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A life of dedication and service

Paul Dobbyn, a journalist with The Catholic Leader recently caught up with Mercy Sister Wendy Flannery (Brisbane) to talk about her life and commitment to social justice issues.

STORY by Paul Dobbyn*

Mercy Sister Wendy Flannery is probably one of a few teachers who can claim they had a pupil rush from a lesson to catch a waterfowl in a nearby creek for lunch. She was left rolling on the floor with laughter by this unexpected event, an early introduction to teaching life in Papua New Guinea.

Talking to Sr Wendy, it’s clear she immediately fell in love with the “amazing experience of crossing into another culture”, eventually becoming an executive officer of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Pacific Islands (CEPAC).

Her other experiences as a young nun, teaching at Yarapos Mercy Girls High School about eight kilometres from Wewak, proved equally formative.

She saw close-up the impact of multinational companies’ operations on the lifestyles of natives – the polluting of water supplies from gold mines, logging, and the nuclear testing which was still in full swing when she arrived in 1968.

“All the time I was questioning myself: ‘What am I bringing? What am I learning’? I was certainly not going as some sort of colonial mistress… in fact seeing such injustice really awoke my social conscience.”

To this day social justice issues are Sr Wendy’s great passion.

Living one week in the life of the Brisbane-born 64-year-old Mercy Sister would be enough to leave people half her age exhausted. Take September this year for example.

Sr Wendy attended some 20 events – from interfaith dialogues with Muslim women to climate justice campaigns, production of the regular Mercy Justice bulletin, presentations for Caritas and involvement in the development of an environmental policy for the Archdiocese of Brisbane.

Then there was production and circulation of the regular newsletter “Believing Women for a Culture of Peace” and, on September 29, a meeting with federal MP Wayne Swan on behalf of organisers of “The Big Switch” national pre-election campaign on climate change.

In a sense, Sr Wendy’s whole life has been a steady build-up to this intense level of commitment.

Her own background gave her sensitivity to the less privileged – her parents had made huge sacrifices to get their five children through good Catholic educations at Gregory Terrace and All Hallows’.

Her father worked in the Postmaster-General’s department (PMG) by day; was on call after hours to repair powerlines downed by storms and worked at a fruit shop on Sundays to ensure his children got ahead.

For her there was “always a sense of a calling to religious life”.

“I remember this from a very young age,” she said. “By the time I finished primary school, I was starting to think very seriously about what I felt was God’s calling.”

A bright, hardworking student, in junior she won a scholarship from the Education Department. This meant she was able to complete sub-senior and senior. (In the 1970s she would gain Masters of Arts degrees in theology/missiology and religious studies in Chicago.)

The Young Catholic Students (YCS) was a key influence during her school years. “The YCS had a concept that every Christian is called to be responsible in their daily lives for the state of society,” she said.

“The concept of the See… Judge… Act… approach to social problems was also an important one. I later discovered the Mercy order had a similar concept called Theological Reflection – reflection on the correct course of action in light of the Church’s teachings.”

While young Wendy was in the YCS she was also in the Legion of Mary, which had a “very dynamic” Mercy Sister as a leader. The group had two “interesting aspects” providing further formative influences.

“First, we had to go on visitations to those with mental illness at Wolston Park – this taught me how to interact with the marginalised and treat them with dignity.

“The Legion of Mary was also in dialogue with non-Latin rite Churches like the Maronites – this was in 1960, pre-Vatican II.”

At 18 years and six months, she entered a “fairly traditional novitiate”, and was professed at the start of 1965, the year of the Second Vatican Council.

The ferment in the mid-1960s Church made this a very questioning time for her along with many other religious. Her brother, studying in Chicago with the Divine Word Missionaries, had the first draft of the Pastoral Constitution of the Church in the Modern World, which was to become a key Vatican II document.

“This document was absolutely mind-blowing,” she said.

“Its opening paragraphs referred to the ‘theology of the signs of the times’, which was instantly familiar – presenting a way of discerning what the Christian calling is in a given environment.”

In 1968, after theological studies and secondary teacher training, she started teaching at All Hallows’ School in Brisbane.

Then Sr Wendy’s life was turned inside out. “I was sent to Papua New Guinea at the start of 1969,” she said.

“My father was stunned – he kept asking what I had done so wrong to be sent there. So it didn’t seem very promising. As it turned out I loved the experience. It gave me a different sense of the universal Church – how we can always be challenged by new ways of trying to live the Gospel in different cultures.”

During her six years in what many would see as a challenging environment, she fell ill with malaria (“You expect that. Just take a dose of whatever and get to bed. Anyway I was blessed with good genes from my mother and grandmother.”)

She was also threatened with a gun. (“That’s all I’ll say. It’s not really relevant to the current discussion.”)

Sr Wendy also had her healthy appetite tested on several occasions. “Once I was attending a CEPAC meeting in Samoa – I was on the western island Savaii, meeting different groups to discuss various projects.

“I had to eat three breakfasts in one morning – turning down offers of hospitality is something you don’t do in those parts; and anyway I’ve always enjoyed trying out different foods.”

And what does she rate her hardest task? “Probably working with the United Nations… having to deal with its bureaucratic complexity to make changes for the better in the lives of the poor,” she said.

She was a representative of the Mercy International Foundation to the UN from 1999-2002. Clearly very much a “doer”, Sr Wendy is very saddened by the fact that fear rules and limits so much of modern life.

“It’s all so very much a pile of ‘what if’s’ these days,” she said. “Plus our media gives Australian such a narrow view of the world. It’s all ‘infotainment’ and sensation with an increasing lack of respect for many cultures.”

Right now Sr Wendy is very involved in the Climate Justice Campaign being run by Friends of the Earth. “The way we’ve lived for the past 150 years in highly industrialised countries like Australia has had a huge impact on the Earth’s atmosphere and climate,” she said.

“Whether it’s the Inuits having PCP chemicals in their breast milk, or the Carteret Islanders having to leave their homes due to rising seas from global warming – the people who have contributed least to pollution are feeling it the most.

“We can do heaps to change our own lifestyle, and at least halt this damage to the planet and the vulnerable,” Sr Wendy said.

*This article was published in The Catholic Leader, Sunday October 21, 2007 and is re-published here with the permission of the Acting Editor.