A Vision from God

Vanessa Comninos was an optometrist, helping people with their physical vision. But one day, her sister reminded her of Jesus’ call to Simon Peter, “drop your nets and follow me”. So Vanessa set out into the deep to help people with their spiritual vision: to see God and for God to see them. That was how she made peace with leaving her first career.

Vanessa sharing a reflection at Mass in the Cathedral about the hope of the opening of the Synod.

It all started a long time ago, however. Vanessa had always been part of the Church, growing up in a Catholic world during primary, secondary and university education. She “felt loved as a child of God and cared for, that there was a place for me in God’s Church and community”. This anchor of faith remained throughout her various travels and places of residence: from South Africa, to England, to the Netherlands, to New Zealand and finally to Australia.

Vanessa settled in Brisbane with her husband and two daughters in 2010. At the time, she was “like a panting deer – thirsting for a community, for a church, for God.” And in answer to her prayer, while changing her daughter’s nappy, Vanessa heard some singing across the road. She hurried over and discovered a Mass in the school chapel, where a priest had been sent to start a new Catholic community. 

Back then, there were only a few attendees at Our Lady of the Southern Cross Parish, Springfield, but soon the congregation had grown too big for the chapel and moved to the school hall. Throughout the years, Vanessa volunteered in music ministry, children’s ministry, youth ministry and the sacramental program. As her children grew, she wanted them to understand their loved identity in Christ and for other children in the community to experience the same.  

Then, in 2016, her priest discerned and invited Vanessa to become part of his leadership team. She reflected, “the power of the Holy Spirit touched my heart in a way like never before; I was called to be a missionary disciple, not only for my local community of Springfield but for the world.” The next year she was offered a day a week of parish work and her ministry involvement increased, bringing “so much hope and joy”. 

Finally, Vanessa came to a time of decision like Simon Peter. Her optometry workplace changed ownership and it was the right time to leave. Looking back, it was no coincidence. Vanessa followed her sister’s advice to “drop her nets” and give herself fully to church ministry. As she took on the role of Director of Evangelisation, she discovered “a call within a call.” She knew that she was called to married life and motherhood, but there was something more. 

Vanessa speaking in her church about their parish strategy.

This vague calling became clearer in 2017, when Vanessa took a youth group to the Australian Catholic Youth Festival in Sydney. She found it hard to explain, but described a mystical experience during the celebration of a Mass. During the eucharistic prayer, Vanessa looked up to see women standing around the altar with the priest. It was a mystery until, looking up again, they appeared as they were – male permanent deacons. However, at the next Mass, the same thing happened. Vanessa asked God what it might mean, and “committed it to prayer and discernment.” 

A few weeks later, a friend loaned Vanessa a book by Phyllis Zagano, Women in Ministry: Emerging Questions about the Diaconate. As she read more and more about the history of women in the diaconate, it was her answer, which became a strong feeling. To know that women had been written out of the history of spiritual leadership meant that Vanessa went through a process of realisation – including disbelief, anger and finally healing and hope. 

Therefore Vanessa looks with positive vision to the changes Pope Francis is bringing to the Church. She knows that God is already calling women, and that even now “there is a real way you can spiritually impact people’s lives.” As the discussion in Australia flourished around women and the diaconate at the Plenary Council, Vanessa felt a “call of obedience” to share her story in the Catholic Leader. Although it was difficult and scary, and produced some opposition, it “opened up so many conversations.”

When I asked Vanessa what difference the ordained diaconate would make, she started by saying that she would continue to do what she does. However, it would make a difference to have authority in her spiritual leadership. To act officially on behalf of the Church impacts people in a different way. It would also place more value on women in the Church and in the world. She feels that women would be treated with more respect and we would be able to address domestic violence so much more. Vanessa also feels that there is a difference between spiritual leadership and Church governance – which women are already involved with. For her daughters to see women in the sanctuary would have a meaningful influence for good and for God. She wonders what message girls are getting now and if they know they can image Christ. Vanessa feels that “the voice of God is incomplete if we don’t hear from women.”

Vanessa has already experienced the value of such diaconal ministry. She feels called to proclaim the word of God and preach, and that was recognised by her priest. For the last two years on Mother’s Day, she was asked to give a reflection during the Masses. While she was “excited and daunted”, it was a privilege to find how to touch people in a meaningful way. She could see and monitor the faces of the assembly, and she “felt the warmth of God’s love reaching them, and coming back to me.” They were truly experiencing spiritual vision through her ministry. 

Vanessa leading a prayer liturgy for the dignity and equality of women in our church, which was supported and joined by her parish priest.

Vanessa’s final story comes from the other side of the pews. She knows from experience how beautiful it can be for a woman to be the minister of baptism. When her youngest child was a baby, the priest was not able to be present, so a Canossian Sister baptised the baby girl instead. Looking back, Vanessa feels that it would have been more meaningful for them as a family if the baptiser had been able to be vested and have an official role. However, with the far-seeing vision that Vanessa has been blessed with, it seems that God is leading her along new paths, for the sake of the world.

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