A number of Catholics were recognised in this year’s Queen’s Birthday Honours List. Among them was Victoria’s Anna Krohn, who was awarded the Medal of the Order of Australia (OAM) for outstanding service to the Catholic Church in Australia.

Anna lives in Ballarat and has spent much of her adult life serving women and local communities as a writer and educator. During its existence, she worked for the Melbourne branch of the John Paul II Institute of Marriage and Family. Currently, she is President of the Catholic Women’s League of Victoria and Wagga Wagga, a national convenor of the Anima Women’s Network, and writes regularly for The Catholic Weekly.

Anna describes herself as an ‘accidental theologian’. Her career has been unconventional and chequered, partly owing to frequent bouts of ill health that interrupted her school and university studies. After exploring different options, she moved into the world of theology at Catholic Theological College and finally hit her stride. She began a life of many different jobs, in teaching and research and community formation.

Serving local communities is a passion of Anna’s. ‘I wanted to work with the community end, with ordinary people in the pews,’ she says. Her father was a model in this regard: a creative force (singing in the Italian opera), a hard worker, and intimately involved in politics and social movements. He was an ‘all-rounder’.

Nowadays, Anna is revisiting her long-held love of art, studying religious iconography and getting back in touch with her own artistic roots.

Anna Krohn kindly joined Melbourne Catholic for a discussion of the award and some signs of hope in today’s culture.

Anna Krohn Photo by Luke Hemer, The Courier, Ballarat

What is the significance of receiving this award for yourself and others?

One of the things that I think is a really wonderful recognition is that it’s come from the Queen through her representatives, and that’s a pretty amazing thing. It’s a recognition of the value of faith within the common good. That’s something quite powerful, especially when we’ve had a lot of turbulent years between church and state.

The second thing is, having watched the Queen during her platinum Jubilee, I really think she’s quite an amazing Christian woman, as a leader, as a bridge, as a person who’s built bridges for people. So that’s a real honour to have received that in her platinum year.

One thing that’s lovely about being in the Catholic Women’s League is you get to meet these little saints, these remarkable women, especially when they get to the end of their life and you unpack all the details; they’ve really served people so extraordinarily, and so quietly. I think it’s a great honor seeing some of those women, you know. They're never going to be recognised, so I said to the ladies the other day, this is your award. This is about all the work that you do.

I’m just the little, tiny, spindly tip of the iceberg, and all your stories are part of what makes this so important.

What speaks to your heart most when it comes to your work or your vocation or mission?

I think helping people to capture the wholeness of faith, how it’s a whole picture. It’s not just morality. It’s not just an intellectual formation. It’s a whole life; it’s an immersion.

That means also being able to talk to people who are not Christian or even believers in God and find a common bridge to be able to talk to them about the deep experiences they have. One of the great things about being Catholic is that we don’t think anything truly human is excluded. We actually believe that’s a means for God’s grace as well. It’s a wonderfully rich view of the person, and challenging. It’s not easy.

Another thing that inspires me is the artistic imagination. That really inspires me because it’s always going beyond the small-minded and the narrow. Artistic imagination always breaks out and takes us deeper into mystery. And I think that’s a sign for today, especially when people are feeling a bit dispirited.

You and your husband Anthony were not able to have children, and yet your marriage has been a beautiful sign of faith, life and fidelity. Was this difficult?

I’m very happy to talk about this because I think it’s very important. There’s a concept that Pope John Paul II has which really helped me at the time. And it’s certainly true of other friends of mine who have not been able to have children as much as they would like to. John Paul II talks about a core definition of man and woman as being their maternity or paternity, their ability for spiritual, existential motherhood or fatherhood. And I’ve quickly learnt that that is such an important part of ourselves as persons.

The sad thing about our culture is that it thinks maternity is a kind of technical reality. If I fix this bit and maybe go with IVF, or if I do something like that, I’ll be whole. And very often it just takes people into a more stressful experience rather than one which brings them home.

I have lots and lots of people who I think of as my spiritual children. I think that's a rich thing.

So many people I’ve spoken to about that, who’ve felt, ‘I failed’, I say: ‘No, you haven’t failed. This is just you and your life, and this is what’s been given to you.’ So, women who’ve been widowed or divorced or whatever it might be, quite often they think, ‘That’s it, I’ve failed! I've fallen off the horse.’ And I say, ‘No, actually, that capacity is still within you.’ And that’s been a wonderful thing to share with people.

What are some of the challenges for people living a life of faith today?

We have to own our shortcomings as a Church. We can face those humbly, without being falsely humble, and just say, ‘Yes, we didn’t get that right; yes, we needed to face that more courageously; yes, we need to really get back to the truth,’ which can sometimes be uncomfortable. I think that’s a challenge to be truthful and humble, but also to have a sort of joy. To be joyful is something. How to have hope, even when things seem hopeless, is a challenging thing.

I think another challenge is understanding the sacramental nature of the Church. Sometimes Catholics race around and think, ‘I have to find a new program or a new system or a new magical solution to overcoming these challenges.’ And there isn’t one. The only answer is the person of Jesus himself, and we run around in circles going, ‘Oh yeah. I'll come and talk about him in a minute.’ But really, that’s the answer and that’s the biggest challenge of all.

And we don’t do it by ourselves. We do it with every single person in our life. You know, the great Newman thing is, everyone’s a link in the chain; even the people we think of as disasters are links in the chain in some way.

Where do you see signs of hope?

There are lots of signs of hope. I think people are returning to the idea of community. A lot of secular journalists I’ve talked to about this award have been really engaged on this. They say, ‘Oh wow, that's really good you're doing that.’ I think a lot of young people want to get back to the real. A lot of people are moving into country areas or becoming vegan or doing organic farming. Whatever they’re doing, it’s all a search for the real. And I just really love that. I think that's a real opening for us to have a conversation.

I think other signs of hope is the Church’s imagination, the ability to spark the best of people’s imagination. There’s a whole generation of new writers and poets and artists who are going to be part of a new Renaissance somewhere. Maybe not in my lifetime, but they’re the seeds of it. And I think holiness is another sign of hope. There’s always going to be holiness, and being attuned to that is God’s work. It’s not our work. In the end our hope is not really in ourselves.

Do you have parting words of inspiration?

What I would say is: don’t be worried if your life looks a little bit different to the way you expected it to be, because I never had a very forward plan of how life would look. That could be a failing on my part, but it certainly meant that it was much more exciting and there’s been opportunities to notice big and little joys in a great way. I think people get very anxious about that, but I think, you know, being open to every day is a great thing.

All photos taken by Luke Hemer, The Courier, Ballarat.