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From the continents

 Dai continenti  DCM-009
30 September 2023

Women have been major players in the preparations for this Synod, and very active in raising issues for discussion. In this article, we include details of some of the testimonies from different continents, to whom we asked two specific questions:

1) What was the most important issue that the contribution and reflection by and on women brought to light on a continental level?

2) Which issues proposed by and on women have deserved greater universal appreciation and will continue to do so in the future?

Latin America - Daniela Cannavina

Daniela Cannavina is Argentinian, a Capuchin religious of the Mother Rubatto. She works in Bogotá in Colombia as General Secretary of CLAR, the Latin American Confederation of Religious. She worked for the Synod on Amazonia and the first Ecclesial Assembly of Latin America. At the Synod, she is among the Experts and Facilitators.

It is imperative to enable women to participate and be part of decision-making spheres

The continental journey in a synodal approach of Latin America and the Caribbean -through the listening promoted in the different situations-, has led women to reflect and discern, through the method of spiritual conversion.

Among the main topics is the need to value women and to take into account their contribution to Church life, as well as to foster their greater prominence and assumption of responsibility. When we bear in mind that women are in the majority within the Church, it is imperative to allow them to participate and become involved in decision-making spheres. 

Thinking ahead, there is an urgent need to renew Church frameworks to ensure that women are valued more and given leadership roles. This goes beyond the carrying out of concrete activities, but also in evangelization processes and Church bodies, thus highlighting their role as protagonists in the Church’s evangelising action.

There is also a need to deepen their contribution in theological reflection, for example, at pastoral councils, with the accompaniment of communities and amidst the areas of drafting and decision-making.

Many voices consider the institution of the female diaconate to be urgent, while taking into account what is being experienced in various communities.

All this presupposes a process of conversion within the Church that will lead to overcoming clericalism and machismo, which keep women in a situation of inferiority and invisibility.

Middle East - Sandra Chaoul

Sandra Chaoul is a young Lebanese woman, who is a social economist by training. She is the Facilitator and Director of the Accompaniment Community at the Discerning Leadership Program (in Rome), a project of the International Association of Jesuit Universities (IAJU) with the General Curia’s Office of Discernment and Apostolic Planning, UISG and USG. At the Synod she is one of the Experts and Facilitators.

Tensions over the ordination of women, and about the necessity for more discernment

Since the outset of the continental meeting, women have shown an openness to the listening process. In so doing, they have been imparting a collaborative tone to the assembly and inviting a greater sense of presence. Their contributions to the liturgical commission brought creativity, spiritual depth and a sense of beauty. In their small groups -both religious and lay-, they showed a natural empathy for the issues at hand. In addition, it was moving to see them engaged in heart-to-heart conversations with priests and patriarchs. During their interventions, the women almost always emphasized their interiority, the role of prayer, and the invitation to the Church to open itself more to the Holy Spirit, to be a joyful Church, one that listens and accompanies, and one that brings hope in a context fraught with suffering. Looking back at some critical moments in the process, it was the women who wisely affirmed that change in the Church would not happen overnight and that synodality is not a magic wand. Their ability to “be with” and trust what is happening has sustained the effort to walk together, especially when tensions arose or there was an obvious urge to move further on certain sensitive issues.

A central theme that emerged from the women, and which deserves to be explored further in the future, was the importance of integral formation on synodality. Participants also expressed the need to promote spiritual discernment at the individual and collective level, not simply as a method, but as a way of being. They suggested offering at all levels, for both consecrated and laypersons, formation experiences that are not only “informational” but also “transformational”, that is, which are capable of promoting a change of mind and heart. Such formation will help develop the Church’s critical ability to review and renew its practices and the way in which responsibilities and power are assumed, in the light of the Spirit.

The issue of vocation and the role of women in the Church made its way into conversations like a subtle undercurrent. While there was consensus on the importance of recognising the role of women in the life of the Church and committing to promoting their greater involvement in governance roles and decision-making processes, the issue of women’s ordination raised tensions in the plenary assembly. Consequently, this revealed the need for greater discernment on what co-responsibility and participation mean in our different contexts.

Another recurring theme was the desire for authenticity and greater fidelity to the Gospel way of life. When the reports of the various Churches in the Middle East were presented, at various times in the small groups the call was made to maintain a courageous fidelity to the voices of the People of God. The participants, who were mostly women, showed their willingness to safeguard the integrity of the work of the consultations, with a gentle mention of the temptation to write beautiful reports disconnected from reality.  Many voices called for honesty and transparency on the path taken as a Church and how we are called to conversion. In the words of one participant recounting the results of her small group, “We are a human Church incarnated in a human reality, a Church that endures suffering and fragility but constantly fixes its gaze on Christ. It is only by returning to the sources that we, as a Church, will renew ourselves and allow hope to flourish”.

Our lived experience shows that walking together is not always easy. It is difficult and feels vulnerable when we enter the process “with nothing for the journey”, no personal agenda, no need to control the outcome, no need to defend, protect or reform. Yet if there is something the synod experience is helping us to see, it is that in the midst of the temptation to harden, to give in to otherness, to disengage or to silence our own and others’ voices, we are also rediscovering the joy of walking together with the Lord. Along the way, we are learning the kindness and courage of the Spirit, and what it means to be Church.

North America - Barb Dowing

Barb Dowing is Canadian, the first woman appointed chancellor of the Vancouver diocese, and whose current position is special assistant to the archbishop. She was part of the North American drafting team for the continental phase of the Synod.

To understand whether there is a division between men and women, and if there is, how profound that may be, is an issue to be addressed

The most important theme highlighted on a continental level, at least in North America, was the need for a deeper investigation, dialogue and search for truth on all women’s issues.

We had to work with what had already been presented, but there were still many things that had not been said. The challenge was to pay attention to women’s concerns and to prioritize them based on what had already been presented, and at the same time to take the process forward and give it credibility.

I perceived a great division when discussing women’s contributions and reflections during the continental stage. There were some who felt that women’s voices should be listened to more carefully, especially when examining the issue of leadership roles, and that women should be allowed access to the diaconate and priesthood. It was also widely observed that many women, and their issues, were valued equally with minorities, disadvantaged groups, and the poor and destitute.

How much were those voices heard? Were they many or few? Determining whether there is indeed a division, and how profound it is, will be an important issue to be addressed. The delegates will have to listen carefully to the Holy Spirit.  We heard from women on both ends of the spectrum the same need for specific attention and consideration. The Synod of Bishops has before it a great opportunity to address all aspects of the presence of women in the Church for the good of all, and to examine these issues with courage and faith. 

When addressing the lack of progress for women in leadership roles, clericalism is often cited as the reason. Much of what has not been said is in fact a perpetuating reality.  There are those who fear that a male-dominated Church would thus be threatened and the existent status quo be challenged. Although great strides are being made for women in the Church, nothing will really change until men and women trust each other and work together, utilizing their skills and charisms, and truly appreciate each other’s gifts.

In addition, emphasis was also placed on co-responsibility and how synodality can foster it. While it is true that there are many clergy who know and have experienced collaboration between women and men, it is equally true that there are thousands who are not interested in entertaining the subject. There is still much work to be done.  

Africa - Ester Maria Lucas

Ester Maria Lucas is a Sister of the Daughters of Charity of St Vincent of Mozambique, and a lecturer in dogmatic theology at the Major Seminary of Theology in Maputo, Mozambique.  At the Synod, she is among the Witnesses of the Synod process from the continental assemblies.

Reflecting on the place and role of all marginalised people in and for the Church

“The proposal to reflect on the way of living and being Church responds to the thirst to contribute to the effective growth of the Church in its particular mission of pointing Christ to the world. So far, that is, up to the current phase of the synod’s experience on synodality, there have been many successes and positive aspects.

Meanwhile, there is awareness of synodality related to the common mission of the baptized, evangelization.

For Christians in Africa, the image of the Church as the Family of God offers valuable aids for thinking about synodality and ministeriality. A synodal Church is a Church that is open and plural, which opens its arms wide to welcome all those who wish to enter, and even those who stubbornly remain outside, whether deliberately or because of the most diverse circumstances. The Church’s doors are always open. The mission of a synodal Church is to point to the Savior, to show paths and to remind us that the welcoming into the heart of God and the community of disciples is preceded by the proclamation of the Kingdom. “The time is fulfilled and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe the Gospel” (Mark 1:15). To open up to the family of God means welcoming and giving space to those who feel marginalised. Dialogue with those who feel distant from the family or ignored by it is an absolute necessity in a synodal Church. The question that everyone continues to pray and work for is how the Church, the family of God, can and must prove to be a space open to all and capable of welcoming without judgment. How can this welcome be concretely expressed towards all sacramental situations or other forms of marginalisation? What paths must we tread so that those who feel marginalised understand that the Church does not reject them, but rather offers them a space to live fully? Is this synodality able to encourage the Church to walk together with all believers? Moreover, what are the local provisions we have ignored?

Among the positive elements is the growing awareness that the human family is an important structure in the promotion of the Church.

In societies facing the challenges of the disfigurement of the concept of the family, pastoral care of the family and the care of the family and all its generations become urgent. A theology of care, applied to the family, can help heal the many wounds that the relationship between human beings can leave in each other. A synodal Church must care for human relationships in order to preserve the spirit of commitment of one to another, proper to the synodal spirit, which will help everyone to live their faith with confidence and joy.

Another important topic of discussion was the role of women in a synodal Church.

To take up the theme of women in the Church family of God is an indispensable path. In Africa, the Church has a female face, the Christian grassroots communities are largely made up of women and young people. Therefore, reflecting on the place and role of women and all the marginalised in and for the Church is fundamental in this stage of synodal reflection. The current reflections point to a path of mutual recognition, a common path because among the baptized “there is neither Jew nor Greek; there is neither slave nor free; there is neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Paul’s Letter to the Galatians 3:28). The synodal Church is a Church of services and recognised charisms at the service of all. The synodal Church is called to be a healthy articulation of services and charisms among its sons and daughters, since all can serve, each according to the gift of the Holy Spirit.

The synodal Church is a Church that listens to the Word and the Spirit, which will ensure faithfulness to God and humanity today.

I conclude by saying that the expectation nurtured by the people of God is that the Spirit will make all things new and that the synodal assembly of bishops in Rome will be the new cenacle from where the Spirit will send the disciples of the Risen One to the world.

Africa - Nora K Nonterah

Nora K Nonterah is at the Department of Religious Studies, Faculty of Social Sciences, College of Humanities and Social Sciences, Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology, Ghana, West Africa. She is at the Synod among the Witnesses of the Synod Process from the Continental Assemblies.

Gender-based violence, sexual abuse, child protection, quality education and training

“Africa has enthusiastically accepted Pope Francis’ invitation to enter into talks, consultations and meetings to renew a key aspect of being Church.

Although that listening process was not easy, there was a profound recognition of the value of synodality, especially as it was in harmony with indigenous wisdom expressed in African concepts such as Palaver, Baraza, and Jamaa (family) (Laurenti Magesa, in A Pocket Companion to Synodality: Voices from Africa, African Synodality Initiative, 2022).

Moreover, at the continental level, the Church in Africa has identified itself with the key concept of synodality as participation. The latter invokes a revival of co-ownership and co-responsibility in the mission and life of the Church and emphasizes the importance of entering into dialogue.

Women took part in the continental debates through various platforms - African Synodality Initiative (ASI), working groups, preparation teams, and by participating in the continental synod celebration in Addis Ababa.

Based on my participation in the continental phases of the synod in Africa, here are the concerns of, and about, women through reflections and contributions expressed by them.

At the continental level, the syntheses that emerged from the bishops’ conferences, the publications and activities of the ASI and the conversations in the Addis Ababa meetings attest to the contributions and reflections of women in the synodal process in Africa. In fact, it could be said that, in the spirit of synodality, women have had a “place under the chattering tree” to discuss, contribute and offer suggestions on various aspects of the Church.  Although women’s contributions were not limited to women’s issues, there was a clear interest in talking about women’s issues specifically (after all, women were at the foot of the Cross).

In summary, it could be said that the central theme of contributions and reflections on women on a continental level is co-responsibility.

It is clear that there is a need for more inclusive systems of governance so that the wisdom, experience, faith, resilience and skills of women are fully utilised for the mission of the Church.

Women have argued that this is nothing new in the Church, as demonstrated by the role of Mary, the mother of Jesus. In her embrace, we see expressed co-responsibility, with whom she shares her son’s ministry and life experiences (Veronica J. Rop, in A Pocket Companion to Synodality, a publication that is the result of the reflections of the Theological Working Group of the ASI).

However, a full realisation of the potential of women for the birth of a synodal Church requires a conscious, good and authentic listening to the issues that concern them (Leonidas Katunge in the A Pocket publication).

These include - but are not limited to - issues such as gender-based violence, sexual abuse and its legacy in the Church, child protection and quality education and training.

The women’s contributions, in general, were widely shared and inspired by a missionary spirit. They include the need to have clear systems of sustainability and a decisive restructuring that allows the laity to experience inclusion, and the creation and development of meeting frameworks that allow liturgical celebrations not to be just limited to Sunday gatherings (Nontando Hadebe also in A Pocket).

Temi d’interesse universale sono emersi durante la prima e la seconda sessione di lavoro ad Acrra e a Nairobi rispettivamente, a cui hanno partecipato, tra le altre, Philomena Mwaura, suor Ester Lucas José María, Caroline Kavita, Mavis Anima Bonsu, suor Solange Sahon Sia, Dominique Yon e io stessa.

Themes of universal interest emerged during the first and second working sessions in Acrra and Nairobi respectively, attended by, among others, Philomena Mwaura, Sister Ester Lucas José María, Caroline Kavita, Mavis Anima Bonsu, Sister Solange Sahon Sia, Dominique Yon and myself.

These key themes also characterised most of the debates at the continental celebrations in Addis Ababa. They include, among others, a desperate need for formation and spirituality on synodality for a structural reconstruction of the Church and its approach; the need for the Church to reconsider its stance on certain rigid structures and practices that affect minority groups such as children, people living with disabilities, gender and sexual minorities, the poor, etc.; the urgency of youth formation.

In addition, women call for a restructuring of decision-making, leadership structures and administrative positions to include lay people in the church. To this end, there is a call to review the participation of women and to answer the persistent question of what more can be done. Women argue that greater recognition and more opportunities, training, education and inclusion in leadership systems would be desirable, which in most cases would not contradict church doctrine.

In line with all this, the need to establish guidelines against sexual abuse and insist on their application should not be left to the will of the local church authorities. It should rather be a mandatory requirement.

In fact, there is a clear demand for decisive structural changes involving concrete actions to include women in the various units and decision-making levels of the Church. The hope is that Pope Francis is exemplifying this on the global stage.

Pope Francis’ appointment of the Reverend Josée Ngalula, of the Sisters of St. Andrew, to the International Theological Commission speaks of the aspirations and motivates the enthusiasm of African women to realise that the Church could be a place where they feel they belong and participate in its vital sectors. Moreover, supporting women’s education and creating platforms for their development and empowerment will be crucial for the emergence of a synodal Church in Africa, and African women are ready for this journey.

Asia - Ester Padilla

Ester Padilla is a Filipina feminist theologian. She is also a journalist and is heavily involved in studies on how to move beyond clericalism and enable greater participation of lay people and women in the Church. At the Synod among the Witnesses of the Synod, process from the continental assemblies.

The problem of hierarchical leadership and other forms of clericalism

“In the Asian continental assembly, the issues most often felt and discussed by women were first of all listening to and accommodating the voices of women, especially those on the margins of the church and society. This was followed by the problem of hierarchical leadership and other forms of clericalism, pointed out especially by those both religious and lay who worked with and related daily with the clergy -including bishops- and religious. Then the need for motherly care for accompaniment and healing in the many wounded and conflict situations in Asia.

Greater leadership responsibility for women is needed for the future, especially in community discernment and in decision-making processes and positions”.

Oceania - Susan Pascoe

Susan Pascoe is an Adjunct Professor in the Accounting and Finance Dept. of the Business School of the University of Western Australia. At the Synod, she is amongst the Experts and Facilitators.

Women identified as a priority, along with other neglected groups such as young people

“The issue of the role of women has resonated strongly in Oceania, with concern about the participation of women in church leadership and management. A minority expressed concern over the exclusion of women from the permanent diaconate and ordained ministry.

Women’s experiences vary. For example, while Papua New Guinea/Solomon Islands it was reported that women play “a very active role in the life of the Church”; Australia noted that “the persistent exclusion of women from aspects of Church life detracts from power”. New Zealand called for greater emphasis on “using women’s gifts and experiences in discernment and in providing advice, guidance and challenge in decision-making, beyond the managerial and parish roles that many women occupy”.

In Oceania, women have been identified as a priority, along with other neglected groups such as young people. The need to examine Church structures and teachings that constitute an obstacle to synodality and the full participation of all God’s people is considered fundamental to the full realisation of a synodal Church”. 

North America Leticia Salazar

Leticia Salazar is a Delegate of the Order of the Company of Mary Our Lady to the North American Synod, Chancellor of the Diocese of San Bernardino and Synod liaison. She was a member of the US National Synod writing group and the North American Synod working group. At the Synod, she is one of the Witnesses to the Synod process from the continental assemblies.

The relationship between clergy and laity should consider their charisms into account too

“The Spirit is giving us the gift of a new way of being Church, which is Synodality. It is the way of living an experience of listening to the Spirit, who is present and active in each one of us, and of common discernment. It is an opportunity to recognise God in the gift and charism of each person and in the reflection of women, insights shared by the simplicity of daily life, which express fundamental values and attitudes in this synodal journey.

The Church in North America has been encouraged to “recognise, discern and promote the role of women, so that they may have a greater presence in the Church” (cf. North American Continental Synthesis, n. 19). By virtue of our baptism, each person has the gift of contributing to the mission of the Church. However, our current Church structures lend themselves to privileging positions and roles over charisms. In the synod process, we recognised the call to become a co-responsible Church. Co-responsibility requires both recognition of the charisms of others and respect for the unique contribution of each person to the Church’s mission.

Among the issues that deserve greater attention and consideration at the universal level is that of broadening our ecclesial imagination to go beyond the current clerical models of governance in the Church. Synodality offers a third way, which is uniquely Christian. It has its own methodology, ecclesiology and goals. We hope that during the synodal assembly these can be articulated and even contrasted with the currently existing models.

We are called to move towards articulating the relationship between synodality, baptismal dignity, co-responsibility and mission to suggest new models of ministerial activity. The idea is to articulate the relationship between clergy and laity in a way that takes into account not only their particular vocation or status in life, but also their charisms. There is a global desire for greater recognition and full and equal participation of women in the Catholic Church (Allarga lo spazio della tua tenda [Enlarge the place of your tent] n. 63-64).

If the Church does not move to work together with women, so that they can bring their gifts to the table and have more voice in decision-making, it will lose the rich contribution of a significant portion of its members. The challenge is to walk together, not in opposition. It requires respect, appreciation and recognition of charisma.

The document states “Women who participate in synodal processes want both the Church and society to be a place of growth, active participation and healthy belonging” (Allarga lo spazio della tua tenda, no. 62). For synodality to take root, it will be necessary to reinvent the way we form both clergy and laity”.

Edited by Federica Re David