May 2020

Women – seen and not seen during a pandemic

When the gifts of women and men, equally made in God’s image and likeness, are brought together it is possible for great outcomes to be achieved, writes Sister Patty Fawkner.

Cometh the moment, cometh the leader. Around the world, in Oceania, Asia and Europe, we have witnessed displays of fine leadership in response to the coronavirus pandemic – consider New Zealand, Taiwan and Germany. What do they have in common? They are led by women.

NZ’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen and Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel have contained the pandemic with early decisive action informed by the best that science and medicine could offer. 

Here in Australia, New South Wales Premier Gladys Berejiklian has received bouquets for her state’s response to the pandemic. The NSW Chief Health Officer Kerry Chant and Victoria’s Health Minister Jenny Mikakos have emerged as authoritative, trusted sources of information.

Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and the French President Emmanuel Macron have been praised for their quick actions to reduce the spread of the deadly disease. Even our Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, has seen a dramatic lift in his approval rating, which had plummeted following the bushfire crisis earlier this year. In a recent Newspoll that asked how well Australia’s leaders were handling the coronavirus pandemic, Morrison scored a 68% approval rating.

The leadership of these women and men has been outstanding when juxtaposed with that of the ‘strongmen’ of Brazil, the Philippines, Russia and the USA.

The female leaders appear to have garnered a high level of public trust and are able to urge their citizens to adopt real sacrifices for the common good. Their strength, compassion and warmth have come to the fore. Who will ever forget Jacinda Ardern reminding her Kiwi citizens that the Easter Bunny and the Tooth Fairy were essential services! 

To become a political leader, a woman has to be exceptional. A female leader endures extra scrutiny and critique far beyond those of her male counterparts. Just pause and ponder for a moment, what the media and public response may have been if Theresa May was still Prime Minister of Britain and had boasted of shaking hands with coronavirus patients as did Boris Johnson, who later contracted the disease and was near death?

In leading the response to the pandemic, women are highly visible – the high percentage of women in the essential services of nursing, aged care and child care, not to mention teachers who, with dedication and innovation, have become masters of teaching in a digital world. It is sadly ironic that these key professions are historically underpaid and undervalued. Let’s not forget the working mothers who have added home schooling to their already crammed daily schedule.

Unfortunately, with the increase of domestic violence, women are also bearing a high level of pandemic lockdown pain.

It occurs to me that the welcome growing visibility of women in the public sphere at this time highlights their near invisibility in the realm of religion. The image of Catholicism as clerical and male has been magnified during the pandemic. This was especially evident over Easter when virtual community numbers swelled to watch streamed Easter ceremonies. Various levels of social distancing restrictions will be in place for some time and the availability of online Masses will continue. 

It is a shame that more attention has not been given to encourage families and communities to pray the Liturgy of the Hours and family Scripture-based prayer services, rather than watching Father “say Mass” online. Christ is present where two or three are gathered in his name. Christ is present in the Word.

A week before the lockdowns in Australia, a group of 20 or so Good Samaritan Sisters came together from interstate and abroad for a weekend gathering. On Saturday evening we conducted a Liturgy of the Word, and because we had a number of hosts in the tabernacle in our chapel, we could have communion. We chose a Sister to lead our celebration. Cometh the moment, cometh the leader.

After the Gospel, which happened to be that wonderful story of the Samaritan Woman at the Well, we sat in silence, and then turned to each other in small groups, sharing our reflection on the Word. We recited the Creed, prayed our Prayers of Intercession, and then picked up the ritual at the Our Father. We received communion; our presider blessed us; we sang our final hymn and departed. It was simple, it was beautiful, and it was nourishing.

When the gifts of women and men – equally made in God’s image and likeness – are brought together there are great outcomes as evidenced by the actions of political leaders and health experts during the pandemic. Look at what happens when women have the opportunity to lead.

This last week, I have had the privilege as a member of the Executive of Catholic Religious Australia of attending the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference Plenary – 11 Zoom sessions in all. I was highly visible as the only female attendee with 30-plus Bishops! I enjoyed being with these fine men; I was included; my opinion was respected; and I shared their concerns and hopes for our Church.  

The recommendations contained in the Royal Commission’s final report for the Church to achieve better outcomes for people at risk highlight an increased role for women’s voices to be heard. Encouragingly, more and more women are being appointed to positions of real influence in the Church, but from the perspective of the wider congregation, women Church leaders remain invisible and silent. Would that the “new normal” on the other side of the pandemic be otherwise.

Patty Fawkner

Sister Patty Fawkner is a former Congregational Leader of the Sisters of the Good Samaritan. She is an adult educator, writer and facilitator with formal tertiary qualifications in arts, education, theology and spirituality. Patty is interested in exploring what wisdom the Christian tradition has for contemporary issues. She has an abiding interest in questions of justice and spirituality.

If you would like to republish this article, please contact the editor.