now in private practice, continues to tend the psyhic and emotional needs of Religious and Clergy – ministry and incarnational work again. But what talents and ministries are lost to the institutional church!

Although women have experiences not open to men; women are not arbiters. Mothers of stillborn babies question the Church’s [former] teaching on Limbo – “how could a loving God … be so cruel?” asks Stephanie Kent (p 51).  Here women’s experience leads to a more sensitive, subtle understanding of the nature of God, than barrow-loads of theological constructs ever could.

The people who really take on the institutional church are women seeking to convert. Annie March like the French philosopher Simone Weil, struggled with the codes and credos of institutionalized Catholicism. Unlike Weil, March was baptized into the Church (p 31). Barbara Campbell came to the Church via her intellectually rigorous and determined search for truth (p 131). A lifetime later she is one of the founders of the reform movement Australian Reforming Catholics.

I hope this book shocks many readers, particularly our Australian bishops. From 1996 to 1999, the research report commissioned by the Australian Catholic bishops, Woman and Man: One in Christ Jesus, drew on anecdotes from hundreds of Catholic women. One wonders how many times women have to tell their stories in order to be heard.  In And the Dance goes on women once again speak frankly of domestic violence, repeated pregnancies, the struggle to hold on. They do so without rancour or bitterness. These are real stories of real people – the ones who catch the patriarchal buck when it stops because – that’s what women do isn’t it?

Older women, cradle Catholics whose religious formation took place before Vatican II pay tribute to the nuns who provided them with models of strong women who continued to serve God despite the fact they had no power in the Church’s structures (Ailsa McCarthy p 208). Today, many women resist the Church’s authoritarian, dogmatic, male supremacist and exclusive attitudes and actions (see Annie March, p 31). Clare Pettigrew writes “one of the most unsettling aspects of the institutional Church is its capacity for reliance on certainties – areas that were closed to dialogue” (p 238).

In many stories the institutional church is not mentioned. However,

Vatican II rings like a chant through the book. The Council changed the expectations of these then young women. Today they ask where has that spirit gone?  “It seems,” writes Stephanie Kent, “that the windows that were opened by Pope John XXIII are slowly, but surely, closing” (p 53). Many women find their own spiritual paths, sloughing off the constrictions of dogma and narrow prejudice in the process. Often meditation becomes their preferred form of prayer.

Bringing together fifty-eight stories by writers of varying abilities is a challenge for any editor. Some stories leap off the page and others are more pedestrian in their telling. However, editor Cathy Oliver has ensured a standard of clarity and conciseness in all the text, and her sequencing of the stories maintains the reader’s interest. Jan Hynes’s oscillating blue and red illustration “Poinciana Petals’ on the book’s front cover communicates a sense of transformation, and that is what many of these stories are about.

There are a few typos but it would be churlish to find fault with this book or with the intentions of the CACW executive and the working group of five women who guided the project to completion. Brief biographical notes would be a welcome addition.

And the Dance goes on [and on and on] – but is it getting anywhere? Since the 1999 Report on the Participation of Women in the Catholic Church in Australia, even simple measures such as the use of inclusive language have not been achieved. I hope that the bishops will read with open hearts these stories by women – theologians, mothers, doctors, artists, seekers – recorded so honestly here. If they do, perhaps they will be startled enough to ask why this rich source of love and wisdom is so often sidelined.

 I leave the bishops this advice, not from an enemy but from a friend:

“The Church needs to change or it will die …” (Noelene Bangel,  p 71)

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