Twenty years ago Pope John Paul II wrote in his Apostolic Letter on the Dignity and Vocation of Women (Mulieribus Dignitatem): 'From the beginning of Christ's mission, women show to him and to his mystery a special sensitivity which is characteristic of their femininity. It must also be said that this is especially confirmed in the Paschal Mystery, not only at the Cross but also at the dawn of the Resurrection.
'The women are the first at the tomb. They are the first to find it empty. They are the first to hear É They are the first to embrace his feet (cf. Mt 28:9). They are also the first to be called to announce this truth to the Apostles (cf. Mt 28:1-10; Lk 24:8-11) (MD, 16).'
It is easy for us to forget the real courage, daring and 'originality' of these holy female disciples of Jesus Christ. The Pope reminds us that these women, along with the Beloved John, stayed by Christ in his Passion on the Cross, while all the other Apostles took fright and denied their Lord, or ran away in despair.
They kept vigil by the Cross and became the first luminous beacons of the Resurrection.
In the Catholic medieval tradition and today in the Byzantine and Orthodox rites these women are honoured and each is remembered by name.
In the East they are called the Holy Myrrh Bearing Women. The Gospels tell us they risked danger, untold grief and the unknown in order to take expensive spices and oils from their own stores to anoint the Saviour's lifeless body.
The Holy Myrrh Bearers, made up of women of different ages, vocations and histories, were disciples of Christ, drawn together by concrete encounters with His saving and divine love. They also drew strength and inspiration together as women, manifesting what Pope John Paul II calls their 'feminine genius'.
These women are the guardian saints and spiritual mothers of the Anima Women's Network.
The Anima Women's Network Inc. is not merely a new activist or political organisation. Rather it serves as a personal and spiritual support network to women who are involved in diverse apostolates and vocations.
The network began with an open but simple plan in Melbourne during 2002 and 2003.
A feisty group of young Catholic women approached me with the complaint that although there was an endless and sometimes conflicting variety of social, professional, sub- cultural and quasi-political women's groups, there seemed to be nothing which fed a personally encouraging and spiritually-centred 'feminism' based on the ethos of the Gospels.
They needed an involvement that was realistic, smart, welcoming and concrete, but at the same time something which in their words, 'nurtured the heart of women' and challenged them to an alternative to secular and superficial models of 'femininity'.
All the women were already over-committed (not to mention over- burdened) with professional, family and social responsibilities and with life in general. It was therefore essential that Anima events were high on inspiration and low on organisational demand.
Anima's aim has been to welcome the often silent, isolated and hidden women of faith to events which would enable them, despite and even through their differences, to experience an inspiring sense of 'communio' and shared refreshment.
Anima reminds each woman of her God-given dignity and mystery and challenges her to develop her true vocation and fulfilment by hosting what we hope are both graceful and Grace-filled encounters with other women.
Anima aspires to recognise the many challenges of living in a secular (sometimes aggressively so) and fragmenting culture. We listen to the concerns of the women who are part of the network and from this provide 'spaces' in which they can talk, listen and share values and experiences.
Anima Conferences have addressed issues such as the relationship of women and children, St Thérse and her experience of depression, the theology of the body, the destructive reality of trafficking and prostitution, positive strategies for stress, the vital role of women in building a 'Culture of Life', Mary and the Eucharist, the healing touch of Christ, and women and the question of 'authentic' feminine beauty.
Keynote speakers have included: The Sisters for Life (from New York), Linda Watson (from Linda's House of Hope), Professor Janet Smith, Michelle Moran, Moira Kelly, Rita Joseph, Melinda Tankard Reist (Women's Forum Australia) and theologian and Schoenstatt Sister Isabel Neumann.
This year's Conference explored the particular instances of 'feminine genius' in the 'Land of the Holy Spirit', that is, Australia.
Sacraments and prayer
Anima also relies on the sacramental and prayer life of its members. Its conferences and educational programs (which are open to men) aim to deepen the knowledge, love and involvement in the faith and to highlight as models the great and holy figures of the Church's history and experience.
The latest development in the life of Anima has been a formal and very fruitful collaboration with the Catholic Women's League of Victoria and Wagga Wagga. This has brought to the Network a physical home and the wise heritage and 'the feminine genius' established across metropolitan and rural Australia over many decades.
Anna Krohn is convenor of the Anima Women's Network Inc. She is a part-time academic skills adviser at the John Paul II Institute in Marriage and Family (Melbourne) and is the co-ordinator of the Caroline Chisholm Library, Melbourne.
Email address for Anima Women's Network Inc: Animawomen_at_live.com.au