June 2013

A life of ongoing conversion

While Penny Carroll’s experience of faith began in her childhood, she says it was a tragedy in her life that really led her to encounter God, writes Debra Vermeer.

BY Debra Vermeer

Good Samaritan Oblate, Penny Carroll, says her life has been one of ongoing conversion, with the Holy Spirit constantly urging her on to new things for which she has rarely felt well equipped, but which usually turn out to be unexpectedly wonderful.

As she prepares to facilitate the upcoming Good Samaritan Partnership Gathering, Penny says she is once more feeling “a bit scared”, but also excited, about where the Spirit is leading.

The Good Samaritan Partnership Gathering aims to bring together Good Samaritan Sisters, oblates and associates, partners in mission and friends from around Australia and the Pacific to explore how the Good Samaritan charism can best be carried into the future.

“It’s asking, ‘how can we carry this charism forward?’” Penny says. “While the Good Samaritan Sisters have younger members joining in other countries, in Australia, as sisters grow older, there is a growing partnership between the Sisters and lay people.

“The Sisters are very open to the strength that comes from working in partnership with lay people and I think that in even asking an oblate to facilitate this gathering, they are demonstrating that openness.

“So, for me, it’s a bit scary, but you know you’re not alone in these things. I’ve been part of the planning team, and I’m sure the Spirit does breathe and move in us when we are most inadequate.

“I think what I most want is to hear everybody’s voice. There will be a lot of time for exploring what the Spirit is saying to us at this time to lead us into the future.”

The road to becoming a Good Sam Oblate stretches right back to Penny’s childhood in Brisbane, where she and her family were committed Anglicans. In fact, she has since come to realise that her link with Benedictines goes back to her paternal grandmother, who, before she married, had joined an Anglican Benedictine order as a pupil teacher.

After leaving school, Penny went to teachers’ college to study primary school teaching and then took up a scholarship in PE teaching at Queensland University.

At an intercollegiate sports day, she met a footballer from the Armidale Sports College, and two years later they were married.

“He was a Catholic and at that time in the Church, there was no way he would darken the doors of an Anglican Church. Knowing that, I was happy to promise that our children would be brought up Catholics and we would worship together at Mass as a family, although I didn’t become Catholic then,” she recalls.

It was after 19 years of marriage that Penny made the decision to become Catholic and it was the Eucharist that led her there.

“In the 1980s, I visited Papua New Guinea a number of times with my husband, working with catechists on mission stations,” she says. “Daily Eucharist was part of mission life and as an Anglican in a Catholic area, I was offered Eucharistic hospitality. The experience of receiving Communion daily created a deep hunger, revealing a longing which I had deprived myself of for years. Before I married, Sunday Eucharist was very much part of my life and it was through this experience of regular reception of Communion that the Spirit led me to become Catholic.”

While Penny’s experience of faith began in her childhood, she says it was a tragedy in her life that really led her to encounter God.

“There was a turning point in my life when I was 26 and had two children, and my beautiful youngest sister, who had battled depression, suicided just before Christmas in 1971,” she says.

“That tragedy led to an amazing encounter with God, not just for me, but really for my whole family. It created a huge crisis in the family, where we all questioned how this could happen to such a beautiful young woman. But in the midst of that awful situation, all of us experienced a renewed relationship with God.”

In the following years, Penny became involved with the Charismatic Renewal Movement in Brisbane and continued to deepen her relationship with God.

“In 1975, we joined with other families who wanted to commit themselves to share a more communal and prayerful life,” Penny says. “We wanted to capture the vision of the Acts of the Apostles – with prayer, fellowship, teaching and breaking of bread as integral to our lives and families. As part of this, for many years, our family shared our home with a number of single people. Every morning we would sing the Psalms and pray together, as well as sharing meals and chores and living an intentional Christian community life. It was a very rich experience.”

Within this large community, Penny became involved in leadership roles in pastoral ministry, with a focus on families and women in crisis. This took her and her husband not only to Papua New Guinea, but throughout South-East Asia, New Zealand and the United States. In the late 1980s they visited Taize in France and other communities in Italy and France, where they stayed in Benedictine monasteries, sparking yet another period of conversion and growth in faith.

“We came back with a real hunger to grow,” Penny says.

Both Penny and her husband enrolled in theological studies upon their return, with Penny’s studies broadening out to include education, spirituality and ministry. Upon completion of his theological studies, Penny’s husband John was ordained a deacon and appointed to Grovely Parish.

Penny also took up a position on the Parish Pastoral Team at Grovely Parish from 1995 to 2002. It was here that she first encountered and began to work with the Sisters of the Good Samaritan.

“I didn’t realise when I first met them that their spirituality was Benedictine,” Penny says. “When I discovered that, it was very exciting.”

However, Penny was faced with the greatest and most shattering challenge of her life in 2000, when her husband suddenly left her and his ministry. This devastating and unexpected event led her to undertake a Master of Counselling at the University of Queensland and then to work as a school counsellor, while still at Grovely Parish two days a week.

A very rewarding period followed, teaching in ministry at St Paul’s Theological College, but by 2008, after a period of ill health, Penny came home from a retreat with the sure knowledge that she needed to retire.

“I didn’t know what I wanted to do when I retired. But I’ve been flat out ever since,” she laughs.

Since ‘retirement’, Penny’s experiences have included counselling, working with people who are homeless, offering retreats for women, conducting seminars and working in the area of loss and grief.

“I’m passionate about helping people in loss and grief,” she says. “Stemming from my own experience, and from what I’ve learnt since, I believe there is such a capacity for people to experience inner transformation, growth and healing as a result of loss.”

Throughout Penny’s life journey, Benedictine spirituality has formed a constant backdrop, and in 2006, she undertook a course at the School for Spiritual Direction in Pecos Benedictine Monastery in New Mexico.

“Twenty five of us from a variety of Christian traditions were invited to immerse ourselves in the life of the monastery, sharing in the prayer, work, reading, study and leisure. It was just the most amazing experience, together with the wonderful course itself and the spiritual direction, reflection and emphasis on Benedictine spirituality that went with it.

“Then I discovered there were oblates at this monastery and I was very attracted to becoming an oblate there.”

Distance meant that this wasn’t possible, but when she returned home, Good Samaritan Sister, Ursula O’Rourke, who Penny had become friends with at St Paul’s Theological College, mentioned the possibility of becoming a Good Samaritan Oblate.

“And so I did become an oblate and it was in that context that the whole world of Benedict opened up to me,” she says. “Much of what the Rule [of Benedict] laid out resonated with my endeavour over so many years to prefer nothing to Christ, especially things like ‘Listening with the ear of the heart’. And hospitality, which is such a strong aspect of Benedictine spirituality, has always been a large part of my life.”

As she turns her mind again to facilitating the Good Samarian Partnership Gathering in Sydney in October, Penny says she will draw on this deep listening and hospitality, as well as an attentiveness to the Spirit.

“Every time I’ve done something new, I thought ‘I’m not prepared for this’,” she says. “But I realise now that ongoing conversion has been part of my life through the years – that experience of continually growing and being challenged – and I love that.”

Debra Vermeer

Debra Vermeer is a freelance journalist working in both Catholic and mainstream media.

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