My preaching to priests
In an interview with “Women Church World” in April 2020, Cardinal Marc Oullet, the prefect of the Congregation for Bishops, said that more women were needed for the formation of priests. “They can participate”, he emphasized, “in many ways: in theological and philosophical teaching, in the teaching of spirituality. They can be part of the team of formators, especially in the discernment of vocations. In this field, we need the opinion of women, their intuition, and their ability to grasp the human side of candidates, their degree of affective or psychological maturity. As for spiritual accompaniment, the woman can be of help, certainly, but I believe it is better for a priest to accompany a candidate to the priesthood. The woman, on the other hand, can accompany human formation, an aspect that is not, in my opinion, sufficiently developed in seminaries. It is necessary to evaluate the degree of freedom of the candidates, their ability to be coherent, to establish their life programme, and also their psychosocial and psychosexual identity”. Marta Rodriguez, Coordinator of the academic and research area of the Institute for Advanced Studies on Women, and member of the editorial board of “Woman Church World is doing this. And here she tells how.
When I was a girl, I never thought that women could collaborate in the formation of priests. It is not that I consciously excluded this, it was just the fact that the possibility had never crossed my mind. I grew up in a Catholic family and absorbed the way my parents approached priests. Theirs was often full of affection and always with great respect, but it was never symmetrical. For them it was as if the priest was always on a higher step. He preached, he guided spiritually, and he formed. In addition, we, the faithful people, followed him and supported him. However, the asymmetry was obvious.
When I was fifteen, my brother, who I always adored, went to a seminary. His departure was a tremendous shock. From that domestic earthquake, I want to emphasise one thing above all else, which is somehow my view of priests began to change. I realised that they were made of flesh like my brother, full of weaknesses and frailties, while at the same time as having great desires. They were simply men trying to follow a calling that infinitely exceeded them. In my eyes, priests became more human, more like me.
Many years later, I started studying for a license in philosophy at a pontifical university. My companions were all seminarians or priests, and I was the only woman. Being seated in the same pew broke the asymmetry I had always experienced with them. We were all equal in the classroom. However, gradually, my companions began to ask me for advice on certain personal matters. One would tell me about his family, another would ask how he should go about a friendship relationship or how to manage his emotions. Later they would ask about prayer life, or discernment. Without me realising it, I had become everyone’s “big sister”. On every occasion, they became more vulnerable towards me, and went deeper into their openness. This caused quite a bit of perplexity among the trainers, because they did not know how to judge it. There were those who, while acknowledging that I had indeed been of help in some cases, did not look favorably on this kind of relationship, which in their view, could detract from priestly identity. Others thought I could become a danger to them. One concerned rector came to me and told me that if the seminarians talked to me a lot, surely some would fall in love with me. To which I replied that if this happened it could also become a great opportunity, that of learning to fall out of love! In my opinion, this could also become useful in their lives.
Despite the perplexities and a few backward steps, those years of studying together with seminarians and priests served to lower my defenses. One day, at the insistence of a group of seminarians, I was invited to give a lecture on affective formation in their seminary. Some trainers also attended. I think this was the beginning of the turnaround, from being a somewhat suspicious figure for them; I became an ally and finally a collaborator. The trainers realised that a woman’s approach to affective issues was decidedly different from theirs, and that therefore my perspective greatly enriched the whole. They began inviting me to give some short lectures, then longer courses. They also encouraged seminarians to ask for my advice or to be accompanied by me on certain personal paths.
Soon afterwards, I was invited to devote a day to affective formation for the first time, but this time to priests. Or rather, to formators of priests. I was struck by their confidence and simplicity in sharing their difficulties, doubts, questions. Since then I have been invited regularly to hold this formation day for all the formators of priests of a religious congregation. I have already done it six times.
I have gradually gained more experience and confidence. Listening to seminarians and priests, I discovered certain fundamental fibers of their hearts, certain needs, habitual blocks, fears, motivations, and resources. I am not sure when or how the word spread, but invitations to preach to priests and seminarians from different congregations and dioceses began to multiply, first in Italy, then Spain, Colombia, and Mexico, and via online to other parts of the world. From this last school year, here are just a few of the significant encounters.
In September, I led two formation sessions to all the priests of the diocese of Monterrey, Mexico. The theme was the role of women in the Church and priests’ relationship with women. Convinced of the - urgent - need to experience relationships of reciprocity and collaboration between men and women in a synodal Church, I tried to highlight some frequent obstacles and difficulties, be that prejudices, fears, blockages, and insecurities. The cardinal felt that this was a fundamental formation for his priests, given the macho culture in which they are submerged, and so he gave a clear indication, stating that formation was compulsory. All the priests and deacons of the diocese participated, which totaled more than 440. Despite some initial resistance, I found an open audience that welcomed the message. I was struck to discover this openness even in quite elderly priests, who had been trained in a very different way.
In November 2021, I was invited to preach the spiritual exercises to the seminarians of the patriarchal seminary in Venice. Three years ago, I preached the Lenten retreat to all the priests of the diocese, and to the seminarians too. The relationship was maintained over time, and so that beautiful occasion was given. For the first time, it was a woman who preached their spiritual exercises. In February this year, I went to Mexico. In Monterrey, I again held several formation activities, again for seminarians, religious and priests of the diocese. Once again, I was struck by their openness and trust, and the simplicity with which they asked for advice and allowed themselves to be helped.
For the past two years, I have officially collaborated with the team of formators at a seminary. I am present in their ordinary life (some meals, moments of conviviality, and liturgical activities), and I have collaborated in drawing up their formation programme, I am often invited to preach, and it is customary for seminarians and even priests to ask for a discussion with me to address various aspects of their formation.
Over the years, I have found that priests and seminarians welcome certain reflections better when a woman poses them. I have realised that I can question and confront issues very clearly without ever offending. I can enter into their wounds without them feeling humiliated, while on the contrary, they are relieved. In particular, I am struck by the effect it has on them to open up to a woman about the difficulties on issues such as purity, which is almost a kind of exorcism, in the sense that evil loses much of its poison. I have seen that my presence as a woman helps them to connect head and heart, and to meet with God, not by cancelling but by welcoming their emotions. I have found that confrontation with me modulates and flourishes their masculinity. I became convinced of how much they need to learn to receive the pure affection of a woman, to distinguish it from other less healthy or more ambiguous affections. I verified how female sensitivity and perspective enrich their spiritual life.
Finally, I became convinced of the fact that priests have as much need of women and lay people in general in their formation as we have of their priestly figure. We form each other. It is a far cry from the idea of the asymmetry between priests and the people that I had as a child. I have discovered that this mutual need and collaboration is much more in line with the anthropological and ecclesiological vision developed at the Second Vatican Council. In addition, I feel very fortunate to be able to continue walking with my dear priests and seminarians, as a sister.
by Marta Rodriguez