May 2019

Lay church leadership is realised one slippery rock at a time

Pauline Connelly reflects on the challenges of lay leadership at a time when the church’s hierarchy and structures are being destabilised.

­By Pauline Connelly

In June 2017, I travelled to Medjugorie to do a spiritual pilgrimage with a woman called Immaculee Ilibigaza, a survivor of the Rwandan genocide in the 1990s.

Despair and terror were her constant companions, but during this time Immaculee began to have mystical experiences with Our Lady, which became transformative and led to her complete healing afterwards along with her ability to personally forgive those who massacred her parents and siblings.

I was very excited about this trip to Medjugorie, having read Immaculee’s book and the prospect of spending eight days with her… and about climbing Apparition Hill and reaching the top where Our Lady has been appearing since the late 1980s.

When the time came for us to begin the climb, we walked through the village we were staying in and onto the beginning of the hill and I was shocked with what greeted me.

With my troublesome knees how would I ever be able to negotiate this; a path consisting entirely of slippery, angular rocks and small boulders for the entire trip upwards.

There are no handrails, no easy way, but there was evidence that others had struggled and found a way.

During this time in the church, I feel like we are all on that rocky path, trying to find our feet through the jagged pieces of shock, disillusionment, shame, anger and fear, and we keep walking, looking for signs of hope along the way.

It certainly is a vulnerable feeling when the structure under your feet feels not as secure as you are used to.

As a lay woman, I don’t have a vested interest in the structures of the church as they exist today. I am not after power or a career in the church as such.

I am frustrated beyond belief. I am trying to discover how to most effectively use my voice. I am trying to be an encourager while, at the same time, I do not want to minimise people’s experiences.

I am trying to be a listener. I am trying to offer hope.

I am trying to trust myself to be the person my God wants me to be.

But I feel heavily the constraints of the machinery of the administration and hierarchy of the church in Rome, and the emphasis on unbroken tradition.

Am I brave enough to publicly challenge some of this?

I remember once reading a quote from a bishop about his thoughts on the laity and they were to ‘pray, pay and obey’, ‘and we did’ said an older friend of mine.

It jars doesn’t it?

Joan Chittister, a Benedictine feminist religious sister, talks about being both a lover and a challenger of the church, and that every age that is dying is a new age coming to life.

So as lay people we are trying to move forward without the road being defined, as we try to live out the life of Jesus in this time of the 21st century.

I have been challenged by so many people over the last few months about why I choose to stay in this church.

My answer is that it’s the most meaningful way I can encounter Jesus.

I need to separate the problems with the institution from my spiritual life, and enter deeper into the centre of my faith.

I feel like we are living in the time similar to the earliest church, where the women and men apostles were heckled and attacked for being followers of Jesus, and the toughest thing for me today, is that a lot of the heckling is coming from family and friends who are so angry and let down.

I understand they are not attacking me personally, and I agree with what they are saying about the wrongs of the church before us, but I want to find another way to deal with it other than having something raging constantly within me.

I am determined to speak against the wrongs of the Church and empathise with those who are suffering because of it; but I yearn to be with Jesus, and I can only truly find that in the most intimate way through the Eucharist, through the beautiful ritualistic sacraments of the church and through each one of you, my community.

The sacraments become my solace, even though the mistakes made in the name of my Church shake me to the core. I choose to look at it is through the experiences that lift my heart.

My heart burns within when I am with the sisterhood, with women religious, with my spirit filled female friends, whose zeal, honesty, highly evolved and feminist spirituality and joy in Jesus, attracts the light and sparkles within.

I treasure my experiences of grace when I am with faith-filled, generous and loving priests and bishops.

God remains the same. Jesus remains the same. I trust in that constancy and security.

But I want the church to change, and when I say the church, I mean the hierarchy. I want governance structures to change, I want accountability of episcopal decisions and leadership, and I want kindness, inclusiveness and respect.

The facts are the structure does not allow for women leadership in the truest sense, but I generally experience sincerity, good intent and respect from the clergy with which I work, and I am grateful for the women that have gone before me, who would have faced greater hurdles than I, in order for this to be my experience.

I can remember being at one of my first executive of the Curia (senior leaders of the archdiocese) meetings many years ago, when the archbishop was explaining the role of deacons and how we were planning to ordain deacons for our archdiocese.

I said, “Archbishop I’d be really interested in doing something like that.”

He looked at me with a curious smile and said, “Pauline this is only for men.”

And that was the beginning of my awakening as a female leader in the church.

But that awakening was a good thing, because once I become aware of the reality of my context, I could then pray, strategise and act.

For me, the power we have to effect change, is in the moment we are in, with the person we are with.

We can’t change the way of the church at large, but we are the church and can begin by looking at what needs to be changed in us, and how can we be a light to the person next to us.

We have to be able to bear this time and climb this hill one slippery rock at a time.

This is an edited version of a speech Pauline gave as part of St Ignatius Parish’s Lenten forums. The full speech available at


Pauline Connolly

Pauline Connelly is the Deputy Director of Centacare Catholic Family Services and Chancellor of the Archdiocese of Adelaide. She was recently appointed to an expert panel that will conduct a national review of the governance and management structures of Catholic dioceses and parishes in response to the Royal Commission.

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