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Patty Fawkner will retire from her position as director of Uniya, the Jesuit Social Justice Centre, in November to take up a position on the leadership team of the Sisters of the Good Samaritan. She is a member of the Commission of Australian Catholic Women.

Online Catholics: Could you background your own journey in faith and what led you to first become a religious sister? Are you sustained in your vocation now by the same things that led you to choose a religious calling?

Patty Fawkner: Even as a tiny tot I wanted to become a nun. Some of this was pure romanticism resulting from the mystique which surrounded nuns of that era, but God and religion were always important to me. I earned the nickname ‘Pious Patty’ as I tried to encourage my recalcitrant brothers and sisters to join me in creating May altars, making the nine First Fridays and the like.

I had a real sense that God was calling me to be a religious sister so that I could, as the old catechism said, come “to know, love and serve God’. It seemed my bad luck that God wasn’t calling me to married life with a life-long partner (perhaps some romantic notions there as well.) A few years after joining the Good Samaritans I realised I could no longer ‘blame’ God for my vocation – I came to recognise it as my own deepest heart’s desire. 

What led me into religious life continues to sustain me: God who richly blesses me and fans my desire to seek God, loving mentors, and the witness of wonderfully whole women – Good Samaritan women – who try to bring a bit more compassion and justice to our world.

Online Catholics: We hear much these days about the crisis in vocations to the priesthood  and religious life more generally. How do you explain this ‘crisis’ and what would you argue is the continuing appeal of the religious life?

Patty Fawkner: Religious congregations are experiencing the same critical decline as many secular institutions. Yet, ‘crisis’, as we know, is a time of danger and opportunity. 

Some danger signs seem obvious: fewer and ageing numbers, the difficulty of maintaining congregational works, and sexual abuse scandals that have led to a crisis of confidence and reputation. There is a loss of status and religious are no longer the ‘darlings’ of ecclesiastical authorities nor the wider community. 

Each one of these crises holds the seeds of opportunity. The glory days have gone. Religious women and men have been, thankfully, removed from precarious pedestals and instead of shunning the world, have lovingly embraced the world and its people. Religious get their identity, not from any particular work – no matter how noble – but from a way of life that asks for nothing less than everything. Religious are called to be women and men who hope in something more than themselves. Their life is centred on the quest for God, sharing in the mission of Jesus, and witnessing to the possibility of community. For me, this is the essence and the continuing appeal of religious life.

Online Catholics: You have had a number of leadership positions in the Church, most recently as director of Uniya Jesuit Social Justice Centre, and you have now been elected to the leadership team of the Good Samaritan Sisters. What is your understanding of leadership in a Church context?

Patty Fawkner: Jesus had a lot to say about leaders and leadership. In word and deed he taught that leadership is first and foremost about loving service. 

Hopefully we’ve moved on from the notion of a military style leader who charges ahead of straggling followers, or the visionary leader who has an elite view of what needs to be done. Women have led the way in offering a more inclusive and participative model of leadership which lessens the gap between leaders and followers, and which draws on the wisdom and leadership potential of all.

Today’s church leaders have to be true believers and web-weavers. I have to truly believe in the value of religious life in what seems unpromising times, and my sisters in my congregation have to believe that I believe in them. Instead of the patriarchal images of leadership ladders and bureaucratic pyramids, I prefer the image of the leader as web-weaver, one who emphasises inclusion, connections, relationships and partnerships. 

Leaders have to do more listening than speaking, engage in genuine dialogue rather than issuing authoritative statements, and promote legitimate diversity rather than a crippling uniformity.

Online Catholics: The Good Samaritans are the oldest womens’ religious group founded in Australia. Could you profile the Good Samaritans, their numbers, activities and special charism?

Patty Fawkner: We Good Samaritans have just celebrated our six-yearly Chapter. There where we described ourselves as ‘women of hope, called by God to listen with the ear of our heart. Compassion and justice are at the heart of our mission to be neighbour.’ 

This statement sums up who we are and who we aspire to be. It has resonances of our Benedictine heritage and spirituality, and our desire to be actively involved in the mission of Jesus, powerfully illustrated by the parable of the Good Samaritan.

We were founded in 1857 by Australia’s first Catholic bishop, John Bede Polding, who gave us a broad mandate to respond with practical compassion to the social needs of the time. So today we have 310 Good Samaritans living in Australia, Japan, the Philippines and Kiribati ministering in schools, adult education, disability services, parish ministry, liturgical formation, social welfare and community development.

When I think of the Good Sams, the words and phrases that come to mind are: down to earth, adaptable, well-educated, becoming more sensitive to our cross-cultural reality, committed to good liturgy, hospitable, flawed like the rest of humanity and fun-loving!

Online Catholics: Women, in both a religious and a lay capacity, are often referred to as the backbone of the Church, especially in Australia. Why is this and what does it say about the nature of the Australian Church?

Patty Fawkner: I don’t like to set up false dichotomies between women and men. It’s a common fact that the majority of the world’s work, much of it unpaid and unrecognised, is done by women. In that sense, women are the backbone of the Church, just as they are the backbone of the home, the village and society within Australia and beyond. I have lived in other cultures and I don’t see that the situation in Australia is markedly different.

I have this tantalising dream of imagining that just for a day, maybe a week, all the women who work for the Church were to withdraw their services. Can you imagine the chaos and confusion? Priests would be preaching in empty churches and so much practical work that keeps the Church functioning would not be done. Sometimes women’s work is like housework – nobody notices it unless it’s not done.

The Australian Church has been enriched by women’s energy, commitment and loving service. However, if the Church continues to lag behind society in creating more equal partnerships with women, it will be seriously diminished.

Online Catholics: At the same time, some people say that women are virtually regarded as second-class citizens by the hierarchy. What do you see as their future in the Church?

Patty Fawkner: Years ago Gabriel Moran said that within the Church, men made the decisions, women did the work and most of the work was directed towards children. In many respects this is still a dispiriting reality.

I don’t want to generalise about the hierarchy for I have worked with fine priests and bishops who grieve about this state of affairs and who welcome women’s gifts within their communities. Yet often they seem the exception. I continue to encounter structures and systems which militate against the meaningful participation of women in decision-making in the life and mission of the Church.  Structures don’t exist in a vacuum; they are created and upheld by people – those within and beyond the hierarchy.

However, I’m encouraged by the idea of Irish theologian Anne Thurston who says: 

“If you persist in your efforts to influence the official Church, to become part of its decision making, you will only break your heart and lose hope. What you must do is go around to the back and create a garden. Some day they will look out and see its beauty and marvel at its life.” 

I continue to be encouraged by the beautiful ‘gardens’ I see women creating. 

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