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Mission at the Margins – The Call to Uncommon Courage; Debra Zanella presents closing keynote

By Alice Cronin, for Catholic Social Services Victoria 

Debra Zanella provided the closing keynote at the national conference for Catholic social services, Serving Communities with Courage and Compassion. She explored the role of modern-day prophets amidst the current milieu of Catholic social service provision. As CEO of Ruah Community Services and President of the Western Australian Council of Social Services, Debra was able to bring both her vast experience and learnings from key influential people to the table, as she implored those present to do the same.

Inspired by Joan Chittister’s work, The Time Is Now: A Call to Uncommon Courage, she challenged us to consider what a prophet is, does and stands for. She proposed that, while not all people of faith are called to be prophets, we are all called to be carriers of prophetic messages – a notion true of both individuals and organisations.

She asked if we, as members of faith-based, mission-driven organisations are courageous enough to look at life how it is and set out to expand it; to risk exclusion by calling out acts of injustice and the underlying structures and systems feeding them, and to risk being silenced or labelled ‘difficult’ by those being held accountable. She exemplified such courage by way of reference to notable figures who have walked the prophetic road in the social service landscape such as Joan Chittister, Eddie Mabo and Malala Yousafzai.

Debra also spoke of the important role of women in the Catholic church today. Women, who are considered responsible for passing on the values and principles of the church to children, who are suffering – and succumbing – to domestic violence on a weekly basis and about whom a deeper theology is required. The need for greater recognition of women was made clear as Debra highlighted the yearning of women to participate and lead on an equal footing with men.

As so distinctly put by Debra, the Catholic church is ready for a new paradigm. The calling to do things differently is strong – not by way of lecturing but by demonstrating, advocating and inspiring. Debra left those present with a lasting question in their minds, as so humbly put by Joan Chittister:

“What will you do here and now, in this world, in our time? Will you simply stand there looking on?”

An edited version of the presentation will be available in the upcoming conference book. This book will be launched in late 2020 and will contain key materials from the conference, with each lecture, panel discussion, forum or workshop from Serving Our Communities with Courage and Compassion developed into a stand-alone chapter. There will be a number of launches throughout Australia. More information will be provided on the Catholic Social Services Victoria website and to conference participants when available.

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