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What must change?

· The role of women in the formation of seminarians ·

Why does the Church, understood as a hierarchy, or at least a part of it, have difficulty – not to say almost refuses – in establishing a free and sincere dialogue with the world of women? Aristotle declared with conviction that “the female is, as it were, an amputated male” (femina est mas occasionatus), she is born through a natural “defect”, that is, an “accident”. For Augustine and Ambrose woman is the cause of sin and must therefore be subordinate to man. However St Paul reminds us that in Christ we are all equal; there is neither Jew, nor Greek, there is neither male nor female (cf. Gal 3:28). Pope Francis himself does not tire of recalling to Christianity and to the whole world the importance and centrality of the role of women in social life and in the Church.

Yet all he says seems to be passed over in silence, almost as though it were a “dogmatic” fracture in a thought shared and rooted in many “men” of the Church. Women appear as a source of problems and not of riches and complementarity, as in fact they are. This anthropological and cultural tradition has been passed on to subsequent generations of priests and future seminarians, who have tacitly accepted this evil legacy that is difficult to uproot. It would be interesting carry out a survey to help us to understand what it is that is wrong between women and priests, for we are speaking of a very real and concrete problem.

We think it is necessary to start with a basic problem: the presence and role of women in seminaries and in the formation of seminarians. We would like to be mistaken, but we can count them on the fingers of one hand. And when there are some, they find themselves in subordinate positions, that is, they are people to say the least invisible, who cook, wash, iron, clean the young men’s rooms and circulate within the sacred walls, ready to vanish at the slightest hint. They are women religious and lay women. The former do this work as a mission; the latter because they must work in order to live. But these activities often and with their consent impose on them silence and a total – or almost total – absence of human relations with those with whom they come into contact.

In Pastores dabo vobis “the fundamentally ‘relational’ dimension of priestly identity” is stressed, as well as the importance of clearly defining “the nature and mission of the ministerial priesthood [which] cannot be defined except through this multiple and rich interconnection of relationships which arise from the Blessed Trinity and are prolonged in the communion of the Church, as a sign and instrument of Christ, of communion with God and of the unity of all humanity” (n. 12). Moreover we can read further: “Of special importance is the capacity to relate to others. This is truly fundamental for a person who is called to be responsible for a community and to be a ‘man of communion’”(n. 43).

A relation between man and woman is an act desired by God himself at the moment of the Creation, it is intrinsic in every person. Ignoring this fundamental aspect means putting oneself outside the dynamic of that Trinitarian love mentioned above – and which we often hear referred to in homilies – a primary essence in the life of Christians and of the Church herself.

Another subject to face: why don’t women have free access to the teaching in seminaries? Fortunately, in the United States one observes the presence of at least one or two women, declared Sr Sara Butler, Professor Emeritus of systematic theology at Mundelein Seminary, Illinois. But how many women can avail themselves of this free access, especially in Italy? At this point the conclusion springs spontaneously to mind: is theology something solely for men and priests? When Pope Francis affirms that a “profound theology of women” is necessary and says that women must make theological reflections, is he upholding a utopia? It seems to us that the Pope has very well understood the importance of the role of women in the Church, as in society, but he has also realized how difficult and complicated it is to demolish diffidence, a true and proper fear – I would say ancestral – with regard to the other sex, the “female”, considered to be a dangerous threat to the sexual integrity and celibacy of the consecrated man.

The result of this obsolete school of thought is a certain, more or less latent mysogyny which is essentially a sentiment of aversion to – if not hatred of – women, stuck more often than not in the function of cleaning women. In other words they are people who every day carry out, and without being paid, the various domestic tasks in the parish or in residences of religious. Let us explain: they are people who consciously also take on the psychological hardship of never even receiving a simple “thank you”, because their service is for the Church and not for the individual, even if he is a minister of Christ. Gregory the Great wrote in his Pastoral Rule: “There are some also who investigate spiritual precepts with cunning care, but what they penetrate with their understanding they trample on in their lives”. The proof is the evident fruit of the heart’s attachment to God.

What, however, is the level of relations of the seminarians with women? If the results are those which are usually apparent to all once they have become priests, isn’t there perhaps a case to rethink certain aspects of their formation? If the priest must be a “person of communion”, we believe that we are running great risks precisely in this regard if the presence of women is excluded in places of formation, including theological faculties. If we want emotionally mature priests, we must necessarily give them opportunities to exercise their own freedom, namely the ability to choose Christ every day in the face of the solicitations of the world and the possible provocations – logical and legitimate in the man-woman relationship – created by a female presence which of course cannot be avoided. We seem to understand too, following all that has been said in recent years, that a great effort is being made for emotional maturity, also with regard to possible manifestations of homosexuality.

However, the point is a different one. Once they have left the seminary – where these young men train to become pastors, living the “ideal” of priestly life – once they are catapulted into the concrete world, in which men and women of flesh and blood live, what will happen? Will they be able to respond adequately to the needs of the people whom they have been called to guide on their journey of faith in the Church? Parish communities are built around the pastor, a priest who must be able to manage moments of discouragement and of personal crisis without involving the faithful emotionally. In fact, it is precisely in such cases that the affective problems not faced in the seminary blow up. It then becomes dangerous for the priest to initiate relationships with women, because in them he may be deceived into thinking he has found a mother or sister, friend and confidante in a devout woman parishioner, misinterpreting the relationship. What we are saying applies to all consecrated people, women and men.

It would therefore be wonderful if future priests had the opportunity to discover without fear and with healthy desire the riches of the female universe, considering it a precious resource, necessary if they are to reach the fullness of their vocation. For we are created male and female, not for division but for complementarity.

Caterina Ciriello




St. Peter’s Square

Oct. 24, 2019