Today, my sense of belonging to the Catholic Church is different. I am more independent. I often feel disappointed and frustrated about the formal Church. However, I’m also more tolerant of the pace and possibility of change in a complex institution, writes Andrea Dean.

I admit it: despite a life of deep involvement with the Catholic Church, I now feel on the fringe. I haven’t moved much – or have I?

I grew up in a very small country town and went to a two-teacher school where I was taught by the Sisters of St Joseph. After four years at a Catholic boarding school, I came home and enrolled in a Government high school for Years 11 and 12. Then I enrolled at a Catholic teachers’ college. After struggling with the scary notion of ‘vocation’, I entered the Sisters of St Joseph. Yes, a step right into the mainstream of the Church!

Becoming a nun and what it meant to me

Over years of teaching in Catholic schools and related ministries, I remained deeply connected to Church, especially at parish level. Of course, I read at Mass, was a communion minister, facilitated children’s liturgies, served on parish councils, liturgy committees and also participated on archdiocesan councils. It felt good being on the inside. Mostly. Access to forward-thinking and inclusive theology helped, as did regular retreats and spiritual direction. Like-minded companions were essential too.

Fast-forward 20 years and the community and collegiality I experienced has been enriching. I’ve taught in country schools across NSW and had four years as a missionary in Papua New Guinea. Lots of terrific formation and education opportunities have come my way. But I started to wonder, is this where I am really called to be? Am I using the identity of the group as a shield and avoiding my own emerging sense of self?

At this point I was content with being a Catholic woman, but struggled with religious life.

I was using the church to avoid the task of growing up

For years I struggled with the notion of my identity. I wondered who I would be if I left the religious community. I thought I would be nothing. I imagined that the act of leaving the congregation was as risky and dangerous as stepping off a cliff. It was frightening. It was paralysing.

Finally, after much inner work, the help of spiritual companions, a psychologist and loving friends, my perspective started to change. I had a dream where the frightening cliff was transformed into a playful slippery dip. Only then could I face leaving the Sisters of St Joseph. And it was not as scary as I imagined.

Today, my sense of belonging to the Catholic Church is different.

I’ve come across the treasure of ‘a second-half-of-life-spirituality’ where I can see the richness and the limits of my tradition. I also have the capacity to see the goodness in other traditions and communities, and recognise the one humanity we all share. I’m savouring the treasure of a mature spirituality.

I’m running my fingers through the gold of this inclusive understanding of being Catholic. I’m coming to appreciate the naturalness of women’s spirituality, which is relational, intuitive, influenced by issues of justice and equity, reliant on new images of the divine, and recognises the sacred in the ordinary.

And now I’m helping other women rediscover their spirituality too.

Andrea is leading a retreat in Mittagong on the weekend of June 9-11, 2017, for mature Catholic women who feel on the fringe of the Catholic Church. Exploring the theme “ Mind, Body and Soul”, the program will include semi-structured activities with the whole group, as well as opportunities for individual prayer, reflection, and access to an experienced spiritual companion.

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