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Alumni Highlight: Kathleen Ancker

In the Gospel of Mark, Jesus is asked: “Which commandment is the first of all? (12:28b).  Jesus answers:  “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength.  The second is this.  You shall love your neighbor as yourself. There is no other commandment greater than these” (Mark 12: 28b-31).  The theme for the Catholic Women’s League of Canada, Here I am Lord.  Send Me (Isaiah 6:8), resonates with the joy that the love of God and the love of neighbor brings, but it also reminds us that with love, comes service

In July of 2018, after 25 years of working in the Catholic Faith Sector, I retired as the Director of National Development for Catholic Missions In Canada, an organization that supports the work of missionaries in 25 dioceses across our country.  Each day, my work filled me with the knowledge that I was advancing God’s kingdom here on earth.  Retirement and down-sizing, however, meant moving from Newmarket in the Archdiocese of Toronto to a log cabin in the woods in the Diocese of Peterborough.  I was a wife, a mother of 4 adult children, as well as a grandmother to 6 delightful little monkeys (aka my grandchildren).  Where was God leading me in this next stage of my life? 

For the past 47 years, I have been a relatively inactive member of the CWL.  Upon moving into my new community, where everyone was a stranger, I decided to join the CWL Council at the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary Parish in Grafton.  Like so many other CWL Councils across the country, this group relies heavily on a small core of faithful women, most well-over the age of 70.  With each passing year, the numbers of active members dwindle.  Unless we can attract younger members, my Council will soon cease to exist.   Elections are fraught with tension:  “Who can we persuade/cajole/arm twist into becoming the next President?  Anyone will do, as long as it’s not me!”  Sound familiar? 

Councils across Ontario and across Canada are struggling with the same issues.  The fact is that women, no matter what their accomplishments may be, often lack the confidence to even consider taking on a leadership role.  Despite my 25 years of leadership in the Catholic arena, I was one of them.  In 2022, the Catholic Women’s Leadership Foundation accepted my application to join the 5th Cohort of the Leadership Program at the Providence School of Transformative Leadership and Spirituality.  The Foundation’s explicit purpose:  to empower Catholic women with increased leadership skills and with the confidence to create change and impact based on Catholic values…as a more collaborative vision for Church leadership [both men and women together] is gradually realized”  (CWLF). 

Before I began the course, I reviewed the resumes of the other participants.  I was extremely humbled to be among them.  What could this course possibly teach any of these very successful women with proven leadership skills in the real world?  As the course progressed, however, I realized that a severe lack of confidence and vulnerability to criticism by both male and female peers and superiors alike, had far too often caused us to doubt, to question, to even quash, our attempts to use our distinctly feminine leadership skills.  It became clear that, as women, we must recognize and champion our unique strengths as leaders.  No longer can we blindly sit and wait for a Great Man whose “superior intellect, heroic courage, [or] extraordinary leadership abilities” (Wikipedia) will save us.  Carolyn Shields states that as women leaders, we must accept the responsibility to “deconstruct knowledge frameworks of the past that perpetuated inequality and injustice and reconstruct [them] in more equitable ways” (Transformative Leadership).  Shields admits “It certainly won’t be easy.”  No kidding!    At this point, I think it fair to say that I was feeling a little overwhelmed at the task ahead.   

If you ever have doubts that God intended women to participate in the leadership in his Church, however, consider Jesus’ leadership as an example to follow.  Two thousand years ago, Jesus lived in a society where women were both demeaned and disregarded by the cultural beliefs of their own time and space (Thomas Groo

me, To Teach (and Learn) as Jesus Did).  Yet all three gospels attest to the fact that the women at the foot of the cross in Calvary had “followed Jesus from Galilee” (Matthew 27:55) over the three-year period of His public ministry.  Jesus chose these women to be his disciples, and as such, future leaders of His Church.  Our Blessed Mother Mary was Jesus’ first disciple and he sought her Good Counsel throughout His life.  Jesus chose Mary Magdalene to be the first witness to his resurrection (Mark 16:9); in fact, Mary Magdalene is known today as “the apostle to the apostles” (Groome).   Two thousand years later, despite the many gains we have made as women, male chauvinism still exists, particularly in the realm of leadership.   


Leadership is changing, however, in large part due to the failures of leadership in the past to resolve—sometimes even cause—the world’s many problems.  Jennifer Fiebig and Jennifer Christopher, in their leadership analysis state: “Relational leadership traits, long associated with female leaders, are now openly acknowledged as ‘necessary attributes for exceptional leaders’” (Female Leadership Styles).  Rasmus Hougaard and Jacqueline Carter state that compassionate leaders, once considered by traditional business paradigms as weak and emotional, are now perceived as better and stronger leaders, encouraging “true following, trust and engagement” (The Mind of the Leader).    All this leads me to conclude that as women, we can no longer sit safely on the side lines.  We must take up the cloak of leadership, with all the responsibilities and hardships this entails.  Only by working together, both men and women, can we secure the promise of peace and justice for all people in every social, political, legal and economic relationship (Groome).  And only then, can we achieve God’s kingdom here on Earth.   

Margaret Wheatley’s challenge seems to have written itself on my very soul: “This is the age of retreat:  from one another, from values that held us together, from ideas and practices that encouraged inclusion, from faith in leaders, from belief in basic human goodness…As [women] leaders, we have a choice.  We can courageously and willingly step forward to serve, or we can withdraw into denial and self protection” (Who Do You Choose To Be?  An Invitation to the Nobility of Leadership).   

So, who do I choose to be?  After ‘graduation’, I eagerly awaited God’s call to do something great or important.  Today, however, I have learned to simply open my mind and my soul to saying “yes” to the many small things I can do in my own parish to further God’s kingdom—such as agreeing to be the next president-elect for my Council or by organizing an annual parish “yard sale” to raise money to support our Church and local community needs.  As Mother Teresa in her great wisdom reminds me, “Not all of us can do great things, but we can do small things with great love.”  Whatever the task, big or small, I pray that I will give it all my heart, all my soul, all my mind, and all my strength.  Here I am Lord.  Send me! 

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