Sydney
23 February 2003

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Religious have 'great role to play in Church'

Josephite Sr Mary Cresp, left, with Dr Kristin Johnston, her successor as head of the Conference of Leaders of Religious Institutes, Dr Johnston is also a Josephite

By Marilyn Rodrigues

"I would like to somehow use this opportunity to re-energise and renew hope and say to people, look, we are religious, we have a great role to play in the Church," says Sister of St Joseph, Dr Kristin Johnston.

Dr Johnston, the new executive director of the Australian Conference of Leaders of Religious Institutes, brings a wealth of experience from 20 years of working with the Australian Catholic University (ACU National), including her most recent position as the assistant head of its School of Education NSW.

And she brings a perspective on religious life that is far-reaching.

"I think one of the things people lose sight of about religious life is that it has been around for a long time," she says.

"Even before Christ … people gathered together in search of a way of expressing their relationship to whomever they called their God; for example, our own indigenous people."

There are "some wonderful stories" throughout Church history about the renewal of the Church, she says.

In today's post-modern society, characterised by fragmentation of relationships and a more transitory way of life, the Church and its religious are a sign of permanence, of integration and with a different perspective to offer on freedom, power and material goods.

The critical thing about religious life is that it is a "life form" of consecrated celibacy which affects a person's whole relationship with Christ, she says.

"We stand as an anomaly in many ways," she says.

Dr Johnston's experience in education and as a religious has given her a sense of the spiritual needs of today's young people.

"There are lot of people who would write off our young, but they are deeply spiritual, deeply God people and need opportunities to express that," she says, "and I think that's one of the roles of religious."

Dr Johnston, a self-confessed "beachy" who grew up in Maroubra and ttended the Brigidine Colleges at Maroubra and Randwick, was the only female teacher at Waverley College when she decided to join her order at age 23.

She worked in education in schools for a time before assisting in a reform of religious education in government schools in the Canberra and Goulburn diocese.

She has participated in many research projects, including significant collaborative research into Catholic schools in NSW and an extensive study f Catholic schools nationally.

Dr Johnston holds a Bachelor of Arts in Social Science, an honours degree in Education and a PhD from the Macquarie University's School of Education.

She has held many leadership roles, including deputy chair of the Catholic Education Commission of NSW, a role that involves being responsible for working parties, consulting with government ministers, and liaison with bishops.

Some early experience working at the Apostolic Nunciature, then known as the Apostolic Delegation, was good preparation for her new job, she says, because it gave her an insight into the work of the Church at a broader level.

She takes over as executive director from Josephite Sr Mary Cresp, who is embarking on an inter-national research project for her congregation.

The aims of the Australian Conference of Leaders of Religious Institutes are to promote and support Australian religious life, its roles and its development into the new millennium, and to take a proactive role in promoting Gospel-based leadership for justice, especially among religious and in the wider Church.