International Women’s Day: Faith and trust in women as co-labourers

As we approach International Women’s Day on 8 March, Jesuit and Ignatian Spirituality Australia Mission Formation Coordinator Frances Tilly explores how the Australian Jesuit Province might better promote and support women in its ministries, particularly in light of the Universal Apostolic Preferences released last year.

‘A cup must be empty before it can be filled.

If it is already full, it can’t be filled again except by emptying it out.

In order to fill anything, there must be a hollowed-out space.

Otherwise it can’t receive.’

William Breault SJ, Hearts on Fire, Praying with Jesuits.


Women hold significant roles in Province leadership as Delegates, Members of the Ministries Commission, Heads of Ministry, Chairs of Boards and Councils, with many more employed and volunteering in every Province Ministry. It is clear to me that we have a substantial Australian story to tell about the opportunities for leadership and the engagement of women in the Province at this time. Indeed, one might ask, how are our presence and approach shaping and contributing to the evolving narrative of the Ignatian community and our call to serve the mission of Christ in the world?

The recent GC 36 summons us to dare the audacity of the impossible. What could this mean for us in terms of our relationships as Jesuits and women in the Province? How might we ‘concretely’ deepen our relationships in the spirit of the UAPs, to nurture a genuine reciprocity among us, with ebb and flow, into and through our service of the excluded and the young and in caring for our common home? What difference could this make all round?

(From left) Jesuit Communications Director Monika Lancucki and Jesuit College of Spirituality CEO-Principal Deborah Kent at the Province Gathering in 2019.

Ignatius experiences God as an intimate love force seeking just such a dynamic mutual relationship, personally, with all creatures and creation (Sp Ex #230). Furthermore he discovers a loving way, acatamiento, ‘loving humility, and with it reverence and affectionate awe’ (Spiritual Diary 178-79). He claims this as the approach for every relationship. ‘It seemed to be the best of all and the one I ought to follow always’ (Spiritual Diary 157, 62). There’s a quiet delicacy and tender attention in Ignatius’ grace-filled understanding: openness to the mystery of the other, at once deep and expansive. I believe this loving way can release a superabundance of energy through the Province, calling forth into life and visibility our diverse giftedness as women, laymen and Jesuits. As Beatrice Bruteau writes in ‘The Grand Option’: ‘Each member of the person-community is a sheer “I am”. This same “I am” is, simultaneously and equally, basically a radiant “May you be” – that is, the will (and the act) to extend being and life.’

From my experience in the ministry of the Spiritual Exercises I know there is great appetite, not least among women, for such connection and co-labouring. Yet as Bruteau also understands, ‘we can take only one step at a time, beginning from the inside, and discover in living experience the new creature. One’s attitude … has to be a combination of relentless and courageous forward pressure and imperturbable patience.’

When I received the unexpected invitation to write this reflection, I wanted to bring forward the voices of many women. I wrote to some women who gathered last year at the Provincial’s invitation to talk about their experience of working in the Province. I wrote to other Ignatian women. I am grateful for their responses. Tendrils of a richer, even prophetic conversation.

One spoke of Michelangelo’s Pietà: Mary, holding in her arms the body of her crucified son. That’s what the women of the church are doing today, she said, holding that body, loving him, present to it all. Others considered three spare words, ‘Mary set out’ (Lk 1:39). Mary on the move, going to Elizabeth, urgent, purposeful, seeking mutual connection. Others noted a positive shift in the cultural attitudes in the Province towards women over the past ten years, including giving women significant leadership roles, and appreciation of the Jesuits’ commitment in previous Congregations to ‘Work with Women.’ 

Here we audaciously and respectfully raise some concrete suggestions:

  • Let’s continue giving witness to Jesuits working in partnership with women colleagues, as a reciprocal, creative, generative, enjoyable dimension of ministry.

  • Let’s continue to go out together on mission, visibly, intentionally. Jesus sent his disciples out in pairs. In the gospel we find used the same Greek word for the ‘pairs’ sent into Noah’s ark, male and female.

  • Let’s expand the horizon of our understanding of vocation in the Province. Could we expand the field of vision to promote and nurture all vocations, not just those to the priesthood and Jesuit life? Let’s open a Province conversation about lay vocation in service of our people and the accompaniment of young people, women and men. Could the Province appoint a lay woman to a shared vocations leadership role (co-delegate?) to further this approach?

  • Could the Province endorse funding support and scholarships to enable women to engage in serious ongoing study and formation for ministry leadership, to gain qualifications, for example, in theology, the giving of the Spiritual Exercises and pastoral ministry?

  • Consider inviting women into appropriate Consult deliberations.

  • Hold major Province gatherings outside the school holidays in respect of precious family time.

  • Bring together Province women for focused conversations, discernment and networking.

  • Be curious about our experience and ask questions.

Finally, returning to the metaphor of the empty cup, this poem by Marlene Marburg, ‘Preparing for the Birth of Christ’, offers another glimpse of a way forward in the deep story of our Christian tradition:

With the disposition of Joseph,
we can find hope in anything.

One thing Joseph has (which many don’t)
is faith in one young woman.
Joseph believes her.
he entrusts himself to her.

He knows her promise and his dream:

 Anointed to be alabaster vessels
open for Christ.


By Frances Tilly, Coordinator Mission Formation, Jesuit and Ignatian Spirituality Australia.