Catholic Communications, Sydney Archdiocese REPORT
8 Mar 2013
Catholic Women's Interfaith Fellowships celebrate women and create leaders
across Australia
Women across Australia make a rich contribution to the Church. They are our primary evangelisers, instilling their love of God in their children. At a grass roots level women are also sources of inspiration not only to their children but to their families and communities and are the ones who live the Catholic ethos and celebrate their faith each and every day. 
"In parishes and communities across the country, women really make a difference and today which is International Women's Day we want to pay tribute to them and celebrate the feminine genius as well as the role of women in the Church," says Donella Johnston, Director for the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference's (ACBC) Office for the Participation of Women (OPW).
Donella also wants to pay tribute to Australia's forward-thinking Catholic Bishops who more than a decade ago not only recognised the tremendous contribution made to the Church by women, but established what is believed to be the world's first-ever OPW to support and encourage women and through fellowships and other initiatives, give them opportunities for faith formation, theological study and leadership training.
As far as is known, other than Germany which recently founded an office similar to Australia's OPW, there are no other initiatives that have been specifically set up to build on the important role played by women in the Church.
Over the past three years 20 women in Sydney have entered religious life
"Back in 1996 Australia's bishops had a prophetic vision for the role of women in our Church. This was the year they commissioned a report focussing on the participation of women in the Australian Church," Donella explains.
Entitled: Woman and Man: One in Christ Jesus, the comprehensive wide-ranging report was released in 1999 and examined the different ways women participated in the Church, the assistance and support offered, the barriers to participation and ways that participation could be increased.
"The Church needs their gifts in all its life and mission," the Bishops announced and said the Report had revealed that many women felt frustrated at not being able to participate as fully as they would like and how they would like to be more involved in decision making in the Church and different areas of Church life and ministry.
At the start of the Millennium in 2000, the ACBC devoted its Social Justice Statement to the findings of the report and hope for the future, and the following year established the Office for the Participation of Women.
The first-ever Director of OPW was the much mourned and missed, Therese Vassarotti who died late last year at age 62 after a brief and courageous battle against acute myeloid leukaemia.
Donella Johnston Director of the National Office for the Participation of Women
"She was a true pioneer and a wonderful role model for Catholic women and girls," says Donella. "Therese was not only a true leader and highly regarded theologian and educator, but a daughter, wife, sister, mother and grandmother and a lifelong champion of women."
Faith was the wellspring of Therese's life and when she took up the role as Director of OPW she said one of her primary goals would be to "have men and women making decisions together and sharing their wisdom."
She also wanted to ensure to give a voice to those people who felt disenfranchised and to ensure they were not only listened to but heard.
"Therese was a true pioneer," says Donella who took over the role of Director in December 2011, describing her appointment as a "great honour and privilege."
Over the past 16 months, Donella has built on the legacy of Therese and is extremely proud and pleased that today there is at least one if not more women acting as OPW liaisons and representatives in every diocese across Australia. She is also thrilled with the ongoing success of the Young Catholic Women's Interfaith Fellowships where women from across the country enter a two year program to obtain a post-graduate degree in theology, deepen their faith and train as community leaders.
"Since 2006, when the program first began, we have had 27 women complete the program. Of this number, 21 are now employed by the Catholic Church in leadership positions with some working in Catholic Education, others are in health care as Directors of Mission or Coordinators of Mission. Still others are working with their Dioceses in Social Justice roles and in Interfaith initiatives," she says.
Therese Vassarotti will be remembered for her faith-filled life and contribution to the Church
This year a further 17 women have been given Fellowships which cover all costs of tuition, accommodation and travel during the part time studies over the next two years as well as the five retreats where they join together to discuss what they have learned and support one another.
In addition to supporting women of faith and encouraging them to share their skills, wisdom and gifts, OPW also promotes gender equality in the developing world, speaks out against gendercide and fights to eliminate gender disparity in education at both primary and secondary school levels as well as battling to eradicate poverty, reduce child mortality and improve health education.
Donella believes the establishment of an OPW is a reflection of the open mindedness of Australians and our pioneering spirit and believes much of this is due in part to the inspiration and legacy of St Mary of the Cross MacKillop.
Inspired by faith, courageous and determined St Mary of the Cross MacKillop founded schools for the poor, visited men and women in prison, championed the plight of women forced into prostitution and poverty, and founded the Congregation of the Sisters of St Joseph of the Sacred Heart, one of the world's first religious orders not to live in a convent but to live and work among those they helped and cared for.
To celebrate International Women's Day 2013, OPW and the Council for Australian Catholic Women have created prayers and resources for parishes across Australia either today or on Sunday, 10 March when many Churches will pay tribute to women.
These resources can be downloaded at