posted on 25 September 2003
I am very happy to be with you today on the occasion of the Catholic Women of the Year celebration especially as it is your 35th birthday. So – first a special word of congratulation to your Chairman Angela and all those who are so generous with their time and energy on your, indeed on all our behalves.
This is a very special celebration of what it means to be Catholic, and to be women committed to all manner of practical, spiritual and pastoral good works in our community. Not only does the Church need your commitment and your particular gifts.
Our society needs them too. Frankly we need more like you. So hopefully some of you will still be here in another 35 years celebrating success – yes – but much more important the love and commitment which inspires other women, and men too, to give of themselves in the place they find themselves.
I will, if I may, say a word about the accomplishments of each of this year’s five “women of the year” - Dr Therese Vanier, Veronica and Sandra Williams, Dr Anne Carus and Wendy Hinds. I know that you were among another bumper bag of nominated candidates, all of whom would have been deserving winners, and many of whom are with us today as you have heard. So many congratulations on your election by the committee.
Dr Therese Vanier is distinguished not only as a former consultant haematologist, and member of a very remarkable family, but also as a woman of great courage, faith, and deep spirituality who has dedicated much of her life to the palliative and spiritual care of the dying [at St Christopher’s Hospice], and to the creation and nurturing of communities of love and friendship with people with severe learning disabilities – the L’Arche communites founded by her celebrated brother Jean Vanier. Therese, and all four of our recipients today really understand the meaning of a word we use perhaps too loosely – vocation. Vocation means discovering your life as a gift from God and living that gift unselfishly – literally as gift.
What a marvellous example [you are] to a world increasingly snared by the temptation to live within oneself, and for oneself.
Dr Anne Carus has dedicated herself to working with women in a very difficult area, which is the area of fertility and infertility. The gift of life begins with conception. For many women conception is an unfulfilled dream, and a source of considerable anguish and soul-searching. Anne is one of a vanguard of women and men using their specialist skills to help women experiencing the pain of infertility to try to overcome the physical barriers which may be preventing conception - without recourse to invasive, and morally evasive, techniques such as IVF. This is courageous and ground-breaking work, which has yet to be given the scientific recognition it deserves. I have no doubt that is only a matter of time.
Veronica and Sandra have also put their gifts at the service of women, in their case, mothers. As you will hear in a moment I owe a great deal to my mother, and in particular to her own deep faith, and the prayer life which sustained it, and her, through thick and thin. As the mother of five boys and one belated and greatly welcomed girl, there was plenty of thick and thin! Veronica and Sandra had the grace and the imagination to found a movement – Mother’s Prayers – specifically to encourage and to help busy mothers and grandmothers to pray for their children’s needs. The movement also encourages women to recognise that their children are also the children of a loving Father who is closer to them, particularly in times of need, than even a parent can be. The movement has proved to be an inspired and grace-filled one, which is bringing help and hope into the lives of thousands of worried mums and grand mums!.
Finally Wendy Hinds who, as I know from personal experience, is more than just one of those extraordinary women whose strength, energy and unswerving commitment keeps many a parish, and almost as many parish priests, going. Wendy is certainly that. But she is something more. She is a model of Christian love and selfless devotion. Des Sheehan, the new parish priest and the people of Tring are very fortunate to have Wendy as right hand woman. And I am sure she will not mind me saying that there are so many more dedicated women - and some men! - like her.
I am sure our recipients today would agree that most Catholics would be able to nominate at least one woman who would be deserving of nomination as a ‘woman of the year’. I mentioned before that I would like, if I may, to use this occasion to say a word or two about my mother. I have been working on a book which is due for publication next spring. That has had me thinking a bit about my life, and my faith journey, and time and again I found my thoughts coming back to my family life, and particularly to the inspiration and example of my mother.
In many ways she was a remarkable woman. After university in Cork where she studied French, my father, who was thirty-two, met her and within a fortnight had proposed and they were married and settled in Reading.
There are three things about my mother which seem to be distinctive and important. First of all, for her, her faith and her family came first. She looked after her children and the household and helped my father with the books and was an enormous support to him in his life as a medical practitioner. But she wanted her children to be well educated and she wanted that, not only because education was good in itself, but because she wanted her children to be able to hold their heads up high, and to have an influence on the society in which they lived and worked, namely, in this country. So culture was high on her list. It was why she had the thought of speaking French at lunch time. I can tell you, the conversation was not particularly sparkling but my poor mother did her best to raise the level on every occasion.
Secondly, she was ahead of her time in the ecumenical movement. Some of you may remember that Cardinal Hinsley began, with others, a movement which was called, The Sword of the Spirit. This was the first attempt at ecumenical cooperation in England. My mother was fully part of that movement, and eager to explore the possibilities of greater cooperation with our fellow-Christians.
And finally she realised that the Catholic Church in this country had its part to play in the evangelisation of our communities. She strove, perhaps unconsciously at times, to play her own part in that evangelisation in every possible way open to her, through family, friends, parish and the wider diocese. She was a woman who always looked on the work of the Church as part of her vocation as wife, mother, Catholic and citizen of this country.
Perhaps I shouldn’t say so but my mother was a remarkable and lovely woman and I must confess I would have her as ‘Woman of the Year’ any year.
Today we celebrate four remarkable women – five very gifted women, generous with themselves in the service of others. I am sure you share with me a vision of a Church and a wider community where the sharing of gifts is our natural, God-given reflex. One which, far from resisting, we do everything in our power and with God’s grace to fulfil because it is the key to human flourishing and the true expression of our communion.