A love of learning and teaching has underpinned the life and ministry of Sister Catherine McCahill SGS, the newly installed Superior of the Sisters of the Good Samaritan, and this, she says, together with a daily openness to listening for God’s voice and presence in the community will form the foundation of her time in leadership.
Catherine was installed as Congregational Leader in a liturgy at St Scholastica’s Chapel in Glebe on 25 September, following her election during the 27th Chapter in August. The new Council members, Sisters Meg Kahler, Ann-Maree Nicholls, Michelle Reid and Kathleen Spokes were also installed.
“It was a wonderful occasion,” Catherine said. “It was interesting to have it take place some weeks after the election. I think having that space in between helped us all to absorb what had taken place and, for me personally, allowed me to be very intentional about what was happening on the day.”
The reading for the liturgy was from Isaiah 50:4: “The Lord God has given me the tongue of a teacher, that I may know how to sustain the weary with a word. Morning by morning he wakens – wakens my ear to listen as those who are taught.”
In her address on the day, Catherine said the reading held great meaning for her.
“You have chosen me and asked me to be your Superior and now I have made a solemn commitment to stand and act in that role. It is a free decision on your part and on my part as well. But it is only possible in God,” she told her Sisters.
“So, for today, I have chosen this reading from Isaiah II: Morning by morning God wakens – wakens my ear to listen as those who are taught.
“So often in the Scriptures and in the Rule of Benedict we are urged to ‘Listen’, to listen to God, to open our ears. We need to be roused and we need to listen.
“However, this short verse reminds us that it is God’s work, God takes the initiative. God wakens me, God wakens each of us. I love this idea of God waking me each day, of waking my ear … The final part of the verse is just as significant. God wakens my ears as those who are taught. We could say so that my ears are those of a learner, of a disciple.”
During the liturgy, Catherine was asked if she was willing to serve the community with both its gifts and limitations, to be a visible sign of unity and of Christ’s presence in its midst, and to call the community to participate more deeply in God’s mission.
“I am, trusting in God and my sisters,” she replied.
She then accepted the signs of her office: A copy of the Rule of St Benedict, the Rule of Archbishop John Bede Polding, the Constitutions of the Congregation and the 2023 Statement of Directions.
Her predecessor, Sister Patty Fawkner, gave Catherine the Oil of Healing and a copy of the icon Christ Embracing the Abbot, symbolising her compassionate leadership in ‘holding the place of Christ in the monastery.’ (RB 2.2)
Following Catherine’s installation, the new Council was installed and the community committed itself formally to the new leadership.
“Three past superiors were present,” Catherine said. “And at the end, the four of us walked out together, which was a lovely moment.”
Catherine said her 12 years serving on the Council had given her experience and confidence in leadership, but she was mindful of also starting afresh, according to the current needs.
“Those years formed me and prepared me, as did all the other experiences I’ve had,” she said.
Catherine was born in Townsville, the eldest of six children, and was educated there by the Good Samaritan Sisters at St Margaret Mary’s Primary School and St Margaret Mary’s College.
She went on to begin a Bachelor of Education at James Cook University, but after her first year, at age 19, Catherine decided to join the Good Samaritan Sisters. It wasn’t until after her novitiate in Sydney, in 1983, that she returned to Townsville to complete her degree, this time wearing a religious habit.
“From a young age I would say I had a desire for seeking God,” she said.
“I had been impressed by the Sisters’ sense of purpose at school. We had a fairly large community of Sisters, all with different personalities, but a common purpose, to give us the best opportunities they could. These women had been of real service to God and the community, and I wanted to be a part of that.
“I also had a sense that I’ve only got one life, so I’m going to try to do as well as I can with this life I’ve been given.”
Catherine’s first teaching placement was at Santa Maria College in Melbourne where she taught chemistry and religious education. From there she moved to South Australia and taught for five years at Sacred Heart College in Adelaide, and a further three years at St John’s College (now Samaritan College) in Whyalla.
After obtaining a theology degree, Catherine spent six months in Japan at Seiwa College, before returning to Sydney to teach at Mount St Benedict College in Pennant Hills.
In 2006, after completing her doctorate on Jesus as teacher in the Fourth Gospel, Catherine moved into tertiary education and was appointed Academic Dean at Yarra Theological Union, while also teaching courses in Scripture and religious education.
Catherine said her doctoral thesis brought together her passion for biblical study and religious education. Underpinning her thesis was her “fundamental belief that the ultimate purpose of biblical study is deeper knowledge and love of the God of Jesus”.
Catherine has also played a significant role in the governance of Good Samaritan Colleges, most recently through Good Samaritan Education, established in 2011, and has been instrumental in the Congregation’s ecological initiatives.
Throughout all this, Catherine said love of the learning environment had been a constant in her ministry.
“I liked teaching and I still do it,” she said. “I see myself as a learner and I like to encourage that in others. I’ll often stop and ask a staff member if they learnt anything today because that’s what it’s all about, isn’t it?
“In the Rule of Benedict and in our own Constitutions, it says that a very significant part of the Congregational Superior’s role is to be teacher and I want to exercise that in a variety of ways.”
Catherine said her hopes for her term as Superior were derived from the Statement of Directions and will come to life through the community itself.
“The Statement of Directions shows us that by drawing deeply on the gift of our Tradition, the Gospel and the Rule, we can be women of compassion for our world, wherever we are,” she said. “And so many aspects of this will be realised in partnering with others.
“I hope that each Sister realises that wherever she is, she can be a person of hope in her situation, along with each person who works with us, Oblates, partners and friends. We are more than the sum of individuals. We are a community.
“I’m also grateful that I’m not called to do any of this on my own. I couldn’t do this without a good strong Council and people who will tell me when I’ve made a mistake.
“I have some of the gifts needed at this time, but the five of us together have the gifts needed at this time, together with all those we work and partner with.
“I think our guiding question really is: How do we find the Truth together and discover God’s mission? If we keep asking that question together, then together we will find it.”