Danielle Fairthorne is a wife, mother and Religious Education teacher. She was ‘born Catholic, raised Catholic, went to Catholic high school, was involved in a couple of ministries in high school and then started helping run youth groups’ in her local parish during University. Now, at 33, she is one of 17 members representing the Catholic Archdiocese of Melbourne at the upcoming Plenary Council Assembly.

Originally from Sydney, Danielle moved to Melbourne with husband Matt in 2014 to start a position as Director of Catholic Identity at Mount Saint Joseph Girls College in Altona in Melbourne’s west. Being a Josephite school, Danielle was immersed in the charism of St Mary of the Cross MacKillop and Fr Julian Tennyson Woods, co-founders of the Sisters of Saint Joseph of the Sacred Heart order. During her seven and a half years of working at the school, Danielle came to deeply love and admire the Josephite sisters, their charism and heritage, creating a bond that could now ‘never be taken away’ from her.

‘When we decided to move to Melbourne, my main consideration was looking for a Catholic school that I could work at and I think the Spirit guided me to Mount Saint Joseph for a reason,’ Danielle said. ‘The humility of the sisters is something that really needs to be broadcast, though it’s counter-cultural for them. They’re humble women of faith and they do so much. I have learnt a lot from them and have made some really strong relationships with the sisters.’

‘Now I absolutely love everything to do with them and if they ever need anything, I always put my hand up to help, even though I’m not working for them anymore. I have a deep love of the Josephite heritage and charism; I’ll always be part of that community, I feel.’

Danielle has Bishop Mark Edwards, former Auxiliary Bishop of the western region ‘to thank’ for her involvement. She had travelled with Bishop Mark to World Youth Day in Poland in 2016. She also came to know him through his visits to her school, which was within the bishop’s region.

‘When Bishop Mark emailed me, I sat with it for a little bit and then I decided there was something unique that I could bring to the Plenary Council, being a young woman of faith, a mum as well, someone who’s worked with young people particularly in girl’s education.

I hear the voices of our young women who really struggle with the place of women in our Church and sometimes get disillusioned by it, so I wanted to bring those experiences and contribute to that space and that higher level of conversation that can occur at a Plenary Council.’

Two months ago, Danielle, together with her husband and three-year-old daughter, moved back to Sydney. She is now an R.E. teacher for Years Seven, Eight and 11 at Kincoppal Rose Bay School in Sydney. Despite this move, she will remain a ‘Melbourne member’ for the upcoming assemblies of the Australian Plenary Council, the first of which will take place online from 3-10 October. It was hoped that Danielle could travel back down to Melbourne to participate in the local Plenary "hub”, but current COVID restrictions have prevented this.

Having lived in Melbourne during a number of extended lockdowns for the majority of the formation and discernment phases of the Plenary Council, Danielle’s participation to date has been mostly via online means. She said, ‘They’ve done the best they possibly can to bring us together and to put us on a path to discernment in a world that is uncertain. The team has done really well in setting us a clear directive of where we’re going and how to get there.

‘I found the spiritual conversations and the opportunities for formation really enriching and useful. The way they’ve structured it has really allowed me to try and discern, amongst all the noise out there, where the Church needs to go.’

Danielle has found Pope Francis’ book, Let Us Dream (2020), a useful resource for her own personal reflection, prayer and discernment throughout the Plenary process. She’s been particularly drawn to Pope Francis’ discussions about ‘who are the marginalised in this society now?’ and ‘what are the decisions we are making as a Church to engage with the marginalised but also to continue to keep them on the boundaries and the peripheries?’

I really feel this pull to what Pope Francis calls the “periphery of society” and trying to get back to those roots of Jesus who reached out to those people,’ she said. ‘The other day I was teaching the story of Jesus and the tax collector and Zacchaeus. This theme of “the periphery” keeps coming through all of my lessons at the moment.

‘There’s something strongly calling me to try and identify that in myself so that I can really bring that to the Council. So, that’s where my heart is at the moment in my prayers.’

As the online Assembly approaches, Danielle is thinking about her own personal space and how to ensure that she’s ‘spiritually prepared’ for the gathering.

‘Given the first Council will now be fully remote, we’re not going to be able to have those corridor conversations. So, I need to think about setting myself a space in my day and in my life where I can truly engage with the topic and engage with the process without being called back to that other life that I have – a mum and a teacher. I want to be able to get rid of all the noise and just focus on what I’m hearing and contribute.’

Danielle hopes that her contribution will make an impact on those making decisions as well as those she spends a lot of time with—her students. ‘I’m an educator. I am working with a large group of people in our Church who I see as disengaged with faith,’ she said. ‘They don’t want to be part of it, which is disheartening. So how can I take the fruits of the Council back into schools?

‘The other members of the Plenary Council – the bishops, the clergy, the congregations – will take information back to their communities. I don’t feel that schools, and the practical nature of schools, are widely represented in the delegates, just by nature of who is called, so I think part of my role will be thinking about and trying to contribute to a creative solution of taking the Council – its energy – back to young people to get them back into the life of the Church and seeing the relevance of Church and the faith again.’

If there’s one little thing that can come from the Plenary is to get our young people seeing some form of relevance of the Church again in their lives, I think that would be an amazing gift that we could give them.’

Danielle is grateful for her involvement in the Plenary to date, recognising the direct impact lockdown restrictions has had on her own faith life. ‘The Plenary has provided me an opportunity to sustain my faith outside of being able to physically access the sacraments,’ she said.

‘It’s kept me alive in that space because I very much valued being able to go to Mass and to have that point of connection with my faith and I really truly haven’t. Moving from Melbourne back up to Sydney in the peak of another lockdown, who knows when we’ll be able to access Church again. So, it’s just helped sustain me through those periods of uncertainty and lack of access to what would have been my connections of faith on a weekly basis.’

Danielle is also excited about the Plenary and is hopeful that it will reinvigorate the life and mission of the Church and its people, including those who are ‘disengaged’.

I think it is the biggest point of renewal that I’ve ever heard of in the Catholic Church in my lifetime in Australia,’ she said. ‘Acknowledging that we need to gather and really rethink what we’re doing is a huge step forward in the Church.’

‘I think we need to stop and say, “Yeah, we’ve had a hard run these last few years as a Church so let’s recalibrate, let’s think about how we’re living that Gospel again.” Are we being true to our call as Catholics in Australia and are we hearing the voices of our sheep?

‘I see that there is such goodness in what we have to offer as a faith and so what I hope comes from it is that we can highlight what is good about what we do, and we can really think about how we can grow those areas of goodness of our faith and maybe reflect on the areas that aren’t really reflective of what we’re called to do from a Gospel standpoint.

‘The fact that the Council is happening for me is a sign of hope, so I’m just going to let the Spirit emerge as we go and I’m not going there with any preconceived expectations, I’m just going into it ready for what comes. Everyone has different hopes from it, but I think if we just go into it, ready to take on the journey then I think it will be really good.’