Ann Noonan, Secretary to the Committee for Other Faiths of the Bishops' Conference of England and Wales, died on Thursday, 18 September 2008 after a long illness. Journalist and author Greg Watts remembers a remarkable woman.
I was sitting at my desk in the Catholic Communications Network office at the Bishops' Conference of England and Wales in Eccleston Square, London, one morning in 2005 when I heard a lovely Irish accent call out warmly, "Helloo'" I looked up and saw standing in the doorway a plumpish woman in her fifties dressed in a trouser suit, with a bright scarf thrown over her shoulder. She was beaming at me.
"I'm Ann. I work on inter-faith, upstairs,'" she said in a slightly breathless voice, as she moved towards me. "I'm quite interested in the inter-faith scene," I replied.
"Really," she said, her eyes widening, and she pulled up a chair. We then chatted about how important building relations was with other faiths and how much more the Church could be doing. After a few minutes, I realised that I was talking to someone who was not only passionate about the subject, but who was incredibly knowledgeable about it. After that, Ann and I had many discussions about the Church's relationship with other faiths.
That 'Helloo' became her catchphrase. She could always see the funny side to working for the Church. We often laughed about some of the things that happened. Yet she loved the Church and had a deep affection for the clergy. She always talked in practical terms about inter-faith dialogue rather than in the language of abstract theology. Not that she didn't know her theology. She did. She could quote the ground-breaking Vatican II document Nostra Aetate and she knew all the other major documents and developments since then.
But she never put all her goods in the shop window. She was a very modest woman. Ann thought the Catholic Church in England and Wales should be more courageous in taking the lead in inter-faith dialogue. She always encouraged priests and bishops to do this at local levels. For she believed that it was primarily in local communities where real understanding and co-operation between those of different faiths happened. It was about recognising those values that we all hold in common, not focusing on theological differences.
She had inside knowledge on which bishops were most supportive of inter-faith dialogue and which ones wanted very little to do with it. She trod carefully, but always purposefully and respectfully, when dealing with the hierarchy. It was never about her agenda. She never had one. All she was concerned about was that the hierarchy read the signs of the times and responded to them. Ann also knew who the key players were in the Vatican.
She made no secret of her disappointment when Archbishop Michael Fitzgerald was removed as head of the Pontifical Council for Inter-religious Dialogue and posted to Cairo. She felt her "Michael", as she called him, the right kind of vision the Church needed to continue developing relationships with other faiths. There were occasions when she got frustrated with Church bureaucracy. "It can seem like an uphill struggle at times," she once said to me. Yet she always maintained a positive outlook and never lost any of her enthusiasm for inter-faith dialogue.
She was a realist in dealing with the bishops. She knew that progress was often slow in the Church. The Bishops' Conference of England and Wales is currently putting the final touches to a document outlining the Catholic approach to inter-faith dialogue. It is likely to be published in the next three months. You probably won't see the name Ann Noonan anywhere on it, but its publication owes much to her vision, infectious enthusiasm and deep faith. For it was she who kept pushing for such a document. And it was she who guided its early stages, finding the right people to work on it and doing her best to make sure its language was clear and its theology linked to daily living. This document will indeed be a fitting legacy to Ann.
Ann's funeral will be held at the Church of Our Lady of the Angels, Carlton Road, Erith, Kent, DA8 1DN, at 11.30am on Wednesday 1 October. Archbishop Kevin McDonald of Southwark will celebrate the Mass. An inter-faith memorial service will be held at 6pm on 10 December 2008 at the St Ethelburga's Centre for Peace and Reconciliation, 78 Bishopsgate, London. EC2N 4AG.
Jo Siedlecka adds: I also had the privilege of working with Ann at the Bishops' Conference for some time. She was an exceptionally wise and kind person with a great sense of humour and a wonderful faith. I know she will be sadly missed by her family, friends and colleagues. May she rest in peace.