Growing up in a post office in a small town on the edge of the Darling Downs in western Queensland, Jill Gowdie found out early the importance of being part of a community.
She was 12 when her postmaster father died and her life changed dramatically. Through some difficult years, it was family, friends and teachers who sustained her.
“I had the foundation of a very strong community-centred Catholic home background and the gift of wonderful teachers and extraordinary spiritual mentors along the way through my early teaching career into leadership,” she said. “I’m so incredibly grateful for that.
“I fell in love with theology, where my own experience met an understanding that could hold the challenges and the questions that life had offered up to me so far. And I think I followed where it led.”
With extensive experience in education leadership, including her most recent role in the Archdiocese of Brisbane where she led the area of Identity, Mission and Religious Education, Dr Gowdie is looking forward to her new role at Catholic Education SA (CESA).
She said it was very much the “work of the Spirit” that brought her to Adelaide and it all happened relatively quickly. But she added that a long familiarity with the work of the Catholic Education Office in Adelaide and an awareness of the present Archdiocesan and CESA leadership influenced her decision.
“There is great vision and many great things happening here, and I hope to contribute something to this unfolding story,” she said.
Despite her arrival coinciding with major challenges for schools due to COVID, she has already witnessed a “strong, cohesive, compassionate leadership and a team genuinely committed with their diverse gifts and expertise to the common mission”.
“This is a great gift…the welcome to me has been wonderful,” she said.
“My first impression is of the deep compassion and remarkable capacity of CESA in keeping schools, students, staff and families at the centre of decision-making and enabling school-centred, system supported responses to constantly changing needs and contexts.
“We are dancing on a moving floor – and these people are very skilful dancers!”
Dr Gowdie said it was clear to her that the mission remains at the heart of what schools do despite “enormous logistical and compliance challenges”.
And she is very conscious of the extraordinary efforts of teaching staff to maintain effective learning cycles for students amid their own increased loads and exhaustion.
Initially, her overarching priority is to listen with ‘the ear of the heart’ and get to know the schools – “their leaders, their stories, their dreams and challenges”.
“I am looking to know and grow the gift of the wonderful team I lead and to build on the legacy of those who have gone before,” she said.
“And I am looking forward to further deepening relationships with other agencies in the Archdiocesan offices, with higher education and formation providers, and with our clergy and Religious communities.”
However, as clergy and religious numbers diminish and a generation of ‘ex-religious’ who have often been leaders in schools retire,
Dr Gowdie concedes there is a level of concern about who will “carry the flame of the heart”.
This is exacerbated by decreasing Mass attendances and those actively involved in parishes.
“The bishops of Australia have recognised for some time now the critical need for formation in our leaders, teachers and all who work in the great variety of Church ministries,” she said.
“Many Australian Catholic education diocesan systems now have well developed formation frameworks, programs and opportunities.”
She said it was great to see this now reflected in National Catholic Education Commission documents.
The next focus was to provide further formation opportunities for “beginning teachers and beginning leaders” as well as student formation.
Strengthening links between schools and parishes has long been identified as a priority and she praised the Archdiocese and CESA for the development of the Being Church Together document.
Echoing Pope Francis’ call for the Church to meet people ‘where they are’, Dr Gowdie warned against falling into the trap of meeting young people and families where we might “like them to be”.
“More than ever, we are called to walk in the footsteps of Jesus who always went out – reached out – into the lives of those he encountered,” she said.
“The new Vatican document just released underlines this ‘missionary impulse’.
“It stresses that the Catholic school is ‘not a closed model’. Collaboration, dialogue and witness are the touchstone words in this latest document, again underpinning the call of Pope Francis to us all to be builders of a culture of care, encounter and dialogue.
“This can be a challenging thing, demanding both strong understanding of our Catholic identity and open hearted encounter with our culture and with all who seek to come through our doors. Yet it is this other-centred, open hearted, encounter-focused being in the world that is our deepest identity.”
Dr Gowdie is part of an international think tank that will meet in Rome in July to further develop this thinking about contemporary spiritual formation. She is also a member of an international research group looking at the needs for the next generation of leaders in Catholic education.
“There is a great resonance across Australia and many other parts of the globe in understanding the needs here. And South Australia is very well placed in its response,” she added.
While scholarship and writing stretch her thinking, Dr Gowdie said it was family that kept her grounded.
Her husband Geoff has worked in Church pastoral leadership for a long time: “Geoff is my anchor, as are our four children – who are all now young adults and so very keen to guide my ways!
“They have all grown up in a loving parish community and been educated in Catholic schools. Through their eyes, I have seen the absolute gold of what we have to offer and the challenges we need to name and face.”Jump to next article