Good Samaritan Sister, Elizabeth Delaney, sees her ministry as being a ‘Martha’ ministry, one of service, and one that has the potential to see justice served and broken lives restored.
BY Debra Vermeer*
Canon law has a reputation for being a dry and sometimes out of touch aspect of Church life, but canon lawyer, Sister Elizabeth Delaney SGS, sees her ministry as being a ‘Martha’ ministry, one of service, and one that has the potential to see justice served and broken lives restored.
Elizabeth, who holds a doctorate of canon law (Juris Canonici Doctor, JCD) from St Paul University in Ottawa, Canada, says that when she joined the Sisters of the Good Samaritan as a teenager, she could never have dreamed she would become a canon lawyer.
“I began teaching, as we all did in those days,” she says. “And I loved teaching. But God keeps surprising me.”
Elizabeth was born in Sydney’s Dulwich Hill and educated by the Josephites at St Paul of the Cross Primary School and then the Good Samaritan Sisters at St Brigid’s College, Marrickville. The local church was very much part of her life and the life of her family.
“Our parish was a great one for vocations,” she recalls. “Every year we would have people either going to the seminary or joining the Good Samaritans or the Josephites. There was very much a culture of religious vocation, so it didn’t feel like a strange choice at all for me.
“At St Brigid’s we had sisters who were full of life and they just attracted me. And I think it was one of God’s surprises that I came to realise that the Good Samaritans were Benedictine in their spirituality, which I love.”
Elizabeth obtained a scholarship to Sydney Teachers’ College, but chose not to accept it because she had decided to enter the convent. After working for six months as a clerk in the public service, Elizabeth entered the Good Sams’ novitiate in 1965. Her first teaching appointment was to St Matthew’s Primary School at Windsor in NSW.
“They were the loveliest kids. I could still tell you the name of every child in that class. I loved teaching,” she says.
From there she was appointed to St Joseph’s Rozelle, where she taught maths, science and religion, and then to Whyalla in South Australia, and to several more schools before becoming Deputy Principal of the recently opened Bede Polding College in Windsor and then Principal of Mount St Benedict College in Pennant Hills.
After leaving Mount St Benedict, Elizabeth was open to new opportunities. She took up a position with the National Catholic Education Commission, with responsibility for special education and vocational education and completed a Graduate Certificate in Special Education.
When that role ended, Elizabeth was once again open to new experiences, but expected that her congregation’s leadership would probably suggest she return to classroom teaching, a proposal she was ready to fully embrace.
Instead, they suggested she study canon law.
“To me this was just so completely out of the blue,” Elizabeth says. “I was incredulous, asking myself why would I want to do that? But they suggested I go away and think about it, which I did.”
A friend of Elizabeth’s, who is a canon lawyer, told her the best place to study was at St Paul’s University in Ottawa. She applied, and because she had already a number of subjects towards a theology degree, she was accepted.
“I headed over to Ottawa and I think I just took to it,” she says. “I had some wonderful professors who had quite different approaches to canon law, but somehow they made up a wonderful whole and the fellow students, many of whom were clerics, were all interesting people.
“I loved studying it and in the summers I did more theology at Notre Dame University because I have a strong belief that to approach canon law well you’ve got to understand it from a theological stance.”
When she returned home with her canon law degree in 1997, Elizabeth was invited by the then Bishop of Wollongong, Philip Wilson, to take up the position of Chancellor of the Diocese, becoming only the second woman in Australia to hold such a post.
“That was a great experience,” she says. “The role of chancellor is interesting. It is a role that is as different as each bishop is different.
“But I am convinced that every chancellor should have a canon law qualification. Every diocese should have a canon lawyer. You don’t always know how you’re going to apply the Church’s law, but situations arise all the time when it is not only useful, but necessary.”
From 2000 to 2004 Elizabeth returned to Ottawa to obtain her doctorate and when she came back to Australia, took up a position within the secretariat of the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference. She is currently Executive Secretary for Church Life – a broad-ranging role which covers relations with Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders, ecumenism and inter-religious relations, canon law, and doctrine and morals.
Elizabeth is also a member of the Regional Tribunal of Sydney, a position which sees her applying canon law mainly in marriage annulments.
“When Pope John Paul II promulgated the Code of Canon Law, he described the Code as the last of the documents of the Second Vatican Council,” she says. “By that he meant that the Code can only be fully revealed when studied in the light of all the documents of the Vatican Council. So it has a theological and a pastoral dimension.”
Elizabeth says that canon law is very different from civil law.
“The purpose of the Church’s law is to enable and promote the life of the Church,” she says. “It is to prevent problems occurring and to offer wise guidance and to state clearly the procedures which need to be observed in order to protect the rights of the Church and of individuals.
“So the Code is not first and foremost about saying no. It is an enabler, rather than a prohibitor.”
She acknowledges that people, especially those engaged in seeking a marriage annulment, do not always have a happy experience with the tribunal, but says for many others, it can restore their lives.
“One would like to think that it’s always going to be a positive experience,” she says. “But when you think about it, it concerns the breakdown of a marriage which was entered into with good faith. So there is naturally hurt, anger and a range of strong feelings involved, so it’s very difficult for the tribunal experience to be positive for everyone.
“But on the other hand, in some cases it can bring a great deal of relief and happiness, because lives are restored. If a marriage is found to be null, then people are free to move into a new relationship. In either case, all we can do is try to make it as positive as we can.”
The other area in which canon law has come under the spotlight in recent years is in the area of sexual abuse by clerics.
Showing an early awareness of the problem, this was the area in which Elizabeth did her doctoral thesis in the 2000s.
She found that there were three aspects of the Church’s canon law relating to abuse which posed clear problems. They were: prescription, or in more common terminology, the statute of limitations, which at that time was just five years, but has now been extended twice; the secrecy surrounding the process which was meant to safeguard both the Church and the accused, especially those falsely accused, but according to Elizabeth gave rise to an unhelpful and dangerous siege mentality in the Church; and the fact that under canon law the ‘delict’, or crime, in relation to abuse applies only to clergy, an area that Elizabeth says obviously needs to be broadened to include religious and lay Catholics.
“The nature of the Church means that changes in Church law will only come about quite slowly and that can be extremely frustrating,” she says. “It’s understandable, but it’s frustrating.”
In addition to her tribunal duties and ongoing roles in education, as a member of Good Samaritan Education and a Board Member of the Broken Bay Institute, Elizabeth enjoys the challenges of her multi-pronged role with the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference.
“I see my work, both with the bishops and the tribunal, as very much a Martha role – a ministry of the towel and the bowl, a ministry of service,” she says.
“Working with the bishops, I’ve come to realise that a bishop’s first concern is for the people of God in their diocese. It’s given me the opportunity to recognise that here are these men who do their best, like me, with all their humanity, faults and failings. You do your best in whatever situation you are in and hope that it does some good.”
Looking to the future, Elizabeth is passionate about the need to train more canon lawyers in Australia.
“At the moment, you cannot do a full canon law degree in Australia,” she says. “You must go overseas to study. And in 2005, the canon law course was extended from two to three years. There are not many bishops in Australia who can spare a priest or a lay person for such a long period of overseas study.
“So there is a shortage of canon lawyers in Australia. I would love to have it possible for both clerics and lay people to study canon law in Australia. Of course there are all sorts of challenges, including having sufficient people to teach it here, but I am sure that if we had the will to do it, we could do it.”
* Debra Vermeer is a freelance journalist working in both Catholic and mainstream media.
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