Susan Pollard rsj happily admits she had a mid-life crisis when she turned 40.
After 20 years as a teacher and principal in Josephite schools, she felt the need to take a sabbatical and with the encouragement of her province leadership she embarked on a trip to the UK and Europe that would change her life dramatically.
“Everybody is entitled to a mid-life crisis, I definitely had mine,” she laughed.
“The early forties is a very strategic time. I find that with people I consult to here, and I was truly at the crossroads myself, wondering which way I was going.”
A highly respected psychoanalyst who lectures nationally and internationally, Dr Pollard was recognised in the 2022 Australia Day Honours for her contribution to the Catholic Church but she is quick to point out, “I don’t work for the Church, as such. I work for the people I see”.
The award, she added, was for and with all her Sisters as they do their best to attune their hearts to ‘the whisperings of God’.
Her own ‘whisperings’ included a “sense of call” to be a nun at an early age. Educated by the Josephites at Richmond and then Mary MacKillop College, she was “in admiration of the Sisters”.
“After my Dad died when I was 15, two of the Sisters came around to see our family, and I remember feeling their support at that time, but I also knew what they did for others who were doing it tough,” she recalled.
Her faith was nurtured by her Irish Catholic mother and Anglican father, who became Catholic before his death. The family immigrated to Australia from South Africa with their four children, including Susan who was the youngest by nine years.
Her father ran a successful earth moving business and was a great traveller while she described her mother as a “gutsy” woman who in her fifties re-trained to be a missionary with the Pallottine Congregation and worked as a cook at Tardun Mission in Western Australia.
When Dr Pollard entered the novitiate in Sydney in 1968, she was happy to embark on a ministry in education. Back in Adelaide she taught at Woodville, Croydon and Hectorville, and was principal of St David’s Parish School at Tea Tree Gully and Caritas primary school in Port Augusta. She also completed an arts degree at the University of New England in Armidale, NSW, and a Masters in Education at Adelaide University.
“I had no intention of leaving education, I enjoyed my time as a teacher and principal,” Dr Pollard said.
But when she took a sabbatical at the age of 39 she expressed an interest to her province leaders in the work of Swiss psychoanalyst Carl Jung. She was drawn particularly by his deep recognition that “without a spiritual connection there is no healing”. So it was suggested that she should “go to the source” and visit the C.G. Jung Institute in Zurich.
“I did a two-week intensive which really blew my mind because it was spirituality and psychology coming together,” she said.
“It was different to any tertiary studies I’d done because it was bringing together lots of important aspects for me, and when a lecture on individuation and mysticism talked about finding one’s path, I thought ‘yes!’.
“That really was a clincher for me.”
During her sabbatical Dr Pollard also undertook studies in education management at London University and attended a spirituality course at St Beuno’s in Wales.
“I wondered why nobody had really underlined how life-changing a 30-day retreat could be…it really did turn me around,” she said.
After much discernment she decided to pursue her interest in psychology and applied to train at the prestigious Jung Institute, a gruelling exercise which caused her to doubt whether she was up to the task. While awaiting the outcome she had an opportunity “thanks to the Congregation” to travel to South Africa where she worked at a school for young people with special needs in a remote area of the Kalahari.
After three months there she was convinced she’d “flunked” the interview process at the C.G. Jung Institute and was starting to doubt “this discernment bit”.
But when she returned to Australia a letter arrived confirming her acceptance into the program and in 1991 she went back to Zurich to train as an analyst with the blessing and financial support of the Congregation.
“It was a wonderful experience, I made wonderful friends with people from all over the world and it was a very good place to be,” she said of her 10 years in the Swiss city.
During that period she also completed her doctorate in psycho-analysis at Union Institute and University, Cincinnati, Ohio, which involved visiting the United States periodically, and she undertook a placement at the St John of God psychiatric hospital in Dublin. Her training in Zurich involved working with an analyst who was person with a deep Catholic faith and “understood where my commitment to be a religious Sister was coming from”.
“At the same time he helped me to explore my commitment, how it needed to develop and what it meant now,” she said.
“The Eucharist was very important to me, it still is, and so I would go to Mass daily if I could.”
Dr Pollard is eternally grateful for the support of her Congregation: “The great trust that the Sisters had in me and what I was doing, I appreciate that they believed our greatest resource is our people. They helped me to explore God’s call for me now, how could I be of service to God’s people.”
She is “delighted” to be now giving back to the Congregation and works of the Sisters, from their serving the poor in Peru to being with those in the ordinary circumstances of life and ‘at the edges’ in Australia, New Zealand and Ireland. “Where one is, we all are,” she said, quoting St Mary MacKillop.
The fees she receives for her counselling services, some assisted by Medicare referrals, are forwarded to the Congregation.
“I see wonderful people who are wanting to understand and deepen their understanding of where their life journey is taking them,” she said.
“Some come for supervision, for exploring new directions and others for relationship problems, struggles with anxiety, depression.”
Dr Pollard also consults to people interested in training as analysts or those who have finished their training and are seeking peer supervision and she is a training analyst with the Australian and New Zealand Society of Jungian Analysts.
While Dr Pollard said she was fortunate to have chosen both her ministries – education and psychology – before Vatican II, many Sisters, like many women, had limited choices.
“Now there is an opportunity to see where our gifts are better suited in the service of God and God’s people,” she said.
“God’s been good to me in many areas, it’s all of our task to share what we have with others because we’ve received so much too.”
Dr Pollard said there were times when she had struggled with her calling, and her thesis on celibate chastity, which resulted in the publication of her book Celibacy and Soul, was “my own kind of sifting of issues”. But it also involved interviews with men and women who were “relatively” comfortable with celibate chastity and she described their readiness to share their experiences as “extraordinary and generous”.
“They (the interviewees) made themselves vulnerable in their sharing…ultimately it seems that is important for all of us, it’s about learning to love unconditionally with no strings attached,” she said.
“You can’t cut off your sexuality. We need this energy to enliven us. And while some people may not vow celibate chastity, they might live celibate love because a partner has a health problem or has died, or maybe they can’t find the right partner.”
Dr Pollard said celibate chastity was a vocation in itself and couldn’t be “enforced”.
“We are all called to chaste love, giving of oneself faithfully to another, but not everyone is called to celibate chastity. I am grateful to my parents and family and close and warm friendships with women and men who have shown me by their lives what genuine love and intimacy means.”
Apart from her ministry in psychology, Dr Pollard is actively involved in the Josephite’s work in social justice, in particular its commitment to “learning from the First Peoples and wholeheartedly supporting as neighbours their initiatives for recognition and justice”.
She is a founding member and current chairperson of the Josephite Reconciliation Circle, a group women and men who meet on the first Monday of the month at Bethany, Kensington. Their aim is to develop cultural knowledge, advocacy and support of First Nations peoples in South Australia and nationally.
“I think we can really learn from Aboriginal people and their whole sense of the Creator God – and their traditional practice of deep listening and knowing we are part of something greater,” she said.
Looking forward, Dr Pollard said she wants to continue her work which is all the more important in these times of uncertainty.
“I think these times ask people to look at what’s the meaning of my life, what’s the meaning of what’s happening in the world, how do I live more intentionally, how do I connect with that deep spring within, and consequently with others,” she said.
“We’ve all got that spark in us, but sometimes we lose sight of it.”Jump to next article