From October 3-10, the Catholic Church in Australia will gather for the first of two Assemblies of the Plenary Council. Due to COVID and the varying lockdown restrictions across Australia, the first Assembly will now take place online. Michelle Goh, a Sister of Mercy and full-time dermatologist, is one of the 17 members representing the Catholic Archdiocese of Melbourne. As the Assembly approaches so too does the need for prayer, listening and dialogue, something which Michelle has kept close to her heart during this process.
Reflecting on Australia’s first Plenary Council, Sr Michelle Goh RSM said she was invited to apply for the delegate nomination for the Melbourne Archdiocese. Michelle had been previously involved in activities such as Catholic Religious Victoria meetings and World Youth Day 2016 in Poland as chaplain. She said she initially encouraged others to apply – Sisters of Mercy and fellow parishioners – but then at the last minute thought “I better put my own name in given I was asked to consider!”.’
‘I was a bit surprised that I was selected,’ she said. ‘I remember when they first announced the plenary delegates, it was the same week where the whole world was shutting down due to COVID-19, the Australian hospital system was going into something like “preparation for war” and I thought, "This is not good timing!"'
‘At the same time, I was hoping I could be a useful delegate,’ she said.
'I’m actually very grateful and honoured to be one of the representatives in the Plenary. I think it’s important to have a voice from all groups within our Church and I’m glad so many had the opportunity to be a part of this.’
Michelle, 45, has been a fully professed Sister of Mercy since November last year. She joined the congregation in 2012 and was fortunate to be able to celebrate her final profession in between COVID lockdowns in Melbourne on 14 November. Prior to joining the Sisters of Mercy, she had completed her medical degree at the University of Melbourne and then underwent specialist training in dermatology. She has been working as a dermatologist, treating skin conditions across various clinics and hospitals in Melbourne since 2008.
Reflecting on how the two came together – ministry in medicine and being a Religious – she said, ‘I first contemplated the possibility of religious life after finishing training in dermatology. At that time, I very much enjoyed my work in medicine because I liked the variety and intellectual challenge of the profession, the interaction with many people and also the satisfaction of knowing that through my work, I was helping others.
'At the same time, there also was a deeper longing for ultimate meaning and purpose, a search for how to better fit my Christian faith with how I was living and what I was doing.'
‘My “day job” continues to be in medical dermatology, which I love very much – in clinical practice and medical education. I feel very privileged and am deeply grateful for the gifts and opportunities that I have received from my family and from the community.'
'I am thankful that I am able to give back to the community by serving people in need. I hope that through my ministry in healthcare, I am participating in Christ’s work of healing in God’s kingdom. Through teaching and by example to younger doctors, I hope to contribute to further education and knowledge in the art and science of medicine.'
‘As a Sister of Mercy, I am blessed to belong to a group of committed women who constantly model for me a balanced contemplation-with-action mode of being and doing. I feel that living religious life helps me love God and my neighbour with all that I am, and so be the best person that God has made me to be.’
As well as her "work life" as a dermatologist and her "home life" with the five other Sisters in North Melbourne, Michelle is also very involved in music ministry at her local parish, All Saints in Fitzroy. When not in lockdown, she plays the organ at Sunday Mass.
It is this depth of experience in her personal and professional life, her prayer and spiritual life, and her community life, that Michelle brings to the Plenary Council. She hopes to be someone that considers the concerns and lives of others. ‘I’m very privileged to be living in community with other Sisters because that helps me stay true to my commitment to religious life,’ she said. ‘Being among the Sisters also keeps me nurtured in terms of spiritual questions, Church and world concerns.
'Through my broad interaction with people from varied backgrounds in ministry, I also hope that I remain in touch with the issues that people in our community face in their day-to-day live.'
‘Being selected as a plenary member has made me reflect a bit more on what can I bring to the group and also a sense of responsibility. Our role is not like that of an elected representative to parliament. We reflect and speak on how we feel the Spirit is speaking to us. In listening to the Spirit within, we also listen to everyone else around us. There has been a real sense of responsibility for being aware of what the issues are and how people are feeling and what people are saying.’
Looking ahead to the upcoming Assemblies, Michelle said she’s ‘excited for the Church’. ‘I’m excited that we have this opportunity to hopefully move in the direction of creating a more inclusive Church,’ she said. ‘A Church that is concerned for the poor and vulnerable, and people on the edges. And trying to be a Church that is a relevant and important element in people’s lives.
'And hopefully we can be a Church that can help people live out their spiritual and faith lives; lives that are more loving and fulfilling, committed to spirituality, issues such as justice and peace, and concerns beyond materialism.
That’s not to say, however, that there haven’t been challenges along the way. Michelle explained that the delayed starting date for the Assembly and moving meetings online due to the COVID lockdowns can possibly ‘drain some of the enthusiasm and energy’.
'But I think we can only do what we can do and it is the best we can do in these challenging times. This is the world we live in now that will continue for the next years to come, so we just have to do our very best.’
Michelle is ‘looking forward to hearing what the elements of discussion are’, and to ‘hopefully having a voice in the deliberations’ that go forth from this first gathering. ‘I am hoping that it will be a conversation where we can think of ways that we can go forward as Church,’ she said.
'I hope that we are making a difference in moving the Church in a way where we have people participating in a more inclusive way, a Church that is more lay-led and more obviously relevant to society, and a Church that is strong in its apostolic mission in educating, caring for those who are poor and vulnerable in our communities’.
And to ensure she’s ready for the Assembly and life in general, Michelle said she continues to be as faithful as she can be to the spiritual life, making sure to take quiet time out in the busy days, to stay balanced as much as possible, taking time to exercise as well as connect with friends.
'At the end of the day, I try to stay hopeful in these challenging times in our world and focus on what we can do every day to help one another.'