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When the Spirit intervenes

· ​Interview with Cardinal Ouellet ·

Cardinal Ouellet, a disciple of the great Swiss theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar, has always been sensitive to the issue of women in the Church, thanks to his closeness to a woman mystic: Adrienne von Speyr.

The Plenary Assembly of the Pontifical Commission for Latin America (CAL), held in Rome from 6 to 9 March, developed the theme “Women, pillars in the construction of the Church and of society in Latin America”. It was the Pope who assigned this subject to the CAL. What do you think were the reasons for his choice? The clerical male chauvinism which Pope Francis has highlighted on various occasions? Or perhaps the limelight shone on women in the Church by our social conscience?

Photograph by Omar Lucas

The Pope did not hesitate an instant: when we presented him with two subjects, he made his choice immediately. He is very sensitive to the general condition of women: so many situations of lack of recognition, of abuse, of loneliness, of human trafficking. Besides, the Aparecida Document points out male irresponsibility, the absence of fathers and the sexual freedom which – in the mindset and in the culture – men concede to themselves but not to women. This is a male chauvinist culture which should be called into question and which is also reflected in the Church herself, in the clerical mentality, in the contempt for women, in what they can and cannot do. I believe that all this exercised an influence on the Pope’s decision.

As an exception, about 15 women from Latin America with various social and ecclesial responsibilities were invited to take part in this Plenary Assembly, together with the members and consultants of the CAL, who are exclusively cardinals and bishops, as well as Guzmán Carriquiry, the Secretary, acting as vice-president, the layman in the Roman Curia who has the greatest responsibility and experience. What type of dialogue was established between the women and the prelates? What was the atmosphere like at this meeting at which both groups took the floor?

This subject obviously could not have been addressed without the presence of women, without a significant number of trained people, women with different capacities and competencies. The result of this was a dialogue among equals, in the sociological, historical and also pastoral analysis. The women’s contributions of were of equal or greater value than those of the prelates. We succeeded in sharing the themes in a most cordial and constructive atmosphere of authentic reciprocal listening, of frankness, and at the same time of respectful debate. It was really wonderful.

For me those days brought awareness. I must confess that the meeting changed me profoundly with respect to the convictions I had previously held on the subject. I connected it to the culture of my country, Canada, where equality between men and women is almost a dogma. I had in my personal experience a positive cultural factor but one which was not entirely assimilated. What I lacked was the deepening achieved precisely by the exchange of ideas which we had. Real dialogue changes us. I felt the Spirit’s presence. This is the key.

Since 2013, the year in which the Pope, during his return flight from Rio de Janeiro in the first press conference of his pontificate, said that a profound theology of women was necessary in order to discern how women must insert themselves into the most important decision-making processes in the Church – given that they cannot limit themselves to being “altar girls or the President of Caritas or catechists” – the demand for this often recurs. Do you think that a theological reflection on women exists at the moment? Could you explain briefly your theological thought on this subject?

The Pope is incisive in identifying the points of reflection to examine in depth. There is a theology that is currently evolving. We understand it from the proceedings of the Symposium on the role of women in the Church, organized by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in 2016. We need to recover the profound theology of Hildegard, Gertrude, Matilda, Edith Stein and the women Doctors of the Church. A theology with a strong rational capacity must be developed, namely of a dialogue with culture, with the current philosophies but also with contemplative theology, the theology of Mary and that of the Church Fathers.

At the Plenary Assembly I addressed the theme of women in the light of the Blessed Trinity and of the Church. My background is a profound knowledge of the theology of von Balthasar and of Adrienne von Speyr. This is a charismatic theology, with the charism of prophecy. Reflecting on the mystery of the Trinity and in the light of theological anthropology, exegesis tells us that the image of God is the relationship between the man and the woman. There is a root of sexual or gender difference in God himself, in the distinction between individuals and in the way in which they relate. Therefore, there is an archetype of the woman in God. This was an illumination for me; the flowing of the Holy Spirit led me to say that there is in God maternal love, filial love and nuptial love. Maternal love as a consequence of nuptial love. And then, at the level of salvation: the Holy Spirit and the woman are intimately related so that the Word may become flesh. All this confirmed to me that the role of the Holy Spirit in the Trinity may be described as nuptial love. Women’s dignity seemed to me to be very clear from this Trinitarian foundation because, if one affirms that there is an archetype of the man-woman difference in God, then there is an archetype of the woman in God.

Demonstration against the femicides

We who have had the privilege, as Latin American women, to take part in this extraordinary meeting of the CAL were enriched by the interventions of the cardinals, the bishops and the Secretary. And we were struck by the capacity for listening of those who spoke to us, by the respect and freedom, as well as by the work of collaboration in which the action of the Holy Spirit tangibly appeared. Among many other subjects, we women also talked about the family, education and catechesis, about politics, the economy and work, the commitment and solidarity of women religious, and the protagonism of women in Latin America’s history. To what extent and in what way were these interventions useful to the discussion?

When one confronts the subject of women many things and values that have been relegated or repressed surface. Thus the first fruit was the theme itself, the generator of life.

And in addition there is the importance of education as a historical fact and as contemporary development, the observation that women have been kept in an undereducated condition. I feel ashamed about this. There must be competent women, and, if there are, they must take a greater part in decisions at all levels and also in all the dicasteries. The parable of the talents springs to my mind: we buried women’s talents. And not through their fault but through the fault of men.

Next to the interventions, the testimonial dimension was strong. The testimony given by Sr Mercedes Casas on the consecrated life: how beautiful it was! Simple, descriptive, and delivered in a feminine way. It impressed me.

Providentially, one of the days on which the CAL’s Assembly was taking place coincided with Women’s Day, 8 March. That morning was an important and moving event, a vital experience which remained impressed in the hearts of every participant: you, Your Eminence, President of the CAL, you personally asked the forgiveness of women. What urged you to do so?

The idea was born in me when Women’s Day was approaching; and I made this gesture myself without involving others, although it would have been meaningful to them too. I thought of my limitations, of the errors of the past, of my small personal world and of all that we had been reminded of in the previous days concerning the concrete situation of women, the abuse, the violence, the trafficking, the femicide, the contempt and family violence. In that framework, and wishing to make a simple gesture of recognition on that day, I did it spontaneously, as a man facing those women. And that’s how it was: I felt moved, mortified and sincerely repentant for the sins of men against women. It was a symbolic act. I think that it was in the spirit of Pope Francis.

The culminating moment of the Plenary Assembly was the Audience with the Pope. Among the conclusions of the Latin American meeting you posed the question of a Synod of the universal Church on the subject of women in the Church’s life and mission. Do you think it would be possible to imagine a synod with not only the methodology applied today at synodal meetings, but also a new procedure, precisely that used in the Assembly of the Pontifical Council for Latin America (CAL), where both men and women were heard?

The theme “Women” obviously entails the participation of women. It might be necessary to change the procedure of synods. There could be synods with the participation of bishops and more ecclesial synods with lay people and religious and with a significant number of women for all subjects. But the subject of women cannot be postponed. It is one of the Church’s urgent matters.

Latin America has been a catalyst which is effective for all cultures: to alleviate somewhat the prostration in which women usually live. The Virgin Mary is the greatest height we can conceive of for a human being and with a spirit of evangelical freedom we must review the current condition of women in her light. The totally positive experience of this exchange of ideas in the CAL could inspire us for our future methodology. We should not put off addressing this subject because it will give us what the Plenary Assembly gave us: it was synodal and it brought us to a point of communion. The Holy Spirit is taking us in this direction.

María Lía Zervino

Marc Ouellet

Cardinal Marc Ouellet, Prefect of the Congregation for Bishops, meets Pope Francis every Saturday to address delicate subjects such as the appointment and problems of bishops. He is also President of the Pontifical Commission for Latin America (CAL) created by Pius XII in 1958, in union and under the protection of today’s Congregation for Bishops. The CAL works in harmony and in coordination with the Latin American Episcopal Council (CELAM). The Cardinal, who is a Sulpician, speaks Spanish perfectly, thanks to the time he spent in Colombia and his university lectureships in that country. Among other things His Eminence was Secretary of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity and Archbishop of Quebec, hence Primate of Canada. Since 2010 he has lived in Rome at the service of the Roman Curia




St. Peter’s Square

Nov. 21, 2019